High-tech with a soft touch in Brainport

Paul van Nunen of Brainport Development.

The early 1990s were not the most prosperous years in Eindhoven. The Philips factories were emptying out and closing down one by one. A little further down the road, thousands of DAF employees were living on the edge of hope and fear. Sand was penetrating into the most important engines of Eindhoven’s economy. Unemployment in the region reached immense proportions: sixty to seventy thousand people ended up on the streets. Most were techies. The pain was palpable in many households. And throughout the entire economy. The region’s capital was evaporating.

And yet…

Text Paul van Vugt
Image Scala Fotografie

As the ED newspaper once wrote: ‘The best thing that ever happened to Eindhoven was the arrival and departure of Philips’. The closing of the factories proved to be the prelude to an incredible sense of resilience in the region. Although too late for the unemployed at that time, thousands of companies are now reaping the benefits. The roots? They are embedded in the simple but powerful words ‘let’s fix this together’.

Working together is in the regional DNA
These wise words marked the birth of the Brainport region as we know it today. To illustrate the power of these words and of Brainport as a region, we visited Paul van Nunen, Managing Director of Brainport Development. An Eindhoven native, born in Duizel, and well versed in the politics of The Hague. As a student, he experienced Eindhoven’s downward spiral first-hand. Now he is at the helm of Brainport Development, an organisation that is an essential driving force behind our robust economy. Our flourishing region.

We talked to Paul in his open space office at Strijp-T, next to the railroad tracks near the former Beukenlaan train station. Once Philips’ forbidden city, later a shady streetwalking zone, and now a unique campus for the high-tech manufacturing industry. The flags flying high and proud tell the modern story of this region: ‘Doing business brimming with energy’.

Paul is part of the last generation that saw many people in the area working at Philips. “Back then they used the Philips fund to study, they went to the Philips shop to buy inexpensive shavers, they would meet at the Philips Sports Association to play sports… In one fell swoop that entire community just vanished. That was huge.”

‘The economic malaise ran so deep that the government could not solve it on its own. And neither could the business community, let alone the educational system. They all needed each other.’

The triple helix
The mayor of Eindhoven at the time, Rein Welschen, business leader Theo Hurks and Henk de Wilt of TU/Eindhoven also understood this. They decided to join forces. Paul: “The economic malaise ran so deep that the government could not solve it on its own. And neither could the business community, let alone the educational system. They all needed each other. Because, of course, employment is not an isolated matter. It is inextricably linked to the system we call society. Where talents are trained, where companies offer them employment and where people can enjoy a safe and comfortable life.”

And with that, the triple helix – the cooperation between government, the business community and the educational and knowledge institutions – was born. The cooperation was made tangible through the establishment of a joint agenda aimed at getting the region back on its feet. Preventing a similar crisis from occurring in the future. And never letting it happen again. Like the three musketeers, the mayor, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and the chairman of the TU sat down at the table together. They tackled a tough question: how can we build a new economy from the unique knowledge base left behind by Philips? This laid the foundations for ‘Brainport’ a few years later.

Open innovation as a source of power
“To say that we as a region have come out on top in the new millennium would be an understatement. It is all thanks to our sharp focus on technology, a field in which we excel, but organised in a completely different way than in the 1990s. Open innovation was chosen for the path forward. We opted for a horizontal approach where the chain is not held closed but where you build on the knowledge and skills of the companies around you.”

“Take the High Tech Campus and the Natlab for example – two prime examples of technological development. When I was young, I used to cycle past them every day in Eindhoven, but all you could see were closed gates. You had no idea what was going on behind them. Something complicated, something to do with physics and innovation… That was the extent of it. Now the gates are wide open, or even gone completely. In Brainport, innovation no longer takes place in a closed, vertical corporate structure. We operate on a broad playing field with all different kinds of parties. With the chips from ASML, our smartphones contain a piece of Brainport. But there’s also a piece of Bergeijk, where one of the SMEs in ASML’s chain is based.”

Innovating and creating
“The machines we produce here are the result of 5, 10, sometimes even 100 different parties. That’s our clever way of competing on the world stage. There’s a lot more capital in America than there is here. In our region, you don’t have billions flying around, so you have to work together. Then you’ll get somewhere. You have to multiply your knowledge by sharing it. Not only with companies from the region, but often far beyond.”

“That’s why I prefer not to talk in terms of ‘us from Brainport’. We shouldn’t look at our own region through a straw. Our region is just as big as the world is. Helmond, for example, is currently hard at work developing the battery of the future. But you should be under no illusion that this product will soon be produced entirely in our region. For this we need companies from Twente, Germany and so on…

‘One engineer will create three to four new jobs. Engineers are catalysts in our society.’

