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When the digital world knocks at the university gates

At the beginning of the digital age 30 years ago, Peter Vervest, Professor of Information Management and Networks, joined Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) as a faculty member. To celebrate the professor’s career milestone and his retirement, RSM hosted a valedictory event to take a deeper look at the roles that universities should play in being digital leaders and how students can be equipped to learn with new technologies. The event, on 24 September, began with a debate and the official opening of a new facility for the university: the new Erasmus Data Collaboratory, before Professor Vervest’s farewell lecture Fast-Forward Digital: A new kind of university. Under the then Covid guidelines, the event in the Aula of Erasmus University was attended by 75 guests as well as almost 8000 online participants.



In an opening debate, panellists discussed how universities should prepare for a digitised future and to meet the needs and desires of students, and the needs of business. It featured academics, CEOs, and former PhD students of Prof. Vervest, who said by way of an introduction: “The digital world is knocking at the gates of the university and we have to let them in.”

The debate was followed by the inauguration of the Erasmus Data Collaboratory, an inclusive open learning environment for data and AI on campus at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and the valedictory lecture from Prof. Vervest. 

Prof. Vervest’s lecture proposed mobilising students and alumni and reaching out to all kinds of learners to make the most of the networked world as it becomes increasingly digitalised. Digital learning and digital technology have important roles to play in mobilising for the future of business education and research, as well as in business itself.

University: a place of creative friction

Philips’ CEO Frans Van Houten said Philips has applied three principles to prepare for the future. It has embraced digital technologies and trains employees in co-creation, and it expects graduate recruits to fit in this environment so they can contribute. Philips tries to be agile in a rapidly changing world and to learn from its environment. “Agile as a development methodology should be taught at university. It makes us fit for the future,” he said. “Innovation means creative friction, universities should be a place of creative friction where we discover and understand and look for the edges and tension, and for that you need human interaction.” Van Houten said online learning at a distance had its uses, but co-creation methodologies get the most out of people. “Co-creation is where we discover unmet needs and insights.  Students want engagement and challenge. Co-creation and design method is something you can teach and practise.”

Brigitte Lammers, Partner at Egon Zehnder, a global leadership advisory firm, spoke of the war for talent and the digital skills needed. There is a huge gap to fill, she said, and digital challenges are in every business unit – in HR, in marketing, and in sales. 

Ed Brinksma, President of the Executive Board, Erasmus University said there is no branch of society that is not under the influence of digitisation and universities are no exception. Theories of university education talked of the development of an individual’s skills under the guidance of someone more experienced and of the individual’s experience of learning; these are the two things to keep in mind when thinking about the future of the university. “We can give people an individual experience of mass education through digitisation,” he said, and added that he had realised that everything in life that he deeply understood has been something that he had worked with – not something he had memorised for an exam. Therefore, collaboration is now a necessity. 

An agile university department

Farshida Zafar, director of the disruptive innovation centre ErasmusX at Erasmus University Rotterdam agreed that what is needed is co-creation, engagement and utilising technology in such a way that it brings the brightest people together but doesn’t leave the not-so-bright people behind. Creative friction and agility are the purposes of ErasmusX, she said. It is intended to be an agile department within the university that looks out for opportunities that are too risky for the university to take on as a whole – such as the version of the campus built on a digital games platform at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis to engage students and so they could interact with each other. That creative friction is exactly what we need, she said. 

Transformative leadership

She suggested that we need transformative leadership rather than the transactional old way of leading companies, and to trust that such leaders can get things done. “Even in the university, we have all the brightest people yet there is a culture that people don’t look for that creative friction because of fear of failing or of being reprimanded.” She said Erasmus University should teach its students how to become transformative leaders, and make impact on society. There is so much more the university could do with technology for learning; not only as a trigger for individual learning, but improvements throughout the education value chain. “Technology will change faster than we as a university can do it. ErasmusX has its job ready for it – preparing the university to make those steps.”

The panel took questions from the audience about spending on digital technology for the university, which brought in another small discussion of where to invest in the university and how it brings in money. Universities need a broader mix of incomes, said Dean of RSM, Prof. Ansgar Richter. Money brought into IT misses addressing the first question, which should be to ask what the didactical model is, said Ed Brinksma. Erasmus University first needs a digitally informed educational vision. 

