Using technology to create social impact

Alumna Shirley Elands’ determination to make an impact for positive change brought her to the final of a competition for young professionals working in Dutch governmental organisations. She was the youngest of the four finalists of the FUTUR Young Official of the Year list in March 2018, which puts a spotlight on young professionals under the age of 36 and with a heart for public affairs.

So what was it about young innovator Shirley Elands that drew the judges’ attention? Throughout her education, Shirley has added to her unique and compelling story in her efforts to be a force for positive change.

New insights from hackathons

Shirley graduated from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) with an MSc in Entrepreneurship and New Business Venturing (now the MSc Strategic Entrepreneurship) in 2015, and began working first as a consultant in organisational efficiency, then in risk assessment, before joining Kadaster, the Dutch land registry, as a consultant for product and process innovation in Apeldoorn. One of her techniques is to use hackathons during which open datasets are cleverly combined to answer social issues with new insights and technologies.

What brought her to international attention, according to FUTUR, was her ambition, enthusiasm, and the knowledge of how to connect people and developments. In its search for the Young Official of the Year in 2018, FUTUR looked for change leaders; young civil servants who enable change by perhaps taking a slightly different approach to their work, who innovate within their organisations, or who work on social themes in an innovative way.

Short-cycle innovations

Shirley explores and facilitates the potential of technologies in block chain, the Internet of Things and linked data. “I try to move the government towards short-cycle innovations via implementation of methodologies such as lean start-up and design thinking,” Shirley says. “I believe in innovating in multidisciplinary teams together with profit and non-profit organisation and knowledge institutions.”

But her activities are not limited to her job with Kadaster. Shirley also:

  • opened a co-working space and created a maker-space with the University of Applied Sciences Windesheim and the municipality of Zwolle in 2017 – it’s called BrainZ.
  • developed ReCognize, an application for impaired and dementia patients, which supports cognitive functions by means of mixed reality and machine learning
  • gave talks on working for the Dutch government to students during ‘Social Sciences Career Week’ in 2017
  • helped out local student entrepreneurs as a volunteer in Indonesia and volunteered at a high school in Nepal.

Failing in cognitive development

Working with young students is a particular interest. “I learned there are more than 100 million children under the age of six in developing countries who fail to achieve their potential in cognitive development,” said Shirley. “I then realised how small technological innovations can have an immense impact.”

Shirley said research shows that even in urban slums children or their parents possess smartphones. This triggered the idea to provide education compatible with smart devices and collaborate with existing education providers.

Shirley applied for the Hult Prize Awards in 2015 with her idea, and presented it at the regional finals in London. The challenge of the Hult Prize Awards 2015, as selected by former US President Bill Clinton, was to build sustainable and scalable social enterprises to address the early childhood education gap in children from birth up to six years old.

A push from RSM

“RSM pushed me to think about the impact I was dedicated to make,” she said. “In 2015 I graduated with the I WILL statement: 'I WILL challenge conformity and cultivate innovation'. Since that day I have indeed done that.”

Shirley adds: “Every day it becomes clearer what cultivating innovation really means for me. I will always remember my professors saying 'get out of the building'. It means that you have to get to know your customers, but it also means to me that you should just start doing. That’s something governmental organisations should embrace a bit more, if you ask me!”


Without outside help

In particular, Shirley remembers hearing an early 19th-century figure of speech, ‘to pull oneself over a fence by one’s bootstraps’. It means to begin without any outside help, or in the concept of start-ups, to start one without existing resources. “Combining those two pieces of advice from RSM, I can wholeheartedly give governmental organisations the following advice:

  • get to know their civilians
  • ask why at least five times
  • start prototyping
  • build in a bunch of go/no-go conditions
  • and get back to the drawing board.”

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

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