Ready For The Future
Disruption finds a natural home in the Netherlands
by Jeroen Nijland, Commissioner, Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency
‘Disruption’ is a buzzword that is used in many spheres of business these days to define our current era – in which it seems all that we previously took to be true has changed, and rationality appears to be up in the air. It is perhaps the ‘perfect storm’ that comes along once in a generation: a coming-together of new technologies, political upheavals and changing perceptions in a dispersed digital information age where facts are questioned, and truth itself is imperiled.
We generally think it’s a technology-driven symptom or side-effect of our ever-advancing global society – which today it undoubtedly is. However, disruption is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been here before – exactly fifty years ago in 1968, to be precise.
The perfect storm
Back then, the drivers of disruption were different to those of today. Networks then were less ubiquitous and the primary media of connection were newspapers, television and radio. In 1968, it was as though the political, human, economic, and societal tectonic plates were shifting, grinding viscerally against one another, creating large-scale disruption and throwing up a new global landscape. The Vietnam war was raging and broadcast daily to a global audience via television. Students in the US and Europe took to the streets to rebel in mass-demonstrations against war and authoritarianism. The assassination of Civil-rights leader Martin Luther King sparked riots in the US. Workers went on strike in their millions in France. War, racism, oppression and exploitation seemed the norm and idealistic projections such as JFK’s ‘New Frontier’ and LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ seemed like (American) pie in the sky. Today’s drivers of disruption are different in character and have a firm base in technological advancements and reflect our 24/7/365 connected society. These technical advancements also help enable social and political change, as well as creating many new opportunities for conducting business on a global scale.
Where there’s risk, there’s reward
Navigating disruption is like flying through turbulence – it’s not impossible, it just needs a bit of extra care. Disruption and changes to established norms can be seen as windows of opportunity, throwing up new challenges and prospects. Here, in the Netherlands, we’ve learned to embrace disruption, to mitigate risk and to capitalize on opportunity. As a small, yet densely-populated country located in a low-lying river delta, we are continually challenging, evaluating and upgrading our systems, frameworks and infrastructures to interact dynamically with our environment and our society. That’s why we have one of the most highly productive agricultural sectors in the world. Every centimeter of space is precious, and that drives us to come up with innovative solutions that consequently place us at the forefront of global agri-food development.
New models of working are breaking the mold. UP There Everywhere, is the world’s first global cloud-based design and marketing agency, with over 180 members, all working via the cloud from distributed locations around the world. There are no physical offices and no employees – it’s a disruptive business model. When members need to meet or receive clients they use one of many UP Creative Spaces, like the one located at start-up incubator B Amsterdam. With three buildings and some 40,000m2, B Amsterdam is the biggest business incubator in Europe and our government-backed StartupDelta program fosters 3,500 new firms, with more than ten innovation hubs, placing us third in the Global Innovation Index. Successful companies such as Booking.com, WeTransfer and Adyen are all products of our dynamic ecosystem.
Business across borders
In Rotterdam, business incubator, the Cambridge Innovation Centre (CIC), is forging ahead, assisting start-ups to enter the country. It helps to secure visas and links them with local business partners, mentors and networks to help ensure their success – companies such as the South African ‘Handle Hands’ and ‘Big Oak & Mie’. Another CIC success is Travis the Translator – the world’s first smart pocket-translator, powered by AI and enabling travelers and international professionals to talk to anyone, anywhere in the world – a real boon to doing business across borders.
To fuel these hotbeds of innovation and disruption, there is a steady flow of talent, in the form of students from all four corners of the globe that come to study at top universities in the Netherlands. Nowhere is this more evident than at the University of Wageningen (WUR), considered by many to be the world’s leading agricultural research institution. Its combination of market-driven and science-driven focus creates an agri-business development environment second to none. Research students from all over the world come here come to study a variety of topics around sustainable agriculture as varied as treatment of wastewater, forest resource management, diseases in banana plants or organic farming. When they return to their homelands, the students take that knowledge with them and plant the seeds of a green revolution that will eventually help to feed the world’s rapidly growing population and save valuable natural resources. These students are also agents of change: the advanced knowledge that they gain in the Netherlands helps them to create a better world, echoing the sentiments and motivation of the revolutionary students back in 1968.
If we evaluate the legacy of the events of 1968, it was that people’s perceptions changed on a grand scale. The French student’s slogan ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’ seemed to encapsulate this new era. They wanted a different world, with broader horizons and a better society. They reached out across borders, formed networks and connections and became ‘internationalists’. In the Netherlands, we have reached out across our borders for many centuries, securing trade and business relationships around the globe. It’s in our blood. We are genuine internationalists, and we welcome people from any background to set up their business here. It’s what we at the NFIA have been doing now for 40 years, and we will continue far into the future, whatever new disruptions it may bring.