Prof. Henk Scholten, CEO, Geodan in an exclusive interview gives us a detailed overview of commercialization of research and innovation and the role of academia-industry.

By Geospatial World

Academia-Industry collaboration. Who should take the lead?

In fact, academia and industry both have their own specific role to play. Academia and industry interact, both contributing to innovation in their own valuable way. The question ‘who should take the lead’ cannot be answered, because innovation is ultimately the outcome of interaction wherein academia and industry will alternately take the lead, in response to their needs and the progress of their research efforts.

Different players play different roles, each attributing to our collective innovative power —considering the collaboration between academia and industry on innovation, most people tend to oversimplify reality. In the first place, we have to differentiate ‘The Academia’ into the so-called ‘Universities of Technology’ and ‘Research-led Universities’. The latter foster a culture of persistent analysis and curiosity, both in theoretical as well as in applied sciences. Research-led universities basically aim to enlarge our understanding of the universe and everything within it, which may result in technologic innovation. The universities of technology are specifically paid and aimed to be a source of technological breakthroughs. TU Delft, for example, views its role in society as supplying technological solutions that take us significantly further along the road towards sustainability and a flourishing economy. It is their ambition to be viewed by the business community as a source of outstanding professional scientists and engineers, as a producer of excellent practical knowledge and as an innovative partner.

At Universities of Technology, new business activities are allowed to blossom and innovative start-ups are usually being facilitated, for example by being housed at the campus. This is well illustrated by for example the TU Eindhoven Centre for Start-up student entrepreneurs. But also research-led universities may encourage enterprise in their staff to develop solutions to social and urban questions. In fact, most major improvements in technology come forth from theoretical research, aimed to understand specific aspects of the universe. Obviously, improving our understanding of processes raises the potential to optimize processes.

The outcomes of theoretical scientific research do not even have to be scientifically fully understood, to be of high social and commercial relevance. We can work out the results of gravitational acceleration without a complete understanding of gravity itself. And the navigational power of TomTom, for example, is based on Dijkstra’s algorithm for finding the shortest paths between nodes in a graph (which may represent road networks). This algorithm is still not proven in a strict theoretical mathematical point of view. However, from empirical experience, we know it works very well. Dijkstra published it in 1959, decennia before it was applied to provide the navigational services we are so used to today. Hence, theoretical research may not always be of direct societal use, but in the end, it forms the basis of our collective innovative power.

Other than providing financial assistance, what are other ways for industry to engage closely with academia for mutual benefit?

Science unravels the chain of cause and effect, which leads to new techniques and models predicting the outcomes of processes. By character, industry explores the possibilities and benefits of applying new techniques and models, whereas scientists validate and calibrate them. In order to address the challenges of tomorrow, we need both. By exchanging ideas, insights, and experiences, a synergetic interaction between academia and industry can jointly shift the limits of innovation.

Many faculty members are still conservative when talking about commercialization. What are steps required to change this mindset?

The way people think and operate is the very reason that they are selected and suitable to fulfill specific jobs. Ultimately, changing their mindset would make them inept for their primary tasks. Hence, we should not try to change their mindset. Instead, we should value the different mindsets and encourage people with different mindsets to collaborate in multidisciplinary teams to achieve mutual goals.

Academic people do have a different way of thinking than people from industry. We should cherish both ways of thinking since we need both. In order to raise productive multidisciplinary collaboration, we should aim for a basic level of mutual understanding and acceptance. Please note: the readiness to accept the way other people think and operate is the very opposite of the intent to change one another’s mindset.

Looking at the current outlook of geospatial industry, do you agree the market could use more innovators/entrepreneurs?

We entered the era of Big Data, a new era of modeling and predicting, which might enhance the overall understanding of the world we live in. Most business processes, as well as most governmental processes, comprise intrinsically geospatial elements; factors changing in time and space. Geospatial industry can offer advanced insight in complex processes. In theory, the geospatial industry could serve all stakeholders at the acquired level of detailed real-time information. Numerous opportunities can be explored and utilized. We need innovative entrepreneurs to do so.

What are the common mistakes made by new entrepreneurs that hinder successful commercialization of their products and services?

Geospatial entrepreneurs have to be aware of the difference between data and information. Data is in the end no more than a coherent set of numbers reflecting the specific state of a specific entity at a specific place at a specific moment in time. The information comprises the process of informing people, getting them to survey, understand and utilize data to optimize decisions. We have to fathom all crucial aspects of this process in order to achieve the successful commercialization of geospatial products and services. If we succeed to do so, this opens countless business opportunities. But to exploit these opportunities, geospatial professionals have to change the way they traditionally operated.

Instead of data oriented, geospatial professionals have to become workflow oriented and end-user oriented. Instead of collecting and archiving geospatial data, we have to develop ways to smartly access, judge, select, integrate, analyze and provide geospatial data. We should map customers’ needs and figure out how to provide customer tuned useful data, in a way that facilitates them to achieve their goals. Instead of offering real-time data, geospatial entrepreneurs should offer real-time solutions.

