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UASNL delegation bridges regional impact and European innovation policy during two-days Brussels visit

On 16 and 17 June, a UASNL delegation of board members and policy advisors visited Brussels to spread the word on impact-driven applied research conducted by universities of applied sciences. UASNL’s mission in Brussels is to better connect the expertise of Dutch universities of applied sciences with European societal challenges, partners and policies. Universities of applied sciences excel at providing tailored place-based solutions due to their long-term partnerships with public and private stakeholders in their regions. This makes them effective and reliable anchors to facilitate impact of European innovation policies on the ground.

Benelux Union

The two-days visit started with a meeting at the Benelux Union, which is the cross-border cooperation between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg and strives for a region without borders, in order to foster prosperity, mobility, safety and sustainability. During an exchange with Jan Molema (Director internal market and sustainability), Stephane Verwilghen (Juridical Advisor), Nele Staessen (Strategic coordinator of the secretariat-general) and Guus de Bruijn (Policy advisor internal market, transport and climate) we got to know the Benelux Union as a unique international collaboration with a strong potential as testing ground for European innovation. Several ways of collaboration were explored, such as the cooperation on societal challenges for which the Benelux facilitates various stakeholder platforms. Another topic for collaboration is skills recognition, especially in the light of emerging professions related to the green and digital transitions. The Benelux Union can also be a vehicle towards a stronger voice inside the EU, and we were warmly invited to consider the Benelux Union as our house to build international cooperation.

Permanent Representation of the Netherlands

The next meeting took place at the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands, where we met with Audrey Goosen and Dolf Grasveld (Head of Office and First Secretary of Research & Innovation and Space) to discuss the role of universities of applied sciences in European research and innovation programmes. We explored how the Permanent Representation operates as a bridge between ministries and their affiliated organisations in the Hague and upcoming policies in Brussels. The UAS recipe for impact through Centres of Expertise aligns well with Dutch and European mission-oriented innovation policies. The meeting reinforced our view of role that universities of applied sciences play to connect European initiatives to their regions. In the upcoming year, this will be illustrated through the involvement of Dutch universities of applied sciences in the Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission, European Digital Innovation Hubs and the pilot for Partnerships on Regional Innovation.

Celebrating 3 years of collaboration at the network dinner

In the evening we raised the glass on the progress of three years of UASNL in the Holland House,  together with representatives from the European Committee of the Regions, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the Dutch Ambassy in Belgium, the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands towards the EU, Science | Business, the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (EARMA),  Neth-ER, House of the Dutch Provinces, the Eindhoven region, the Dutch employer association, Taskforce for Applied Research SIA and UAS4Europe. The buffet included pitches on the UASNL recipe for impact:

Frans Möhring, member of the executive board of Fontys University of Applied Sciences presented Fontys’ work in the region, on one hand in the Brainport ecosystem through the Centre of Expertise High Tech Systems and Materials, on the other hand in the Greenport ecosystem where sustainable food solutions are developed. One example is the Interreg North-West Europe project ValuSect, where insects are explored as a solution in the sustainable food transition.

Jacomine Ravensbergen, vice-president of Avans University of Applied Sciences, presented the best practice Sustain-ABLE. This is a long-standing collaboration with SMEs, where students analyse and advice SME’s on sustainability and relevant Sustainable Development Goals.  SMEs can then recruit graduate students to implement these advices and evaluate the impact. The research staff of the Avans Centre of Expertise Well-being Economy and New Entrepreneurship then benchmarks the results, wraps up the process and reports the impact data of all participating SMEs to the regional and national government and public institutes.

Anneke Luijten-Lub, presented the contribution of Van Hall Larenstein UAS on the island of Terschelling. Their Living Lab on climate adaptation brings together local businesses, public authorities and citizen organisations to find solutions for sustainable agriculture and water management in coastal areas with saline soils. This very local project has a high potential for scale-up, given that Europe has nearly 70 000 km of coast! These types of living labs are also a place where students develop their entrepreneurial skills. For example, the HVHL Golden Globe winning student Dennis ter Denge managed to turn the rest stream of a local Cheese factory into a circular chain, even creating Ricotta and a drinkable whey product from the rest streams.

Geleyn Meijer, member of the executive board and rector of Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, pitched the role of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in the European Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission. With various projects involving technological development, societal acceptance and design methodologies, the UAS embraces the city of Amsterdam as a testing ground for innovation. Best-selling author of ‘Doughnut Economies’ Kate Raworth joined AUAS as Professor of Practice in 2020, praising the city and the UAS in its ambitious implementation of doughnut economy principles.

