‘Proximity matters!’ Jan Peter van den Toren on stakeholder involvement and regional ecosystems

For our webinar on mobilizing and involving stakeholders, we were honored to welcome Jan Peter van den Toren. As owner and director of Birch Consultants, and professor of practice Entrepreneurship in Ecosystems at Tilburg University, he can be considered an expert in the field of stakeholder networks. Erasmus University aims to impact societal transitions through research and education. We teach our students how to engage with stakeholders and apply their knowledge and skills to tackle complex challenges, so we invest in durable partnerships with businesses and social partners. In this article, we’ll discuss the key points of Jan Peter’s keynote. First takeaway: “Proximity matters!”

Innovation in the ecosystem

“More and more, we see how universities and big firms build joint campuses where business and sciences meet. Erasmus University is no exception, given its plans for a campus in Rotterdam Zuid. Such proximity of knowledge and business is of importance in the process of innovation, because universities want to deliver graduates who are well-equipped to deal with societal issues. When leading companies, governments, NGO’s and clients are located in the direct area of a university, it is easier for students to see, experience and work with social and economic challenges.”

“When speaking of the ecosystem, we mean the fluid mechanism for interaction in a region or sector, taking into account geographical conditions, institutions, human capital, finances and leadership. How can a region make use of its resources, and bring them together? After all: the quality of an ecosystem affects the quality of the output in terms of solutions for both commercial and societal ends. Faced with transitions that have a huge impact in society, regional actors everywhere ask themselves: what is our DNA, what resources can we build upon, how do we work on understanding our challenges and coming up with sustainable solutions? Universities have an important role to play in such deliberations, they can assist in finding that DNA, in analyzing the ecosystem and its challenges itself and in researching solutions.”

Beta versus the rest

“However, not all ecosystems have the same (amount of) resources. For example, if we look at tech-based ecosystems, we see that there’s a lot of cooperation already: companies and universities often share labs, which gives tech businesses the opportunity to outsource parts of their research. As an economist, coming from the alfa/gamma domain, it always strikes me how relatively easy it is to come to cooperation and to put knowledge to use in the beta sciences. Alfa/gamma universities - including Erasmus University Rotterdam - also feel the need and the ambition to enhance cooperation between knowledge institutions and society. Bringing that ambition to reality asks more effort in alfa/gamma faculties, but there are plenty of practical examples already. We can subdivide various forms of education to give substance to cooperation; to bring the real world to the classroom, and the classroom to the real world. Sometimes it is initiated by universities, in other cases it is sought by stakeholders. The same thing for the location."

Times of crisis

“Collaboration is especially important while going through a crisis like the corona crisis nowadays. Crises amplify economic shifts; old industries diminish faster in times of crisis, while new initiatives come up quicker. A healthy ecosystem helps us find innovations and new ways of doing things, and it enables us to leave behind the activities that are no longer relevant.”

Key takeaways

“Students can play a variety of roles in society. That is an important point, because currently the most common role model for a university student is the internationally operating scientist, the researcher, the lecturer they see on a daily basis. Some students will continue working in academia, but most will find their way in society. This is one of the reasons why Tilburg University appoints professors of practice; to broaden the range of role models, and to encourage students to come into contact with professionals other than their university teachers."

"On top of that, universities can strengthen ecosystems by making new knowledge applicable for, and developing new knowledge alongside, businesses and public institutions. They can support regional innovation by delivering well-trained graduates, who can operate as change leaders facilitating big transitions. To that end, it is important that students are inspired to ask themselves if they see a future for themselves as an entrepreneur - either social or commercial. If so, universities should facilitate them to acquire the adequate capacities to start their own initiatives.”

“But how to find the relevant stakeholders in an ecosystem? With whom should we cooperate, where to find the leaders? Of course, you can go to the chamber of commerce, but there are other ways to come into contact with businesses in your region. Techleap, for instance, shows which start-ups are active in your region or sector. The RVO website Volginnovatie and EU database Cordis show you which firms and NGO’s are already active in R&D projects. These companies are often more knowledge-intensive, so they run into numerous challenges they’ll want to share with universities.”

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