Utrecht – at the heart of the Netherlands – is developing into a regional capital of European importance. The city’s current expansion is combining major economic and employment opportunities with innovation. Floris de Gelder, Director of Utrecht Science Park, discusses the science park’s ambitions, and the ‘Utrecht Science Park model.’
The New Economy: Utrecht – at the heart of the Netherlands – is developing from a medium-sized provincial city into a regional capital of European importance. The city’s current expansion combines physical expansion with major economic opportunities and innovation. Here to discuss is Floris de Gelder, Director of Utrecht Science Park.
Well Floris, the Utrecht region has one of the best expectations for economic development within the city regions of Western Europe, so how does the Science Park fit in to this?
Floris de Gelder: Well, we are very happy to be in the middle of the Netherlands. We have eight million people living within one hour travel of our science park. It’s the beating heart of the economy of Utrecht. We have a lot of knowledge, we have 22,000 people working in our science park.
We try to attract employment – companies that if we would not have had a science park, they would probably have gone to the other side of the world. That’s actually what we try to do: we try to add the most sophisticated knowledge-related employment to our region.
The New Economy: And what sort of projects – and indeed discoveries – have been made there?
Floris de Gelder: Well last year – and there was a lot of attention for this – we had a surgeon, who is working 200m from my office. And he saved the life of a young lady who was very sick. She had a problem with her skull, and he designed – using 3d printing technology – a new skull for this lady. And replaced the skull, and she is still alive. She’s working again.
So this is one example. Another example is, we are now building the largest children’s cancer hospital and research centre in Europe, and one of the three largest in the world. And it will be finished in 2017.
The New Economy: Really impressive and important innovations. So how would you say these are boosting the region’s economy?
Floris de Gelder: The interesting thing is that we have a science park – it’s 300 hectares, it’s very small. But basically, we’re not doing this for ourselves, or for the park itself, but for the region. And many cities around Utrecht, they choose their own profile which is related to our science park. And we are developing satellite locations – smaller, little, more specialised parks – which are using our brand.
And together we acquire companies and employment. So we try to combine the region with the science park. And for instance, if a neighbouring city is planning new housing, they come to us, and we discuss which kinds of houses do we need in the neighbourhood to create the best living environment.
So it’s not only about attracting companies, but it’s also about how to develop the region. And we work together with all these neighbouring cities as well.
The New Economy: So community is very important to the Utrecht Science Park – why is this, and how does it aid innovation?
Floris de Gelder: It’s very important. The science park is not about real estate – it’s about people. And it’s about people meeting each other, and sometimes discovering things that you cannot plan. One of my colleagues once said that our job is to facilitate serendipity. So you cannot always predict what’s going to happen – but you can try to help people to feel okay, and to meet each other.
So last year we had the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, as we tried to attract events and organise events on our science park. We’re the only science park that I know that has its own festival – 7,000 people come there in the botanical gardens, and our best scientists tell their stories (very briefly!) in public.
We have something that’s already a little bit famous: it’s what we call the roof garden. It was started by some students who wanted to improve the quality of life, the possibilities for meeting each other on the science park. So we really tried to create an atmosphere in which people are not only working in their own building, but living together, discovering new things together, having fun together, spending time.
The New Economy: So talk me through the Utrecht model. What can other cities learn from this?
Floris de Gelder: Well, I just told you about this roof garden project – it seems like a little, small project – but there’s something important about this project. When these students came to us and asked us if they could organise this roof garden project, we just said ‘Yes.’ We did not exactly know what they were going to do – there was not any kind of management – but it was about trust. Giving each other the possibility just to do what you believe in.
And I think maybe, if there is an Utrecht model, then it’s a little bit about this. It’s about being a team in the region, and working together. Some people call it a leaderless network, and we are together. We try to trust each other as much as possible.
The reason why we are doing this is to improve society. It’s to create a society in which people are happy, in which they can be healthy, and that the generations after us will have the fantastic places we have. That’s why we’re doing this.
And when you’re doing this, and when you share this knowledge, and when you’re in the region working as a team and giving a lot of trust to each other – I think that could be the Utrecht model.
The New Economy: And finally, what’s in the pipeline for future development?
Floris de Gelder: Well, I told you about this children’s cancer hospital. And the purpose of this hospital is that we can improve the percentage of children cured from 75 to 95 percent. So maybe up to 80 percent of the children who don’t survive now, can survive when we have this institution. Basically that’s what we’re doing it for.
But of course, our organisation has all kinds of ways to measure the success, or to measure what we’re doing. So now we’re in a period of six years, creating 5,000 new jobs on our own, on the Utrecht Science Park.
We tried to create a new system of also financing what we are doing. So this children’s cancer hospital is partially financed by crowd funding. So the Dutch public is directly helping us to build an institution like this.
We tried to attract pension funds – not only with our own science park, but with seven other leading science parks in the Netherlands together. So they used to be our competitors, and now we work together to attract capital, to increase the speed of development of our science park.
So we are doing a lot of things, working very hard. And the basic thing is that we are absolutely sure that when we have a science park like this, when we combine university, business, but also politicians, in a common goal: that we can improve society. And that we can keep our Utrecht – and we are very proud of this – the most attractive region of Europe.