Hit or Miss: Fostering dynamic ecosystems

These paragraphs are a shortened version of the article by Neth-ER, which you can find here.

On Friday morning UASNL hosted an event in the House of the Dutch Provinces (HNP) that was organized in cooperation with Neth-ER, the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, and the Netherlands Association of VET colleges, on the topic of innovation ecosystems. The event was opened by HNP Head of Office Rob van Eijkeren. He emphasized the perfect timing of the event given the European Parliamentary elections of 2024, and the need to address the relevance of structural funding for regional innovation in the upcoming legislative term. Moderator of the day and director of Neth-ER, Jurgen Rienks, also pointed out the importance of this event since the European Commission will put forward its brand-new European Innovation Agenda in July.

The next speaker was Thomas Wobben, Director for Legislative Works at the European Committee of the Regions (CoR). Wobben pointed out that the mission-oriented approach of the Commission is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution for innovation policy, because it lacks a place-based delivery process. To overcome this challenge, the CoR and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre started a Pilot project for Partnerships for Regional Innovation and published the first draft of the Partnerships for Regional Innovation (PRI) Playbook, which facilitates a strategic framework for innovation-driven regional change, linking EU priorities with national and regional plans and challenges.

Subsequently, three pitches illustrated impact on the ground. Lisa Heyman, recent graduate of Avans UAS, elaborated on her innovative Afstudeerboom project. John Schobben from VET Institution De Leijgraaf, presented a timeline of VET developments until now and stressed the importance of regional innovation projects for VET in the future. Anu Manickam, researcher at Hanze UAS explained how complexity theory can contribute to the development of economic clusters in the region. The journey of Hanze UAS to support the region’s ecosystem is also captured in the book Engaged – Towards a resilient region. Manickam stressed the importance of a proper infrastructure involving all the innovation stakeholders, with the region itself in the lead.

After a networking break, the stage was taken by Panagiotis Sevdalis (European Commission DG RTD’s department for Innovation Policy & Access to Finance), shedding a light on the upcoming New European Innovation Agenda. He stressed that innovation is crucial for achieving the green and digital transitions and for Europe’s technological and social sovereignty. During an exchange with the audience, multiple representatives underlined the importance for the innovation agenda to address social innovation, in addition to deep technological development. This was highlighted as a precondition to ensure that techological advancement leads to improved well-being throughout Europe.

This was followed by a panel discussion with Jorick Scheerens, coordinator of the foundation Every VET a practoraat, Inez Meurs, program manager at the Taskforce on Applied Research SIA and Willem Foorthuis, lector in Sustainable Cooperative Entrepreneurship at Hanze UAS. When asked about success factors for innovation ecosystems, Scheerens explained that resources to scale-up innovative projects are lacking in the VET sector. Foorthuis added the potential of students as actors in building regional innovation partnerships, and emphasised the need for entrepreneurial spaces and better integration of education and research within institutions. Meurs highlighted the importance of getting the right people on the right spot, where funding plays a role. Indeed, the panel closed with a consensus on the importance of collaboration.

UASNL’s president Rob Verhofstad summed up the main take aways of the event as follows:

Why do we find innovation ecosystems so important?
Because by cooperating in these constellations Universities of Applied Sciences with our Centres of Expertise can contribute to regional, national and European missions. Together we want to make a difference.

Where do we do that?
Not only in Brussels or in a limited number of large cities, but more importantly in regions, including the many small and medium-sized cities, sparsely populated areas and less developed areas. UAS can play a crucial role with their regional approach.

Who should be part of these ecosystems?
UAS engage not only with SMEs, local authorities, other knowledge organisations, , but also with citizens. Most importantly, higher education institutions should not look at students as their clients, but as future change agents and we should equip them with the right tools to facilitate that.

How can we make an even bigger success of these valuable ecosystems?
Be creative, think outside the box and let regulation facilitate that. Furthermore, if we truly want to make a change we have to work hard and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset.

Exchange with Fabienne Gautier

After the event, the Brussels visit was concluded with an exchange with Fabienne Gautier (Head of Unit of the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency). She presented the latest developments and opportunities in Horizon Europe Pillar 3 to foster, connect and scale up innovation ecosystems. The UAS approach to innovation through Centres of Expertise in the Netherlands fits well with the rationale behind the instruments in the European Innovation Ecosystems framework. During the meeting we agreed on the importance of approaching innovation from a societal perspective alongside technical development. The meeting inspired us to further explore the role of universities of applied sciences as anchor points in the region, through which local public and private stakeholders can be connected to European programmes.

All in all, the sunny two-days visit was a success, with many new insights and a strong impulse for future collaboration.

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