The debating panel included Frans van Houten, chief executive officer of Royal Philips; Prof. Ed Brinksma, President of the Executive Board, Erasmus University; Prof. Ansgar Richter, dean of RSM; Ulla Kruhse-Lehtonen, co-founder and CEO, Dain Studios Finland; Brigitte Lammers, partner of advisory firm Egon Zehnder; Farshida Zafar, director, ErasmusX, Erasmus University Rotterdam; and two former PhD students of Prof. Vervest: Diederik van Liere, vice president Data Science & Engineering at Wealthsimple; and Rajarshi Chakraborty, Manager Erasmus Data Collaboratory. 

Opening of the Erasmus Data Collaboratory 

Gerrit Schipper, executive director of ECDA introduced the official launch of the Erasmus Data Collaboratory, an experimental environment in Polak Building for students and researchers to study and work on societal challenges using advanced data-analysis and visualisation techniques. The Collaboratory is the first hub of its type at Erasmus University and is currently gathering partners from specialist centres within the university itself, and is eagerly awaiting the arrival of similar hubs at Erasmus University’s two partner universities for science and society, Delft TU and Leiden University. 

Students are at the centre of everything that the Data Collaboratory plans and does, said Schipper. This began two years ago with the involvement of ECDA and the Erasmus Tech Community; they have worked alongside each other to provide AI and data-related events. Their joint aim is better facilities to support developing data-competent leaders of the future, said Schipper. Raj Chakraborty is one of the founders of the Erasmus Tech Community, and an RSM alumnus who was recently appointed as manager of the Erasmus Data Collaboratory. 

Raj Chakraborty emphasised the Collaboratory’s importance for bringing data education and data enablement to campus. These competences are necessary in a data-driven world, but don’t require everyone to be data scientists, he said. The Collaboratory is a physical space that provides students with the facilities to experiment, learn and improve skills, and invites all kinds of organisations to share datasets and the problems that they experience in society or as a company. It’s also where technology companies share some of the best tools, equipment and ideas so that students can experiment and co-create to benefit society. The Collaboratory opens officially in October.

Fast forward digital: A new kind of university 

Prof. Peter Vervest dedicated his valedictory speech to the young people who have grown up with digital tools, and for whom social networks are ‘normal life’ and online seems no different from on-campus. He said students are the centre of the university’s universe and its only true asset and reason for being. “We can only succeed if we mobilise our students and alumni and reach out to all learners,“ he said. The full text of the valedictory speech can be read here.

His speech encompassed the history of the digital world, the new world and his view of education ‘as a digital believer’. Some companies have missed great opportunities in the digital networked world, he said. He proposed a new approach and a different kind of university with a focus on a networked world. On digital learning, he said that digital technology enables a personalised learning path and gives a personal interface that empower students to make their own, real choices. Modern university education is special because of its potential application as well as its scientific basis. Digitalising learning helps to mobilise the knowledge and skills required to acquire and apply scientific knowledge. The application leads to new science questions and research funding. “There is no hard line between research and education,” he said. “Potentially 32,000 students can engage in research provided the appropriate challenge and a digital environment to mobilise the learning experience is present.”

He suggested that Erasmus University may want to prioritise an excellent, innovative, digital interface with students, with modularisation of the learning portfolio, and challenge-based engagement of students at large in its research agenda.

It already has the tools to deliver, with the newly inaugurated Erasmus Data Collaboratory, the Erasmus Centre for Data Analytics and its Leadership Challenges programmes, the university’s  Education Lab and Studio, and its Community for Learning and Innovation. These are potent ingredients to deliver the challenger university, he said. 

The full text of Prof. Peter Vervest’s valedictory lecture is freely available to read online.

The debate and speeches in the Valedictory event were followed by a reception in the Aula of Erasmus University. 

Peter Vervest biography

Prof. Peter Vervest first came to RSM as a student in 1976 to study law and management science. In 1979 he joined Philips Telecommunications – this was in the early days of connecting computers to telecommunication networks. Peter specialised in open information systems and graduated summa cum laude from Technical University Delft in 1986 with a master’s degree in [subject] and became a professor at RSM in 1992. He combined academic and business life through the 1980s and 1990s as divisional director of Philips Electronics UK in 1987 and by co-founding a high-tech software and project firm in London in 1991. In 2000 he became partner of D-Age, a group of high-tech counsellors and investment managers.

Since 2004 he has directed his research to smart business networks and has published several titles including Smart Business Networks in 2004, and The Network Experience in 2008. As chair of the complexity study programmes of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) between 2011-2018, he developed the ambition to understand and explore new ways to get to grips with complex business and societal challenges that result from a deeply connected world. 

He believes a digital transformation of education, universities specifically, is mandatory and unavoidable to empower younger generations to deal with the networked future.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked 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. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Erika Harriford-McLaren, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at harriford@rsm.nl.

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