Toespraak generaal Middendorp op Making Waves op 7 September 2017 op de Afsluitdijk
Ladies and gentlemen, a week ago, someone close to me asked me why I was attending today’s event. “You’ll be leaving office shortly”, she said, “so why spend your precious time on social innovation?”
Well, that is exactly why I wanted to be here today. Over my almost forty years of service, I have seen how the world has changed. Become more complex, more uncertain. And I believe, therefore, that we need more than a purely military approach.
Just look at the world today. Instead of the single threat we faced during the Cold War, we now face many. The spread of terrorism, the global refugee crisis, droughts, pandemic diseases, food crises, dangerous new technologies… All of these affect our lives, one way or another. And we all know that no single power, country or international organization can deal with these problems on its own. Let alone a military force.
Of course, the international community can always call on the military to keep people safe, to provide humanitarian aid, or to intervene with weapons when all else has failed. But my men and women CANNOT address the root causes of conflict and disaster. They cannot prevent grasslands from turning into barren deserts… solve a water crisis… or stop millions of people fleeing their homes. My men and women can only be part of the solution.
The ultimate solution, however, requires the combined efforts of many. Not only of diplomats, politicians, development workers, and soldiers. But also the combined efforts of creative minds, of people who think outside the box. People like the innovators present here today. People like you.
All of you are needed to make this world a safer place. And the good thing is that we, the military, can help you to accomplish that. By offering you a platform for innovation, for instance. And help get your ideas past the ‘promising stage’. The only thing we need, is for all of us to think big, act small, and start somewhere.
Let me explain to you what I mean. By using an example from my own experience. As a young engineer, I learned how to clear minefields. It was a dangerous and time-consuming job. You basically lay down on the ground fully focused, and probe the soil. Inch by inch. Because as you know, mines can be ruthless killers. And if they don’t kill you, they will certainly cost you an arm, a leg, or a foot.
I experienced that later in my career, as a commander in Uruzgan, in Afghanistan. Never will I forget the images of a ten-year old Afghan boy, laying in a hospital bed with a gap where his leg should be. A boy who just the day before had picked up a toy car containing an explosive...
Just as I will never forget the image of an old Afghan woman with no foot, and bandages around her leg, who just the day before had walked to the market to buy food. Those experiences showed me just how mines really are the ‘worst soldiers’. They don’t care if you are the enemy, a farmer working his land, or a child at play. Mines will kill or injure anyone.
And the worst thing is… there are still millions of unexploded devices out there. Scattered over 98 countries and territories worldwide. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, more than a hundred thousand mines are still buried along the former front lines. Killing and injuring people. Including children. Victims of a war that ended long before they were born.
So yes, what we can do – and what we are doing right now, is sign treaties, send in troops, donate to charities, and set up red warning signs - with skull and crossbones - hoping that people will avoid dangerous areas. But we can do even more. We can invent creative solutions to deal with this permanent threat. And help them on their way to becoming a reality.
That is exactly why I invited the Hassani brothers to my office last month. You may not know them, but they fled Afghanistan nineteen years ago. And they now live in the Netherlands, where they dedicate their lives to the clearing of landmines. Here they are… Massoud - on the left - is now 33 years old. And his younger brother – Mahmud – is 30.
When these brothers were children, they saw their friends in Afghanistan lose limbs to land mines. They saw their friends killed… by landmines. That is why they are so dedicated. Why they want to make a change.
‘But how?’, you may well ask. Well, they first invented a giant blue ball that looks like an octopus and that rolls around in the wind. With its bamboo stalks and plastic disks, it can roll around dangerous areas, detonating mines. But this ball turned out to be too light. So they needed to come up with a better approach.
That is why for the last three years, the Hassani brothers have been developing a mine-hunting drone. Together with a team of 21 young engineers from all over the world. Today, this drone is not only able to fly over a mined area, but it also generates a detailed 3D map with a built-in aerial mapping system, it uses a metal detector to pinpoint any landmines, place a detonator on top of the mine with its robotic arm, flies away, and BOOM - let the explosive do the work.
According to the brothers, these capabilities make the drone not only safer, but also twenty times faster than existing devices. AND two hundred times cheaper than traditional demining methods. Can you imagine? It means this mine-hunting drone can be a real lifesaver!
But before the brothers can actually prove this, they need to finish their prototype and start testing it with real landmines. And that is where I can help. So I offered Massoud and Mahmud the opportunity to test their drone regularly at one of our military test facilities. Where they also have the chance to talk to my military experts. To further improve their innovation as they go along. And hopefully to live their dream; and that is to help clear all 110 million landmines worldwide.
Ladies and gentlemen... Think big. Act small. Start somewhere. That is what the Hassani brothers did. And that is what I am trying to do by offering them our test facilities, and our military knowledge. But this principle can be applied to any challenge the world is facing. There are, after all, plenty of smart and devoted brains out there. People who can help us overcome water and food shortages. Who can help us conquer diseases. Or eradicate terrorism. Just as there are many people and organisations out there who can support these creative minds in taking that first step. By investing money in start-ups, for instance. Or by introducing start-ups into their own networks. Or, as I did, by offering their organisation as a platform, for testing prototypes.
Yet there are other ways as well in which we can think big, act small and start somewhere. Let me give you one more example from my own experience.
