A conversation with… Niek de Jong

“Sustainder makes cities more liveable”

He launched his first business at 15, typing out essays for students. Now he’s typing business plans for Sustainder, the innovative company where he’s CEO. His favourite key? It’s top left: the one that does double duty as a figure one and an exclamation mark. A conversation with Niek de Jong, 49, about his love for excelling.

Smart, light, solutions, city. Those four words come up again and again in conversation with De Jong, and with reason. Sustainder, which went live on 26 September, 2016, has a strong position and likewise ambition. The company combines the former Philips luminaire factory in Emmen, in the east of the Netherlands, with Dazzletek, another Dutch company, based in Breda, in the south, that specializes in intelligent management systems for public lighting.

Yet De Jong is no lighting man. He studied economics, worked as a consultant, and led major projects for an office automation company and a telecom giant. “I love innovation,” he says, “but I’m not so interested in how something works – just what you can do with it. I’m curious about technologies and the opportunities to combine them. The key word is applicability.”

Liveability

Urbanisation is growing worldwide, and De Jong believes this demands we start managing public space more intelligently. The solution lies in linking up technologies, he argues. Sustainder makes high quality luminaires – light fixtures – that, thanks to built-in sensors, can be managed dynamically, remotely. This strengthens the feeling of safety while reducing energy consumption. But Sustainder’s solutions look way further than simply excising the dark. “The granularity of the public lighting network makes street lamps, by definition, an ideal conduit for technologies that enhance liveability. With our smart luminaires, you can measure air quality, noise levels, the temperature and traffic intensity, among other things. They are the eyes and ears of the city.”

Real-time data

The result for smart-city managers is a constant stream of real-time data. This can lead to the implementation of temporary and permanent measures that support health and safety. In machine-gun tempo, De Jong rattles through possible applications. “Guiding emergency services to a location faster. Providing alerts for available parking spaces. Detecting the sound of burglaries, accidents and vandalism. Guiding traffic along diversionary routes. Taking sustainable infrastructure steps after measuring high levels of particulates or CO2. Crowd management at major events. Detecting gas leaks.

Every city can create its own system because our concept is modular: what you need is what you get.

Every city can create its own system because our concept is modular: what you need is what you get. A municipal authority can replace its public lighting before knowing exactly what data its various services might want to collect. This makes our solution future-proof. Plus, we use open technology.”

Ex-urban and rural areas

And the benefits don’t just apply to big cities. The paradox of urbanisation is that ex-urban and rural areas – depopulated and so less well monitored – need extra eyes and ears. De Jong: “You can get information about accidents in the countryside much faster with our luminaires. That can save lives. In addition, dynamic lighting [that switches on and off as needed, triggered by passing vehicles and pedestrians] is useful in ex-urban areas. Flora and fauna benefit. There’s no conflict between nature and technology.”

Sustainder views national and local government, contractors, management organisations and public and private service providers like airports and hospitals as the company’s natural partners. And not just in the Netherlands. Sustainder already has an office in Berlin, Germany, and the company is also investigating how urbanisation and smart solutions can work together in other countries. But Sustainder remains proudly Dutch. “The Netherlands is a brand in itself. It stands for quality and Dutch design that is clean, simple and smart. Which we are, too.” Sustainder’s strongest asset? De Jong doesn’t hesitate: “The energy that comes from being different. A company like Philips Lighting is huge, but we are faster and more energetic. Sustainability requires that, too.”

Future scenarios

De Jong doesn’t have a calendar for the current year tacked on his wall. In his thoughts, he’s much further ahead. He’s looking forward to trailing drone docking – using lighting masts as navigation and charging points for drones. Another idea is to connect Sustainder luminaries to autonomous vehicles. And De Jong isn’t worried about the phasing of these developments: “Combine knowledge and intuition and you can create momentum. Timing is everything, because it adds marketing power: the ability to see when something is tipping from the innovation phase to the growth phase. But right place, right time is just one aspect. It’s all about filtering out new ideas. Do we do that? Yes. At Sustainder we understand the art of finding killer ideas.”

Crystal clear

De Jong apologises and gets up. It’s 3.15 pm and he has to leave for Noordeinde Palace, in The Hague, where he’s due to give a presentation about the Sustainder philosophy. No problem: the talk can continue in the car – a virtually silent, electrically powered Tesla. En route, De Jong philosophises about technology and its impact in the world. His story remains crystal clear. It must, he believes. “A lot of people find technology complicated, but our story is very simple: it’s about creating a sustainable society; one in which everyone feels healthy and safe in public spaces.”

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