BISS is an extraordinary group at Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen. Professors and researchers from different disciplines work together at the campus on ways to apply data and technology to solve challenges in the outside world. “Just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it has to be applied immediately. We always play the ethical card”, says Judith Kamalski: The team consists of approximately 20 employees, 10 of whom work full time and addresses commercial or social questions and issues. One example is how technology or data science can contribute to reducing global poverty.
Kamalski: “We work with others because we believe that technology or data science alone is rarely the solution to a problem. You can build the best tool or design the most amazing technology, but if no one uses it if there’s no support for it, or if it’s used wrong or is questionable in a legal sense, it won’t be a success. This is why you have to unite all of these fields of expertise.”
About BRIGHT PEOPLE
BRIGHT PEOPLE are indispensable for making tomorrow’s world a bit more beautiful, cleaner and better. In this series we interview a prominent figurehead of the Brightlands Campuses each month. These born innovators talk about their mission and how they want to achieve it. Today we present the sixth edition with Judith Kamalski.
Judith Kamalski is fluent in the languages of business and science. She got her doctorate in psycholinguistics, and in her dissertation, she explains how to use language to persuade people. In addition to business communication, she also studied French language and literature.
“I studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, where I read my literature books on the metro. My fellow students and I discussed the meaning of metaphors in Marcel Proust’s work over a good glass of wine. I’m a language person, a communication person.”
Judith Kamalski was born in Geldrop and grew up in Weert, in Limburg. After her studies, she traveled and then came back to work for the multinational Elsevier in Amsterdam. This position enabled her to continue enjoying the French language; she was assigned “Team France” in her portfolio, but her choice to go into business had been made. “The one thing you need to know about me is that I have an academic heart but a commercial head,” she laughs. “Depending on the day and the context, sometimes this order reverses.”
Her particular love for academia is mainly based on the organizational aspects. “In academia, you have to be able to focus for long periods, and I like to look at the broader picture. On the other hand, supporting academia and applying my experience in business to act as a bridge between the two sectors is a great fit for me. At BISS, these two worlds come together really well.”
Initially, she worked as director of Academic Affairs at Maastricht University. Her job at Elsevier gave her a glimpse into a “fairly young, international, ambitious, academic organization” that still had a lot of building to do. Judith, her husband, and children set off for the south of the country – with the promise that her kids would also be able to decorate their rooms in Maastricht with Ajax (Amsterdam’s soccer team) banners.
You can build the best tool or design the most amazing technology, but if no one uses it, if there’s no support for it, it won’t be a successJudith Kamalski
Fish in the water
She was convinced that she had gained valuable skills at Elsevier that she would be able to apply to her new position. “Academics are very good at analyzing problems and providing solutions. Businesspeople are good at developing solutions and launching them on the market. These two strengths reinforce each other.” In the business world, I’ve often heard how ‘academic’ I am, whereas at the university, they tell me how ‘commercial’ I am. I try to build a bridge between these two worlds I know so well. This is why I feel like a fish IN water at BISS.”
She did have to get used to the new mores. “My autopilot turned out to be inapplicable here. I missed the decisiveness that helps you take on challenges in business. The fact that you don’t have to wait for the decision-making process to end before you can start working on a good idea. In the beginning, I said things like, ‘Great, we’ll get started on this project and finish it in three months.’ They looked at me with their eyes wide and said, ‘More like three years. What planet are you living on?’ “I realized this was the planet ‘business.’” She now knows that timing is essential and that decision-making can take a long time. “And that this is simply inextricably linked to an academic organization.”
Over time, the distance between the practical aspects and research weighed on her. “I thought that if I could design my own job, I would go for something in business combined with academic research.” This is why she has felt right at home as the general director of BISS since 2020. Not only can she unite both of these worlds, but the fact that the institution works with commercial clients adds a particular dynamic element. “When a customer calls, we have to shift gears to respond quickly. This is my kind of pace.”
BISS is also looking at social issues. She cites examples such as climate change and poverty. “We often see people from different disciplines coming together for a project. One of the things that makes us so strong is that we always work as a group, so we understand each other better and can communicate faster. It takes a lot of effort to get people from different backgrounds involved in a team like this. You don’t just have to speak the languages of business and academia, but within the academic field, philosophers speak a different language than traditional scientists, for example. My job here mainly involves communication, making sure everyone is on the same page about what we will build or solve.”
On its own two feet
BISS was set up by Maastricht University, APG and the Province of Limburg. The latter institution’s subsidy period has now come to an end. “We can stand on our own two feet now,” Kamalski says. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and data science are particularly essential for BISS. The biggest news: they are waiting for final approval to be able to give shape to the ELSA Poverty and Debt Lab. This extensive partnership includes government bodies such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Tax and Customs Administration, commercial parties such as APG, and social organizations like the Nibud, BKR, and Wijzer in Geldzaken (Money Wise Platform). In addition to BISS, Maastricht University, Open University, and Zuyd, all of the knowledge institutes on campus are working on implementing AI and data science for broad general use. One example is fighting global poverty.
We don’t just publish papers and attend conferences; we also work on prototypes, apps, and innovative technological developments that can be made useful for societyJudith Kamalski
Time for a commercial example. Judith Kamalski: “A company contacted us about a problem they were having with a control room in one of their plants. When alarms go off, they are often so complex that operators have trouble interpreting them. Their question was: can you observe what is going on here and give us advice? In situations like this, we put together a team of researchers who, together with data specialists and managers from the company, will examine the problem from all sides and try to find an answer. How can you optimize data streams? How can you minimize the operator’s cognitive processing load? It helps to have objective scientists look at it from different angles and offer their candid opinions.”
How does a company with a control room end up at BISS? “We don’t have a marketing department, but we are based at Brightlands Smart Services Campus, so their network and those of the other Brightlands campuses are essential for us.”
In director Kamalski’s view, BISS’ importance lies in its ability to translate scientific and technological insights into solutions that will benefit citizens. “We don’t just publish papers and attend conferences; we also work on prototypes, apps, and innovative technological developments that can be made useful for society. It also concerns the region since part of our work involves regional prosperity; it’s about the health of people in Limburg. We can help enhance people’s quality of life if we can make smart use of technology to achieve these goals.”
She provides the example of the data available to local hospitals. Linking this data can create new insights that can help elevate healthcare to the next level. The problem is, this is privacy-sensitive information, and then there’s the aspect of competition. Kamalski: “We’re working very hard on building a Smart Health Center here at the campus that will bring all of these parties together and where BISS can play a role in guaranteeing the secure transfer of data. Since this is bigger than BISS alone, we’re working with partners at the campus on this.”
Judith Kamalski hopes that BISS will have experienced considerable growth and will have earned a good reputation as one of the ELSA Lab participants in ten years. She also hopes that the scope of work expands and becomes more international, but most importantly, that BISS can continue to fulfill this social role. “We are part of the university, so we’re not purely commercial. We make sure that all of the innovations and technology we use are always ethical. Just because technology can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should apply it.
One of our professors gave the following example: suppose you were to design an AI closet that knew what the weather was going to be like that day and suggests an outfit that is best suited to that weather when you get dressed in the morning. This sure would be easy, but is this something we should want? Won’t our own identity suffer in the process? The fundamental question is: what and how much do we leave to technology? This is precisely where we add our own critical comments about ethical, legal, or other matters, you name it. This is what sets us apart. We are at the mercy of commerce otherwise.”