This month, we talked to Wim de Kinderen, who works for the Brussels Office of Brainport Eindhoven. This interview will cover a lot from living labs to mixing technical and social innovation, from regenerating a region through triple-helix economic initiatives to 3D printing. However, there is an underlying theme here: how economic development can be put to the service of ordinary people. So we hope you will enjoy this fascinating discussion.

BURST: To start off, could you please introduce the work you do?

Wim de Kinderen: I am Wim de Kinderen, and I work for Brainport Development, the regional development agency of Eindhoven, as well as the City of Eindhoven. At both organisations, I am part of the strategy team and I work at their Brussels offices. Thus, we represent the city at the European stage, including various European networks. Through those networks, we do lobbying as well. These efforts should result in concrete activities such as cooperation opportunities, hopefully funded by EU funds.

What is the work of Brainport?

Brainport Development is, to simplify things, a regional development agency. Unlike most development agencies, we are not initiated in a top-down way, but bottom-up by Eindhoven and surrounding municipalities. Our territory covers a part of the province of North Brabant.

In the early 90s we had a major economic crisis, like many other cities did at the time, with a third of the working population losing their job in less than two years. Key actors such as the Mayor, the Rector of the University, and the President of the Chamber of Commerce came together to solve this problem. They wanted a solution to the crisis that, at the same time, ensures that the next crisis will be less severe. The Brainport Foundation was set up as a triple helix organisation uniting public authorities, businesses and knowledge institutes with this aim.

The Foundation sets the strategic regional innovation agenda, while Brainport Development is the executive agency responsible for strategic initiatives and programmes that structurally strengthen the economy of the Eindhoven region.

Could you please explain your work within the European Network of Living Labs (ENOLL)?

Living labs are real-life test environments to develop, test and validate all kinds of new products and services. These can be used to test not only technological but also social innovations. The advantage of a living lab is to help innovators learn in a real-life environment how the product is experienced and used by future users. Users can be individual citizens, as in the case of smart city projects. We have a smart lighting living lab experimenting with sensor-based lighting and similar technologies, where we involve individuals as users. But business-to-business living labs are also possible.

A value of living labs is that it tells you whether or not a product is liked by clients. Their results can also inform you that something doesn’t work. Thus, they are instruments of de-risking innovation, telling you what works and what doesn’t and how to re-orient development.

We, as the City of Eindhoven, have been ENOLL members since 2014. I represent the city on boards and I am vice-chair responsible for European affairs. This way I can support my daily job in connecting with European partners and European institutions.

What is the social innovation side of living labs?

I will give a recent example. ENOLL was invited three weeks ago to an official side event of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC. We talked about how living labs can support us in reaching the sustainable development goals. A colleague of mine from the Eindhoven Social Department presented on how living labs can be used to test social programmes. Our initiative focused on reducing youth poverty. To create a living lab, it was key to consider young people living in poverty and how they can be included in the project from the first day of work.

Another very interesting example from Bristol is about new housing developments. They had a negative experience about a planned development that was going to replace poor-quality housing. But the new houses didn’t correspond to the needs of those living in the area, so the project didn’t work. For future developments, the city decided to work with living labs, to ensure that new housing is appropriate to the people who will rent or buy them.

Are there any living labs or innovations in general, where technical and social innovations come together, where technical innovations focus on rights or social affairs?

There is a project the city was involved with in the methodology design phase, but was implemented in other cities. (It was a project of VNG, the Dutch association of municipalities.) We called it the Machine Learning Lab, and we used artificial intelligence for the early detection of the risk of poverty. We knew the risk factors of poverty, but using AI helped us to identify poverty risks earlier and more effectively. This then allowed us to start appropriate programmes earlier.

Moving back to Brainport, could you please describe some of your initiatives there?

We focus on technological innovation, being a knowledge-intensive manufacturing region (that’s where the name Brainport comes from). The region is strong in complex machinery building, which we define as low volume, high mix, high complexity manufacturing, with almost customised products.

So, at our core, we focus on smart manufacturing and on sectors necessary for that. We are very strong in the semiconductors industry, photonics, artificial intelligence, medical technologies. These are key enabling technologies.

To organise these, we have different departments within Brainport Development, I am part of the strategy department. Here, we liaise with the national and regional governments, as well as the European institutions. Other departments work on business and financial advice for startups, on talents (training, retraining and attracting talent) as well as a tech market team.

We also have a tech market vision. We moved from being a tech push region to an approach where technology is mixed with an awareness of the societal challenges we face, such as the climate crisis.

Could you please outline some of your projects?

I am involved with the international outreach of our projects. One thing we focus on is addditive manufacturing, i.e., 3D printing. I ensure that we find partners from Europe and weave them into a European network on 3D printing. Together with Portuguese and Flemish partners, I coordinate a network, the Vanguard Initiative of 38 regions acting on issues such as 3D printing, bringing together companies and knowledge institutes. The Vanguard Initiative links regions focusing on industry. To focus on 3D printing, we need to unite forces so we can pool knowledge and resources that we individually lack. We also work on industry 4.0 at large. We are also involved in a thematic network on nanotechnology.

What are your activities in education?

We work on skills and talent. On the one hand, this focuses on stimulating students from primary school to choose technology education, as our industry needs technologically skilled workers on all levels (from engineers to specialist factory workers). We support technology education in high schools, universities and universities of applied sciences by helping them improve their industrial links even further and adapt their curricula to respond better to today’s and tomorrow’s market needs.

Second, we have a programme to attract talent from abroad. We present the region at job fairs worldwide and support companies in talent attraction. The largest companies have good talent attraction programmes on their own, but SMEs equally need high-skilled employees. With almost no unemployment in the region, these SMEs also need to look for foreign workers and we help them get in touch with them.

My last question: why is it Brainport? Eindhoven, after all, has no ports.

There is a Dutch tradition to call economic hubs “main ports”. Traditionally, this was the capital Amsterdam and the sea port of Rotterdam. We are the third most important economic region, and soon we will be the second most important region. We are, thus, a region of national importance (with corresponding government support), with a technological focus. We call it is “brainport”, due to the knowledge-intensive industry.

Wim de Kinderen is working for the EU Office of Brainport Eindhoven in Brussels, representing the City of Eindhoven, Brainport Development and other economic stakeholders in their cooperation with other regions and the European Institutions. In this role he is responsible for policy lobbying, networking, communication and project development. Within Brainport Development, he is part of the Strategy Department.

Previously, he was mainly involved in regional development in Belgium. First as the Province of Antwerp RDA’s European Social Fund expert for the Objective 2 region ‘Kempen’, later as the director of the Regional Socio-Economic Committee for the same ‘Kempen’ region. In between, he has been an advisor to the Belgian government on socio-economic and budget policy topics.