Three questions for Alexander D’Hooghe (Solv)

For each case submitted to him, Alexander D’Hooghe models the best ways to frame constructive dialogue with all the stakeholders with an interest in a targeted project. He is Professor at MIT and Chairman of the Itinera Institute, but also an entrepreneur and founder of prop-tech Solv, a company specialised in intelligent participation tools to prevent problems related to obtaining permits.

How do you convince a property developer of the need to go through the “consultation” process, which most people still fear above all else?

Let’s start with the reality on the ground. Of all the real estate projects initiated throughout the world today, 33% are considered to be successful in terms of timing and content, while 67% see their deadlines and costs explode, or simply fall by the wayside. In Europe, it’s even worse than elsewhere. And guess what: Belgium is the unenviable “dunce among dunces”, with just 20% of projects considered truly successful, i.e. one in five. This is enough to demonstrate the waste of energy and the need for a paradigm shift.

How do you go about modelling an approach to participation and dialogue that is too often improvised and incomplete?

You need to integrate the wider environment in a systemic way. To explain the basis of my working method, I would like to refer to Marcel Hertogh, a professor at the Delft University of Technology and, among other things, the lecturer for the course “Infrastructure Design and Management”. He was one of the first to denounce the lack of integration of the interests of the wider community in most real estate projects, of all those who are involved in the process, from afar or from close by: administrations, politicians, institutions, competitors, local residents, various opponents, laws, etc. He says that the slightest oversight, the slightest flaw in the inventory of these “surrounding elements” participating in the project is a possible cause of blockage. It is therefore better to identify and integrate them. And from this point of view, Belgium is a playing field where power is so fragmented and the will to integrate is so lacking that preventive supervision has become essential to give oneself some chance of succeeding.

How do we avoid faking it, how do we avoid pretending that we are setting up a dialogue process, which is still too often the case?

It is a question of identifying and bringing together the overall motivations of all the parties involved in the project, even – and indeed, especially – those who are most opposed. Most people who say “no” are able to say “yes” to something they lack, something they value. Our aim with Solv is to find this balance and to integrate it – if possible – into the project definition. This complex and innovative process therefore implies that we are prepared to modify, to move the lines, but without touching the investor’s bottom line. And to define the best final project for all, we must be able to integrate all the parameters that emerge from this participatory dialogue into the algorithm of our Solv system.

At the moment, we are supervising seven projects with the Solv method. The experience we have gained with large, complex projects such as the Oosterweel (the new Antwerp ring road) has enabled us to develop this method. We currently have an average success rate of 87%. We believe that six out of seven projects are on the road to success; the seventh is still in the balance, so we are very satisfied with this first batch, as are the clients. Among the first conclusive experiences, I can mention in particular the reactivation, by Matexi, of an urban dossier that had been blocked for 20 years. And also the support, for the developer of residential projects Odebrecht (Melle), of a new complex and very sensitive project. 

Credit: Jonathan Ramael

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