Daria Tataj, © Bart van Overbeeke
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The Eindhoven University of Technology should promote itself much more clearly as the example of the innovative university. According to Dr Daria Tataj, Eindhoven has everything to grow into a global centre for high-tech knowledge and research. “With the right network strategy and focus on high tech and digital technologies, the Brainport region can prevent Europe for an economic and strategic decline.”

Daria Tataj has been advising European Commissioner Carlos Moedas of Research & Innovation for some years now. Since 2015, she has been chairman of the think tank RISE (Research, Innovation and Science Policy Experts), and advises on, among other things, the 100 billion European research program ‘Horizon Europe‘. In addition, she is a Polish researcher turned entrepreneur who uses Network Thinking methodology to help companies innovate within smart cities. She met the new president of TU/e Robert-Jan Smits extensively as Director General of Research at the European Commission. “A very inspiring and energetic person who has meant a lot to European research and innovation policy over the last decade,” says Tataj.

Recently, she was visiting the TU/e campus. Prior to the interview, she spoke in Amsterdam during the Next Web Conference about creating a European Silicon Valley and gave a live interview to the Financial Times on the future of cities.

Her visit to Eindhoven was for personal reasons. “My daughter Michalina is now a third-year Bachelor’s student in Electrical Engineering here in Eindhoven, and I am just visiting her,” she says with a big smile. When asked why her daughter moved from Warsaw to Eindhoven, she is very clear. “Her dream is to develop robots for the healthcare sector, so she was looking for an English-language Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering at a top European university. I am happy that she chose Eindhoven because this city has a special place in my heart.”

Tataj’s preference for Eindhoven can be explained by the enormous growth potential of this city. “Cities can transform their future and Eindhoven is the prime example if we look at its entrepreneurial innovation ecosystem.” Because she does not see the big capitals as the only future winners, she focuses on facilitating mid-size cities accelerate growth through talent and technology to leap from a relative disadvantage. Just as small companies and startups provide real innovations, it is also her conviction that the ‘developing diamonds’ in regions provide real innovations. In this way, the once sleeping town of Palo Alto (in Silicon Valley) could grow into what it is today, and according to her, such a future lies ahead for Eindhoven. “Everywhere I talk about research and innovation, I mention Eindhoven as a success story. I really see this city as a shining example in Europe for a rapidly growing innovative ecosystem. And strikingly enough, Eindhoven still seems like a sort of secret, almost nobody seems to know what amazing things are happening here. What a pity! Eindhoven could market itself a lot better, and consequently, grow much faster.”

“Strikingly enough, Eindhoven still seems like a sort of secret, almost nobody seems to know what amazing things are happening here. What a pity!”

Digital networks

According to Daria Tataj, fast and lasting economic growth is highly dependent on a number of factors. In addition to research and education, talent and entrepreneurship are crucial. And that is often lacking, especially at universities and knowledge institutions. But where Europe falls short compared to the US and increasingly to China, it should focus more on networking. “The largest companies worldwide base their income to a large extent on digital networks. Look at Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb, Uber and Google. They see the users of the network, in fact, all of us, as a source of income. By releasing free and voluntary data about ourselves, these companies can make huge amounts of money. In this network economy, it’s ‘Winner takes it all, losers get nothing’. And we are only at the beginning. Certainly, if artificial intelligence catches on, digital networks become even more important. If we as Europe do not mobilize, we will definitely miss the boat.”

Daria Tataj, © Bart van Overbeeke
Daria Tataj, © Bart van Overbeeke

She is therefore very pleased with the recent plans of D66 in the run-up to the European elections for a two-billion-dollar investment in the Eindhoven region for artificial intelligence. “I think that is a very good initiative. Eindhoven seems to be one of the top places to serve as a European centre for this. This technology is economically important but even more geostrategic. In my view, separate Artificial Intelligence Networks will be created, at least one American and one Chinese. We must ensure that we have our own European version, otherwise, we will be out of business. That is a big danger.”

Eindhoven Engine

The ‘winner takes all’ effect does not only apply to companies, but also to regions. With well-developed ecosystems, in which researchers from companies and knowledge institutions can collaborate freely, this can have an accelerating effect on innovation. For that reason, Tataj also sees a lot in the newly established Eindhoven Engine on TU/e campus. “Often you only have to offer a physical empty space. If the right people come together there and bring in expertise and ideas from different backgrounds, the best things can happen. For example, Hewlett Packard once started in Stanford, as two young engineers renting a space for a symbolic $1 from Stanford. That can happen here too.”

As an adviser to the European Commission, Dr Tataj has worked on so-called ‘mission-oriented policy’, aimed at solving major social problems such as cancer research, plastic pollution of oceans or nutrient depletion of agricultural land. “This is really something of this time, of the new generation. We need to connect top-notch science with impact through technology. We notice, however, that the current young people are strongly looking for meaning, for contributing to our society. For example, in a field of study entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, where I have been a post-doc fellow students chose no less than 40 per cent for ‘Social Entrepreneurship’. Not money, but the quality of life and society is now considered to be much more important. I think this is a very good development that universities can take advantage of. The convergence of tech and social innovation can truly unleash exponential growth.”

Another point where she still sees opportunities for TU/e is the use of top talent. And in particular the better involvement of women in technical studies. Compared with other countries, the Netherlands still scores very low in the proportion of women in the technical sciences. “That’s a shame because so much talent is lost. I think that the technical world can adjust a little more to career paths that are more suitable for women. Because attracting and retaining talent is the decisive success factor for universities, and TU/e could take further steps to become a breakthrough example in this area too.”

This article was previously published by Cursor and has been republished with permission.

This might be a good read as well: the farewell interview with TU/e’s chairman Jan Mengelers, about the role of the university in an international perspective, the importance of the student teams, the engineer of the 21st century and the search to attract more women to technical studies and professions.