What makes our region unique, apart from open innovation, is that innovation goes hand in hand with the manufacturing industry. Not only do ideas, knowledge and concepts come from Brainport, but also the machines themselves. This is how we generate work for everyone. This is very important, because 70% of the people here have an secondary vocational education (MBO). This means that the Brainport concept is there for society as a whole. For the doers and the thinkers.”

“You have to consider that one engineer will create three to four new jobs. Engineers are catalysts in our society that indirectly create new jobs – for bakers to florists. Because by exporting the machines, we are gaining a bigger slice of the pie for the entire region. This activity is linked to new ideas and business.”

A nice living environment

“You know,” Paul continues, “ultimately it’s not so much about making even more machines. This dynamic economy is needed to make sure that this remains a great place to live, where everyone can contribute. A nice place like that involves a lot: healthcare, green spaces, but also jobs so you can pay your rent, mortgage and your children’s sports club. To keep this whole system running, we at Brainport are not only investing in our core quality of technology, but also in the pillars of education as well as in living and working.”

“This entire system is interconnected. You can’t do it without each other. Technology can’t exist without employees and employees can’t exist without a healthy living environment. And, in turn, society cannot exist without technology. We are in the game at every level. By focusing on targeted investments and bringing together the right parties who can benefit from each other. We call it building ants nests.

‘Transitions are being built in Brainport. Products that the world is waiting for. That makes our position rock solid.’

Ants nests for early innovation
“These ants nests are especially important for innovative high-tech. It is often a long-term process, and you never actually know whether it will pay off in the end. Hydrogen technology is one such example. In the very early stages of an innovation like this, no single party is able to manage it on their own. It is too abstract and risky for any one company to handle. We bring parties together and provide them with resources so that these innovations can get off the ground.”

The need for innovation is certainly there, because transitions are being built in Brainport. Products that the world is waiting for. “That makes our position rock solid,” states Paul. “A healthy economy is inherently linked to the societal shifts that take place. Take covid, for example. Everything came to a halt during the first lockdown. Except here in Brainport. We were that tiny dot on the map where development continued. This was purely because the major issues facing the world require digitisation, technology and electrification. That demand will only increase. That makes our economy extremely robust. If we can keep that rolling, then ultimately all the restaurants and shops will also profit.”

Its meaningful business and focus on society make Brainport a strong brand worldwide, according to Paul. “We are well positioned on the map. The work in Brainport attracts a lot of interest from foreign professionals looking for jobs here. Their experience is that life is good here. It is green, pleasant, friendly. Children can go to school safely. It’s not like San Diego where you wouldn’t dare go out on the street after eight in the evening. That is a major draw. And valuable in terms of attracting international technical talent. Because finding the right people is certainly the challenge of our time. That is one of the reasons why we market the name Brainport so intensely. For example, through the PSV Eindhoven jersey, which increases our visibility worldwide. Everyone needs to know that we get it. That we are building an economy that doesn’t pollute, but is actually serving the world in its major transitions.”

“I wouldn’t be able to do this work if our economic concept was assembling teddy bears for low wages. Nothing against teddy bears, but that’s not exactly what gets me out of bed in the morning. Brainport is about sustainability and inclusiveness, and that’s how we distinguish ourselves from other smart regions such as Silicon Valley. That region is extremely capitalistic. If you are born on the wrong side of the tracks there, then you’ve got a big problem. That’s not what we want here. We stand for high-tech to do with a soft touch. A region that is driven by technology, but where we act responsibly towards society. That is the foundation of everything we do. If people don’t have a job or a sense of purpose, you can forget about the rest.”

Long-term impact
Brainport faces considerable challenges in organising this kind of sustainable community. In addition to attracting scarce talent, housing is high on the agenda – making sure that there is enough housing. Paul certainly understands that this is not something that can be solved overnight: “Everything we do at Brainport Development is about the long term. That sometimes makes it a bit abstract for those on the outside. If you want to see the impact, you have to see the big picture in the region. You have to look at the changes over several years. That applies both to technical innovations that will only be on the market in 10 years’ time as well as to social developments.”

‘In 15 years we’ll be able to say: we did it. We’ll then have cities and villages in the region with lots of housing, green spaces and water.’

“It will be the same for the housing sector, where the challenges are immense. But when I look at the plans and financing, I’m sure that in 15 years we’ll be able to say: we did it. We’ll then have cities and villages in the region with lots of housing, green spaces and water. With houses in every segment, so that you don’t have to earn several times the average income just to be able to live in Brainport. Is everything exactly as you or I would like it to be? No, but we managed to come to a great solution together. Exactly as we envisaged it in the nineties.”

“Imagine that you’re one of those who were made redundant back then and you’re returning to Eindhoven for the first time. You’d see all those companies, the greenification of the city and all those people with lunch boxes on their bicycles… you wouldn’t believe your eyes, would you?”

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