Six months ago, we – the Dutch Ministry of Defence – organised the Future Force Conference. And we invited twelve hundred people from all over the world, and from all walks of life. Not just military personnel, policy makers, researchers, and CEOs… but also white-hat hackers, architects, economists, students, social scientists, and artists. So they could all meet, connect, and spread ideas.
In fact, I told everyone during the conference, that no matter how far-fetched their ideas were, we should all be willing to at least listen to them. But the funny thing is, I had to remind myself of that… Because during a coffee break, a man approached me, and he asked me: “General, what if I were able to produce water out of thin air, in the middle of the Sahara desert - the driest, hottest place on earth - just by using the sun?”
Then he fell silent, and looked at me with a twinkle in his eye. Waiting for my reaction. So I smiled at him, and said: “Sir, it sounds fantastic. Hopefully - one day – you’ll manage to do so”. And I turned around.
But then I realised, I should practise what I preach. So I turned back to him, and asked him to explain what he meant. He told me enthusiastically that he was a Dutch artist, named Ap Verheggen. And that he wanted to make a device that could extract water from air. Solar-powered. ‘SunGlacier technology’, he called it. And it was certainly not meant to be ‘just art’. No, this man believed his technology was the solution to any water shortage crisis on earth…!
He said: “General, many people believe the desert to be the driest place on earth. But desert air can be very humid. The hotter it gets, the more water the air can contain. Now, usually, higher temperatures also mean more sunshine. So why not focus on harvesting water from the air, powered only by renewable solar energy…?”
“The principle is really quite simple. When you grab a can of soda out of the fridge on a hot summer day, water droplets appear on the surface. That is how I want to make it work: Condensation. The only thing I need is to test my theory in harsh conditions. By trial and error, you know. And again and again. Until it works”.
Then he fell silent, and stared at me. Again awaiting my reaction. Now some of you might understand why I was still sceptical. His concept, after all, seemed a bit like science fiction to me. I mean, from a scientific perspective, producing fresh water out of desert air… How is that going to work? But then again, solar technology has taken huge strides in recent years. And just the thought that it might work… That one day, he would be able to solve water scarcity. And thus be able to prevent failed harvests, prevent people from fleeing their homes, or prevent children from dying. How could anyone be against that - how could I be against that?
So I said something rather unusual. I told him: “Listen, I would like to offer you the opportunity to test your technology at our military base in Mali. With its forty, fifty degrees Celsius (120˚ F), Mali is one of the hottest and driest places on earth. Living there basically feels like living in an oven. I know it is not a safe place, but being able to experiment at a military camp does mean working in relatively safe conditions. Besides, my men and women can make sure you get there, and arrange a place for you to sleep. So whatever you need to bring, just bring it. And then try to make this idea of yours work!”
Now, I don’t think he believed me at that moment. Because he looked surprised, nodded, and gave me his card. But a few weeks later, when he was invited by my staff to plan this trip, he knew for sure. He and his colleagues were going to Africa, to Mali. It was for real! And he would not be the only one. Because I offered a young social innovator - whom I also met during the Future Force Conference – the same opportunity.
This young man, Emad, had fled from Iran to live and study in The Hague, in the Netherlands. Where he is now working hard to invent a water treatment device that is the size of a coffee machine. This device has the potential to use solar energy to purify AND desalinate water. As much as twenty litres per hour! This young man’s ambition? To provide a solution to drinking water shortages in refugee camps in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world.
So what if he were also able to further develop his prototype? And turn it into a small and affordable device, one that could produce drinking water all over the world? That would present huge possibilities. Not only for families worldwide, but also for today’s armed forces, who often find themselves in bone-dry areas. Where the available water is often not drinkable.
Think big, act small, start somewhere. Again, that is what it’s all about. For Emad, the young social innovator, ‘thinking big’ means producing drinking water all over the world. His act is to build a small and inexpensive device, to purify and desalinate water. And our common start was the field test in Mali.
For Ap, the artist, ’thinking big’ means trying to solve water scarcity. His act is to build a device that can extract water from hot, dry air. And our common start was the Mali field test.
And for the Hassani brothers, ‘thinking big’ means clearing all landmines worldwide. Their act is to construct an inexpensive mine-hunting drone. And our common start is at our engineers test facility in the Netherlands.
And the great thing is, this principle does actually work! It does lead to something bigger. Both experiments in Mali, for instance, provided valuable field-testing results. The water purification project proved to be much easier, and less energy-consuming than previously assumed. And despite the extreme dry and hot conditions, Ap – the artist – was able to extract water from desert air!
In fact, his technology was all over the news when he returned to the Netherlands, and it resulted in other tests, and the building of a new machine. He has now even found an investor, and the application for a patent was granted, proving that his theory was true. Ap is actually one of today’s contestants. So you will be hearing all about his innovation later on.
But Ap is not the only one with a great story. All today’s contestants have invented great and inspiring innovations. You are all unsung heroes, who keep future generations in mind. And with our, and other people’s help, all of your innovations could get past the ‘promising stage’. That’s why you were invited here today. That’s what Ideas from Europe and Making Waves are all about.
So ladies and gentlemen, let’s not walk the path of peace alone. Thinking that our worlds are too far apart. Let’s think big, act small and start somewhere! And to all social innovators present here today, I would like to say: Don’t hesitate. Don’t wait. Just tell everybody, every organization, how they can help. How to help you, but most importantly, how to help others worldwide who need your innovations. So that together we can indeed find solutions for the challenges that we face, and make this world a little safer. For everyone. Thank you.