“Lots to do in the garden? Computers come first!”

“On my way to VITO (Flemish Institute for Technological Research) on my bike, I’ve already been thinking through what I’m going to do. I’m bursting with energy and ideas. This morning I was really enthusiastic because I had solved a problem...

So I dashed off a PowerPoint presentation to explain the technical side of the solution. The benefit of that is that it helps me to remember it myself later on. I make so many new things, you see, that I end up forgetting how I actually made them!”

An IT man sketches the future

The man on his bike this morning is Maarten Vander Meulen, who is originally from Amsterdam but now lives in Mol: “I’m a scientific programmer, and I makesoftware to help researchers. This morning I was working on a program to place woodland in clusters of a given size. A sort of sketch of the future.”

Maarten has been involved for some time with software that explores the future: “I feel right at home with researchers in an academic setting. Before I started work at VITO, I worked in Amsterdam and Maastricht, often with software and maps.”

Planning for 2050

Maarten works in the ‘Spatial Aspects of the Environment’ group, or RMA for short: “Specialists in the group investigate spatial issues in all areas: air quality, water management, ecosystem monitoring and valuation, as well as the designated use of the space itself, which means things like choosing a good place to erect wind turbines or plan industrial estates.”

“I am in the last-mentioned group. We are busy planning for 2050, when it will no longer be allowed to build on greenfield sites unless an equivalent area is returned to nature. What will Flanders look like then? That is precisely what we are trying to model. Because we will have to do something to stop Flanders from becoming one big ribbon development.”

In the flow

“I often need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time. So when I’m in our open-plan office with 60 colleagues, I put earplugs in. It’s a fantastic solution! You get into the flow, the time flies by, I really enjoy it...”

Maarten doesn’t spend the whole day at the computer. “At lunchtime I often go and sit outdoors with my colleagues on a bench. And, yes, we have a really good laugh. It’s the strangest thing. Is that typically Flemish? It was never like that in the Netherlands. The convivial atmosphere and the lovely surroundings help me to start my work afresh again afterwards.”

Flexible working hours

“Our flexible working hours mean I can get plenty more work done in the evenings, or stop early if I want to.” Then Maarten has a relaxed cycle ride home: We live in a cul-de-sac with no cars roaring by, where the children can play outside. It’s lovely. I said I would never leave Amsterdam, but suddenly I found myself in Maastricht and now here I am in Mol. If I get the choice, I plan to stay!”

Does Maarten use computers at home as well?

“My job is my hobby. I’m fascinated by the world of neural networks and deep learning. Autonomous cars, facial recognition on photos, the AlphaGo program that beat the world’s best Go player this year... artificial intelligence has suddenly taken off in the last few years. I never thought I’d see anything like it.”

“Oh yes, I’ve got a garden at home that needs a lot of attention. But computers come first, don’t they?!”