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The technology is ready; time for the masterpiece

According to the latest Global Competitiveness report from the World Economic Forum, the Netherlands is in an excellent position to help shape the fourth industrial revolution. Peter Verkoulen, CEO of the Brightlands Smart Services Campus, sketches the ideal scenario for Limburg.

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Technological readiness

In the spring of 2017, outgoing Minister of Economic Affairs Henk Kamp emphasized in a letter to the Lower House of Parliament in the Netherlands that “social challenges and retaining the Netherlands’ strong competitive position in the world demand continuous innovation.” Among other conclusions, he believes that the priorities for research and innovation lie with key technologies. The Netherlands is number four in the World Economic Forum’s 2017-2018 Global Competitiveness Index, the same ranking as the year before. When it comes to technological readiness, our country scores even higher; only Luxembourg and leader Switzerland rank above the Netherlands. According to the corresponding report, the Netherlands is able to maintain its position as number four thanks to “support from a strong educational system and a high degree of technological readiness on the part of companies and private persons.” The “flourishing innovation ecosystem” here also puts our country in an excellent position to help shape the fourth industrial revolution. This potential revolution will offer substantial opportunities, but also brings with it enormous challenges. Government, citizens and businesses face new dilemmas: burning questions about privacy, cyber security, autonomy and liability all go hand-in-hand with the digital transformation of society. The formulation of national and international regulations is high on the agenda, but this is extremely complex, says Verkoulen, since current laws and regulations often date back to “digital prehistoric times”. The campus provides input to the National Blockchain Coalition via Techruption for policy and regulations, and based on its hands-on experience, contributes to the debate on the responsible application of the new technology.Poetry and a large painting by the artist Mark Koot hang on the wall. Wearing a pink button-down, Peter Verkoulen sits in front of the red brush strokes. We talk briefly about his three children, the oldest of whom are 22 and 19 and are (almost) on their own. The youngest is 14, an age that brings a whole other set of challenges with it. As the CEO of the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen, Verkoulen has been busy working on a new business plan. Before the opening around two years ago, it was all still “a blank sheet of paper.” “Plenty of great ideas.” The plans described the ambition to create over 2,000 jobs and attract 1,600 students to the campus, among other things. Since then, various parties have joined the campus, programs are up and running, and the sheet of paper is now colored, Verkoulen says. Meticulous preparation went into a few of the steps, while other developments were further shaped as time went on. One of these is at Techruption, where “interested parties were sought out for the themes chosen,” instead of the other way around. Traction, connection (“this can and must be intensified further”) and facilitation in the broadest sense of the word are key concepts. The conclusion is that a development infrastructure is necessary to make further experimentation possible. This is followed by conversations with shareholders and others about additional investments. Long-term processes are required in order to ensure these types of resources are actually mobilized. The campus top executive is optimistic, however. He cites the European Interreg subsidy of 1.7 million Euros for the Train4SmartServices cross-border traineeship program as a successful example. The municipality of Heerlen has been eager to respond to the growing market demand for digital high potentials for some time now. Under the campus’ leadership, this wish is now taking shape, and companies, educational institutions and municipalities are joining forces to meet this demand.

The “flourishing innovation ecosystem” here also puts our country in an excellent position to help shape the fourth industrial revolution.

“Double standard”

In the meantime, the digitization train is thundering ahead worldwide. In response to the question of how to prevent social interests from being snowed under by commercial motives at Techruption, the campus exec emphasizes the importance of continuously boosting thought processes. These thought processes demand a critical yet realistic view on technological developments and their consequences, from the business community and knowledge institutes as well as from politics and citizens. When Tesla’s driverless car became the object of an investigation after an accident in 2016, the debate on the use of electric cars was rekindled. “Some people were suddenly suggesting that we should stop making these cars, thus losing sight of the fact how many millions of kilometers Tesla cars had driven without getting into accidents. When this happens, you’re not looking at things in the right context.” Verkoulen believes a similar “double standard” may also be detected in the international debate on artificial intelligence, referring to the number of traffic deaths in our own country. In 1996, 1,251 people lost their lives in the Netherlands as a result of traffic accidents. Twenty years later, this number had dropped to 629. If technology can help reduce this number even further, “to 100 or even just 500,” then the final result will be positive. The campus exec stresses the necessity of an overarching view.

