All eyes on Eindhoven

Approaching the end of a long party night, the main street of Eindhoven’s nightlife district, Stratumseind, is dimly lit. The police would have preferred it to be bright, but professors at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) advised otherwise. They wanted to test how variations in the intensity and colour of lighting influence people’s moods and behaviour – all with the aim of reducing aggression. In addition, researchers anonymously collect data on much that happens during nights of entertainment, including the number of people entering and leaving, social-media activity and the nature of sounds produced by visitors. By combining these data, the authorities aim to make the area safer and cosier.

The data collection is all part of the

Living Lab Stratumseind. Living Labs are both innovation projects and business models for the Brainport Eindhoven Region, which includes Brabant province’s largest city and its 20 surrounding municipalities. These projects allow TU/e to stay in touch with the outside world and to collaborate with regional industrial partners. Living Lab Stratumseind is supported by Intel and the Dutch Institute for Technology, Safety and Security, among others. One of the involved companies, digital services supplier Atos, received a Digital Impact Award for its contribution to safety by providing relevant information on nightlife incidents to emergency services.

The majority of Living Labs are initiatives of the university, with input from students, in collaboration with the city of Eindhoven and local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). “The knowledge resulting from the project flows back to them, which
is a win-win situation,” says Steef Blok, director of TU/e Innovation Lab. “SMEs are always in a hurry and never have a budget, and the knowledge increases the innovative power of the province.”

It is no coincidence that one Living Lab chose to study lighting. After all, the technology hub owes its existence to electronics multinational Philips, founded in Eindhoven in 1891 by Frederik and Gerard Philips, who prospered by producing light bulbs. Today, although Philips has its headquarters in Amsterdam, Eindhoven remains “the Light City” and during the yearly carnival it is renamed “Light Hole”.

Design and a High Tech Campus

Just as Philips is now more than a light-bulb company, so Eindhoven is more than just Philips and TU/e. The area absorbs about a third of all private Dutch R&D spending. There is the other impressive multinational, chip-building machine producer ASML, with its record 2015 revenues of €6.3 billion and profit of €1.4 billion. There is also the celebrated Design Academy, which combines art and technology (see box). There is also a vocational and bachelor’s program in applied sciences.

In addition, more than 140 companies with 10,000 employees are located on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, known as the “smartest square kilometre in Europe”. Campus companies are now responsible for nearly 40% of Dutch patent applications.

Little wonder that the Intelligent Community Forum in New York, a non-profit policy research organisation, named the region “Most Intelligent Community of the Year” in 2011. The prestigious award was a welcome endorsement for a region known for its traditional Dutch culture of modesty. The jury praised Eindhoven’s proximity and interwovenness – physically, cognitively as well as socially. “Here, collaboration really means collaboration, different actors really work together,” says Blok.

Adaptability as the key

The University played a key role by introducing six multidisciplinary themes – including health, smart mobility and energy – and three centres: Datascience, High Tech Systems and Photonic Integration. The number of students has doubled from 7,000 to 14,000 since 2011. Also, SMEs that traditionally had no connection to the university have now become its second largest partner. Adaptability is the key.

“Innovation is not about inventions, but about the extent to which you’re able to adjust to the new reality,” says Edgar van Leest, manager of strategy and public affairs at Brainport Development. “Just as Darwin wrote about natural selection in nature.”

Ready for the future

The TU/e Innovation Lab is central to numerous collaborations. Started as a technology transfer office, it plays a central role in bridging the gap between science and the outside world by stimulating scientists to develop an entrepreneurial mind and lower the threshold for business initiatives. Tech transfer remains an important task. TU/e Innovation Lab works with technology readiness levels, ranging from 1 (just started) to 9 (ready for production). “Universities bring it up to level 2 or 3, companies enter at stage 5 or 6,” Blok explains. “Our job is to bridge stage 3 to 5 by setting up start-ups, using so-called ‘pre-seed’ and ‘proving concepts’ funds.”

Dozens of companies have been nurtured in this fashion over the past decade. One success story is TU/e spin-off Xeltis, an Eindhoven- and Zurich-based company that developed degradable implantable grids enabling patients to regrow a heart valve inside their body, using their own cells. Xeltis expects the heart valves to be market-ready within five years. Another successful TU/e spin-off is Peer+, which developed energy-generating windows using solar power. In 2014 Peer+ was acquired by German multinational Merck, which is investing €15 million to produce its “smart energy glass”.

Looking ahead, Eindhoven is looking to develop another new field: photonics. The idea is to develop the next generation of data transport, using light, to improve capacity. Data are already being transported photonically through fiber-optic cables, but because data-processing chips are still electronic, data centres still convert information to electrical signals. These electronic chips require much more power and are much slower than the recently introduced photonic chips. “Eventually, data consumption will reach the limits of current technology,” says Blok. “Photonics will bring the solution.”

Dutch Design: eclectic and funny

The godfather of Dutch design, Marcel Wanders, made his breakthrough in 1995 with his “Knotted Chair”, which is now part of the collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Characterized by its minimalist, innovative and unconventional approach – with a sense of humour – Dutch Design has since become a renowned global brand.

Today the Netherlands continues to churn out world-leading designers – from leading labels like Moooi and Droog to experimental boundary pushers like Joris Laarman, Lucas Maassen and Piet Hein Eek. The one string linking these globally lauded designers? They are almost exclusively former students of the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE), whose roots go back to 1947.

Housed in the Witte Dame building, a former Philips factory in the heart of the city, DAE is not your typical design academy. For starters, the 150 tutors at the academy teach only one day a week. The rest of their time is spent in the real design world, meaning teachers have their finger on the pulse and can also offer students real projects to work on. In addition, DAE sits in the Strijp-S area, a part of the former Philips grounds turned successful incubator space, meaning undergraduates mingle with creative professionals launching their latest designs.

In the past few years, DAE has changed its approach to education, responding to new technologies and the need for design to address societal challenges. The students “used to make collectibles for museums,” recently departed Creative Director Thomas Widdershoven told the website Dezeen. “Instead they now go out into the world. They see crisis and they respond to it.”

Take, for example, alumnus Nils Chudy, one half of Chudy and Grase, a designer who reimagined the kettle. The Miito kettle’s simple yet effective design saves energy by inductively heating liquids directly in the vessel. Another trendsetting alumnus is Teresa van Dongen, 2015’s Young Designer winner in the Dutch Design Awards. Her hanging mobile electricity-free lamp draws from her background in biology and is based on bacteria that light up when the lamp moves.

With such an education, DAE bachelor’s and master’s students – the designers of tomorrow – stop asking, “How can I make a statement?” and instead ask, “Why are things the way they are, and how can I make them better?”