Marjolein Boer: “I always think: Where in the harbor can I be a partner in crime?”

Interview: Christel Don, Photography: Frank Poppelaars.
Production: Hike One.
This article is also available in Dutch.

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Her father worked in the maritime industry, so Marjolein Boer (32), who is Innovation Manager at Port of Rotterdam (Authority), often accompanied him to ship launches and maritime tradeshows as a young girl. It’s likely that her fascination with port operations started there. She sees the harbor as ‘much more than a logistical hub’ and calls it a gateway to the world. “Just think about it: pretty much all of the objects we use every day arrived here through the port,” says Boer on our tour through the Innovation Dock. “Lots of worlds meet here, and that is exactly where innovation comes into being.” You can find her in this great machine hall on the RDM area in the Port of Rotterdam’s heart virtually every week. In the past, this is where passenger ships and submarines were built. Today it houses a range of innovative businesses and educational institutions, from high schools that rent space for experimentation during practical training sessions to companies and startups that work on solutions important to the Port Authority. Among other things, there is a RAMLAB 3D printer, “which printed a ship propeller indistinguishable from a regular cast version”. You’ll also find a ‘floating lab’, a ship used for testing autonomous sailing.

Port of the future

So let’s talk about the role of the Port of Rotterdam, which roughly covers two aspects. “On the one hand, we manage the entire port district: we rent out land to companies that want to establish themselves here and organize everything contractually. On the other hand, we handle all shipping operations, ensuring that ships can load and unload cargo safely and then leave the port agian in good order.” And then she has not even mentioned the most important thing, since managing the port district imposes a great responsibility to further develop the area. “So we also focus on what the port of the future will look like,” she explains. “Where in the past, we primarily acted as landlord and harbor master, the quickly changing world requires us to think about the future.” For this reason, innovation is not a separate division within the company, “since the challenges we are facing are so big and comprehensive that we need all areas of expertise.” As such, innovation is one of the port’s three strategic themes along with energy transition and digitization, although innovation is not a goal in itself.

“Our future vision is a CO2-neutral, fully digitized port, and innovation is one of the means to get there.”

Game Changers

There is a lot of top level support to achieve this, says Boer. The Game Changers internal innovation program that kicks off for the fourth time this year, illustrates that commitment. “Because every edition means that 30 employees are deployed to work on a strategic challenge for the port two full days every single week over a nine month period. “In each program, we select some 10 strategic challenges on which we want to have an impact.” For instance, how can we accelerate the transition to sustainable energy variants by matching supply and demand (including temporary storage) more effectively? Or how does the Port Authority create a future-proof harbor in which unmanned ships will be able to dock? By encouraging the participants to acquire a new way of working and mindset that they can apply directly to the issue on which they are working (in three-person teams), they immediately experience their impact. They are taught what iterative thinking means, for instance: conceiving a solution, studying whether it works and modifying it, and repeating that process continuously.

According to Boer, the Game Changers success factor is that 40% of the employees’ time is freed up completely for the program. “It sends the message that innovation is not something you do on the side.”

All stakeholders are involved as early on in the process as possible. “In the end, they are the ones who will have to invest in the actual pilots.” So how do you achieve that?

“By organizing a special lift-off event and asking them how they will help the teams, for instance by assigning funding or linking them to relevant parties in their networks. This creates momentum and shows the rest of the company that the teams are having a real impact.”

Willing to experiment

Boer believes that this is the way in which you convince more people within the port of a new way of working — because that, of course, is also one of the goals of the Game Changers program. And this is another challenge. “You don’t want people to just return to their day to day activities after the program. So the focus is on impact, since if the Game Changers (90 have now completed their training) find that the new way of working makes a difference, they will start applying it more frequently and motivate others to do the same.” Boer emphasizes that innovation is not always an easy process. There are plenty of challenges. “Especially in the beginning, people asked me: ‘But what are you doing here, we’re doing just fine, aren’t we?’ At the same time there were big challenges ahead, so there was a clear urgency and need to change. Change is difficult, however, and the Game Changers experience this frequently. It is an intensive process and demands a lot of discipline and organization on the participants’ part to free up that time in addition to their regular tasks”, explains Boer. “Moreover, you go through a kind of Valley of Death in those months, the thing that you often hear about from startups. In the beginning you get a lot of new insights but inevitably you will have moments when things get difficult. And these are the moments that often bring the biggest lessons,” according to Boer. She sees this as a point requiring attention. Let it be clear: pioneering is in the port’s DNA and she sees that in many colleagues: together they can achieve a lot. At the same time, there is the challenge of thinking less in terms of processes and procedures, and starting more short-term experiments more often. It is important in this respect to nurture a culture in which it is acceptable that things don’t always work out straight away, says Boer. “As human beings, we always aim for success. But success is also: we learned a valuable lesson in this pilot that didn’t cost us a lot of money. In Game Changers we often say: search for the no and the rejection. You learn much more if experiments are allowed to fail — but we aren’t programmed like that as human beings.”

Innovation is not just an internal priority. Boer says that they actually do many projects in collaboration with external partners. As Innovation Manager, she is actively involved throughout the entire innovation ecosystem. Concretely, this means that she continuously establishes connections between all of the parties involved in innovation in and around the port area. “This way, we help others innovate and co-create the port of the future together with us,” she explains. “With PortXL for instance, the first ‘World Port Accelerator’, and the Rotterdam Port Fund that invests actively in initiatives that benefit the port’s transition.”

Partner in crime

To date, Boer and CFO Paul Smits, her direct sparring partner, were the only ones in the company that considered innovation their first priority. That is now changing, however. She is currently creating a six-person innovation team that must become a ‘partner in crime’ for the organization on an even higher level. “Last year we found that even though a lot is happening in the Port Authority, specific aspects could be accelerated. We want to run short-term experiments more often, for instance, to realize working prototypes and start pilots more quickly. And we want to stimulate everyone to go into the field more often and at an earlier stage to tackle challenges together with external parties.” Her new colleagues (the innovation leads’) will do this by actively seeking out innovation opportunities within and outside of the company.

In conclusion: what is her best tip for other innovation managers? “I only focus on things and people where I can feel energy because that is something you can multiply. In the early stages of my work here, I didn’t know what was going on. So I asked people in 20 departments to be my ‘ambassador’ and keep me abreast of what was going on in their department. Moreover, they can quickly make the connections between entrepreneurs, innovation opportunities, and the Port Authority. And because I still talk to our ambassadors on a regular basis, I understand where their enthusiasm and bottlenecks are. We teach our Game Changers to do this, too. I always think: Where in the harbor can I be a partner in crime?”


Marjolein Boer

Current position: Innovation Manager at Port of Rotterdam Authority since January 2016
Education: International Business Administration at Erasmus University (graduated in 2009), Creative Leadership training at THNK School of Creative Leadership (2017)
Previous positions (selection): Corporate Product Manager at Bolton Adhesives (2013 - 2015), new product development at Bison International (2010 - 2013), and several student jobs in the maritime sector before that.
Favorite innovation book: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace from Pixar
Essential gadget: my photo camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M10 MKII.
Impressive innovation: Boyan Slat with his Ocean Cleanup


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