United front

Taking an overarching approach and thinking “big”, the way artist and APG employee Mark Koot expressed in his poem, are just as much a part of Verkoulen’s answer to questions on topics such as ageing, image problems and border effects. How can Limburg ensure that its power of attraction is high enough to draw knowledge, experience, innovative minds and other talent to the area, and keep it in the province for the long term? In a region where the previously mentioned factors (could) form real obstacles, it is crucial to show that the advantages outweigh the potential downsides, according to the CEO. The optimal promotion of the region by being able to shift gears based on equality is also key. In this context, eliminating compartmentalization is high on his wish-list. No more island mentality and complexes. He regularly advocates creating “a united front together, without worrying about who is standing where.” He sums it up as follows. Limburg is the springboard to Eindhoven, Flanders and Germany. Profit from international knowledge, highly educated talent, (often) lower wages. The RWTH Aachen comes up in conversation; this technical university is only a ten-minute cycle ride away from the Dutch border, and is one of the institutions with which Verkoulen wants to strengthen the partnership. “We are currently talking to them about this.” He mentions Accenture, which, like Conclusion, relocated to the Heerlen campus in 2015 because “it saw the added value” of the advantages listed above. Verkoulen admits that there needs to be more interaction with small- and medium-sized companies, something that they “haven’t gotten around to yet” because of the strategic focus on startups and large companies.  For SMEs, it is not always easy to find their place in all this technological ingenuity; today’s reality ensures they already have enough to deal with as it is. The contribution by SMEs to the regional economy in Southern Limburg lags behind the national average, in spite of sufficient financing possibilities for growth and innovation, according to Limburg Economic Development in 2017. An impulse is necessary, so a common approach has been formulated, a process in which the four campuses have been closely involved. Special interest group Ondernemend Limburg (Entrepreneurial Limburg), responsible for the further roll-out of this concept, has announced it will be starting a pilot this year, but doesn’t want to disclose much more at this point. Verkoulen is looking forward to more “physical and digital connection” and sees clear added value in more collaboration and mutual inspiration.

In an ideal scenario, being able to check off the items on the list above will lead to long-lasting economic triumph, or at least a foundation on which to build further. Peter Verkoulen’s argument is not new, but this doesn’t detract from its relevance. Anyone interested in achieving success in the digital future cannot afford to lag behind. The campus and Techruption offer the chance to do this. From a blank sheet of paper to a colorful one; it’s now time for the masterpiece.

The economy in Limburg

The Brightlands Smart Services Campus is proof of the “lasting commitment” between government, knowledge institutes and business, according to CEO Peter Verkoulen. “It is a triple-helix partnership, with the Province of Limburg, Maastricht University and APG as the founding fathers.” He is in awe of the “continuous energy” of Deputy of Economic Affairs, Twan Beurskens, and his “huge commitment to the campus and Techruption.” Among other things, research conducted by the Central Bureau for Statistics and TNO on economic development in Limburg showed that the information and communication sector grew in the province between 2010 and 2014. The number of companies active in this area rose faster in Limburg than in the rest of the Netherlands and both sectors were considered to be the most important cornerstones for the development of added value. According to the analysis, this was “an interesting fact considering the background and specialization in ICT and blockchain technology” at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus.

Blockchain versus the climate

It sounds contradictory, using blockchain technology to find solutions for climate change, the way this is being done at Techruption. Peter Verkoulen: “We are studying the possibilities of using blockchain technology for sustainable energy solutions, such as decentralized energy supply in local neighborhoods. We are also seeing the arrival of variants which can reduce the normally high energy consumption involved in blockchain technology. This is necessary; without these types of solutions, blockchain will remain small-scale in the future.”

Author: Gwen Teo. Translation: Allison Klein