At Geodan, we call this the process centric approach. This approach disrupts the way we used to work and think. We no longer talk about available data, but about clients with real-time problems for who location intelligence is of utmost added value. If the data needed is not yet available, that forms not the end of the services we can deliver, but a starting point for our research department. More and higher quality sensor data can be obtained. In addition, we are entering the era of the Internet of Things. Every day, more opportunities are revealed with the potential to collect specific customer tuned data. We can develop smart algorithms to do so, using, for example, artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques, and subsequently turn data into information.

What does it take for an innovation to be effectively delivered and scaled-up?

Innovators have to broaden the field wherein they apply new technology. For example, as a scientist, Richard de Jeu developed specific remote sensing techniques in order to perform scientific research in de field of hydrology. Space-based sensors and microwaves enabled him to see through clouds and fog, so ‘daily satellite observations’ became really daily. This technique can be used for multiple purposes. Recently, Richard founded an innovative company. VanderSat BV now provides the highest resolution, cost-effective and information-rich soil moisture data worldwide. With these daily observations, customers can make better decisions — whether they are monitoring crops, predicting the weather, directing water management, performing predictive analysis, or preventing forest fires.

Another crucial element to accelerate the success of the geospatial industry is the availability of open data and the usage of open standards. We need more geospatial data to increase the value and impact of the services we can provide. The Dutch governance propagates open data. As a result, they can profit from smart geospatial services. The power of these geospatial services lies, among other things, in the integration of data from multiple sources (for example from various governmental institutions, academic research, or data from companies contracted by the government).

What is one area of potential innovation that you would suggest to geospatial researchers today?

Basically mapping and understanding reality, unraveling the chain of cause and effect of processes with factors changing in space and over time. In order to do so, geospatial researchers have to explore smart ways to:

  • gather geospatial data;
  • integrate geospatial data from multiple sources;
  • visualize geospatial data enabling the exchange of insights across the limits of disciplines;
  • analyze geospatial data;
  • model geospatial processes in order to facilitate decision makers with sound predicted outcomes of geospatial processes.

In principle, advanced geospatial services can support, accelerate and optimize all processes with factors that change in space and over time. Mapping and securing landed estate is the most traditional example. But you can think about applying geospatial services to numerous areas, for example, legislation. Geospatial services can provide useful overviews of all available data of a specific area in relation to all current rules concerning that specific area. Think about legislation on air pollution, noise disturbance, concentrations of hazardous substances, building requirements, and etcetera. Opportunities and impossibilities for spatial development can be made clear at a glance.

Via internet portals, geospatial services can give all stakeholders useful access to all kinds of essential geospatial information. This way, advanced geospatial services can form a powerful facilitator of policy choices. For example the transition towards sustainable energy. Another major area wherein advanced geospatial services can be of utmost importance is logistics. As a result of the globalization, the geospatial industry can make a huge difference in the efforts to accomplish a more sustainable world by optimizing logistic processes. Obviously, this will also have a major economic impact, favoring the viability of economic activities. On a regional or urban scale, geospatial services can facilitate the trend to deliver for example regional agricultural products or Web shop merchandise in a much-optimized customer tuned way.

In principle, the added value of advanced geospatial services increases with the complexity of the geospatial issues involved. Especially when lots of different stakeholders have to collaborate. Think about an incident and crisis management. Situations can change rapidly; apt decisions have to be made whilst decisions of different stakeholders interact. Geospatial services can support Net-Centric Decision Making: all actors/stakeholders can be connected to a real-time adequate information sharing system. Decision Support Solutions enable data-driven decisions based on information that is shared and reviewed by all parties at the same moment. This raises a so-called Common Operational Picture which in principle results in more effective collaboration.

Generally, we reach better results by a better collaboration of all stakeholders involved. What we need are synergetic multidisciplinary approaches, exchanging data and insights across the limits of disciplines. Advanced geospatial solutions can help raising spatial insights and mutual understanding, shedding light on complex issues. Advanced geospatial products can help us to make better decisions and can help us to design, visualize and explore future scenarios.

Very promising is the potential of bringing the real world into virtual gaming environments. Almost all challenges mankind has to face tomorrow, deal with processes with a geospatial component: food supply, housing, livelihoods, air quality, safety, and energy and so on. We can use real spatial data to transform physical reality into a parallel and playable virtual version of that reality. Research on game mechanics evidenced that game mechanics influence human behavior towards higher creativity, synergetic cooperation and higher productivity (more concrete results). By playing computer games such as Minecraft, the next generation is very well trained in collaboratively address specific challenges and in dealing with geospatial relations. If we succeed in the effective modeling of real life processes, I wonder whether the next generation can solve adult issues by effective multidisciplinary collaboration, while playing specialized geospatial computer games.

Academia and industry will take an alternate lead in innovation, says prof. Henk Scholten in an interview with Geospatial World