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Where science meets practice: a marriage made in heaven?

Universities and other higher-learning institutions are regularly seeking additional research funding and starting new initiatives that engage entrepreneurs actively in applied research projects. But, this joint research does not deliver results if the research, and funding of this research, is only demand-driven. In the academic world, we need to do things differently in order to make science really meet practice and create valuable ‘know how’.

Valuable research: valorization
Both fundamental and applied research is needed to make scientific ‘know how’ valuable for entrepreneurs. Fortunately, several good initiatives can be seen where science meets practice in a profitable way.
TU Eindhoven ensures that high-tech companies in Brabant, such as ASML, Fokker and VDL, are successful. Relevant innovations can be found in ground-breaking products, services and smart logistics concepts. These have helped to make the Dutch high-tech sector one of the top global performers. The University of Tilburg tackles complex issues in planning and control, and information technology in complex supply chains.
The application of research from Wageningen University is invaluable for the Dutch agricultural sector. Nearly a quarter of vegetables exported from Europe originate from the Netherlands. Thanks to many innovations coming out of research, the Netherlands is one of the three largest exporters of agricultural products in the world.
Other universities collaborate with Dutch mainports on innovations in global trade and trade compliance, as well as cross-chain planning concepts, trade facilitation and the use of different modes of transport in synchromodality.
Other academic institutions support web stores and parcel companies in innovative e-fulfillment practices.

Triple helix
The aim of top academic institutes is to bring researchers, entrepreneurs and government closer together; the so-called ‘triple helix’. However, I have doubts whether this triple helix is actually a marriage made in heaven. Much attention is given to innovation in small- and medium-sized companies. These companies are inarguably the job engines of Europe; with blood, sweat and tears. However, they often respond to innovations with an attitude of ‘that’s not invented here… and won’t work’. They are not a fertile ground for valuable innovations. In this case practice actually does not meet science…

Henry Ford
The ‘triple helix’ only works if all parties focus on the end consumer at every step in their research and innovation plans. Innovation simply does not work if the consumer does not benefit. It sounds simple. The reality is that consumers often do not know yet. It was Henry Ford who said: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’.

Futurologist Wim de Ridder argues that real innovations always come from outside the industry sector. Spotify would never exist if they would have asked the music industry. Had you asked a bookstore owner, Amazon.com would have never started. Booking.com would never have been founded if they would have listened to the hotels. Roses in sea containers from Kenya? Unthinkable for the flower traders. But, it’s reality today.
Demand-driven research could thus be the wrong starting point. Entrepreneurs often simply don’t know how the future will look and what innovations are necessary to meet future environments. Another approach is needed to really make science meet practice.

Kaleidoscopic
Involving companies in applied research carried out by students, universities and other higher-education institutes is needed. However, such cooperation is not effective when research and funding are just simply demand-driven. Simply increasing research funding will only lead to faster horses. We really need is to do things smarter.

Innovative fundamental and applied research is needed. This kind of research is kaleidoscopic in character; you look from many different angles to the same issue. The more diverse the research team, the more it helps the team keep in touch with the future needs of consumers in the increasingly diverse, global society. This kind of research is inherently multidisciplinary.

The European Supply Chain Forum is a multidisciplinary community for researchers, entrepreneurs and government to support the development of useful and necessary know how for relevant innovations. Here science and practice really meet!

Join ESCF for their conference in Eindhoven on February 11, 2014.

Walther Ploos van Amstel .

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