A word with: Petra van Dijk

09 October 2020

Say 'MindLabs' and you say 'projects'. Because experimentation, research, development and creation is in our DNA. There are always different projects running. But however diverse they may be, there is one thing they all have in common: we are extremely proud of every single one of them. By 'we' we mean, among others, our program managers. In the section 'What they have to say' we always ask one of them for their opinion. Petra van Dijk, Program Manager Ecosystem at MindLabs is the first to speak.

[Vertaal naar het "English":] Petra van Dijk

Petra, on your LinkedIn page it says you are "Program Manager Ecosystem MindLabs. What exactly does that entail?  
MindLabs has big ambitions and it has to be, because a lot is expected of us as an association.  For example, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been called a key technology and a game changer by the Dutch government that can help solve tasks in areas such as healthcare, education and security in a whole new way. This is what we at MindLabs are good at and get excited about. We focus on human-centered AI; a theme with which we distinguish ourselves in the Netherlands and Europe.  
We work from the Spoorzone in Tilburg, a trendy environment that is attractive for the new economy. In the middle of this activity, MindLabs is the beating heart; knowledge institutions, companies, governments, startups and students come together here to innovate. I set this up and drive it.   

What do you spend most of the day working on? 
 I come up with the direction and strategy. We then put our shoulders to the wheel with the team. My activities are: strategy, inspiring, building relationships, connecting partners in projects, stimulating entrepreneurship and offering collaborative workshops. 
In doing so, we regularly refine our proposition and working method, enjoy telling our story to the very interested outside world and proudly put our partners and projects in the spotlight. I also notice that we have entered a new development phase. We can now devote more time to growth through contact with new partners and helping to drive projects forward. And that feels good. 

What makes you different?  
I'm an all-rounder and I'm like a spider in the web at MindLabs. As a result, I see and hear a lot, know how MindLabs is developing and what needs attention. I'm good at thinking up and working out strategies, but I also like action and can get things done quickly. Common sense and energy! 

How does your role differ from that of the other program managers? 
The other three program managers form the bridge between MindLabs and the knowledge institutions they work for: Tilburg University, Fontys Colleges and ROC Tilburg. They mobilize the experts from their organizations and connect them to issues. Their task is to jointly drive innovation projects.   

MindLabs works with various projects. How do they come about? When does a project qualify? And what are the processes that are then set in motion? 
Projects are initiated by a request from a new or existing partner who wants to innovate and sees opportunities in interactive technology. We then link the person asking the question to other partners with similar questions, because innovating together is cheaper, the question becomes somewhat larger and solutions become more widely applicable. So we build a consortium around an issue.  
What we do at the same time is to scrutinize the issue with experts from Tilburg University, Fontys Hogescholen and ROC Tilburg: who could research or develop which (sub)question?  

On the other hand, projects come about top-down, because we take advantage of opportunities that European and national subsidies offer. In such a case we make a proposal and invite suitable partners or interested new companies. We always link thinking and doing in a project.  

Questions will only be considered if partners themselves also commit capacity and if funding can be found. If knowledge institutions play a role, new researchers or developers are needed or people have to be freed up.  
If very specific applications are desired, then the obvious solution is to ask technology companies or startups in a consortium that, for a fee, will make something ready-made and customized for the requesting party.  Of course, we also challenge student teams through challenges from companies, but students are learning and we should keep it that way.  

What makes something a typical MindLabs project? 
We prefer to work on new solutions to societal challenges. In doing so, we exploit the possibilities of interactive technologies. In Robotics & Avatar projects, for example, we develop artificial intelligence that ensures that a conversation with a robot runs smoothly (natural language processing) or that the facial expression of an avatar matches the content of the conversation. In Serious Gaming and Virtual Reality projects we investigate, for example, what added value these technologies have in training people, how they contribute to pleasure in learning and how a game can respond to someone's learning curve and interests. Think of a VR flight simulator to train pilots, VR training to promote safe working in the maintenance sector or an avatar that helps you learn a new language. It's incredible what's already possible and to come. 

What plans are in the pipeline? And what projects are on the horizon? 
There are five projects starting simultaneously this fall, with issues from major partners such as the Port of Rotterdam, the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Actemium, Interpolis and Zwijsen. Smaller technology companies that have fascinating things to offer are also working on this. In addition, we would like to build a consortium with VVT institutions (nursing, care and home care) in Brabant in order to bundle data and investigate. This is still a fairly virgin area. Insights can lead to new technological products or services that contribute to the quality of life of clients and informal caregivers and to reducing the workload in healthcare.  

Which project are you looking forward to the most? 
They are all equally dear to me. The first project that produced visible results was the collaboration with SpaceBuzz. It's so nice to see how you can be entranced by the virtual journey through space with André Kuipers' avatar next to you. The SpaceBuzz - and the accompanying educational program - are now touring the Netherlands. Next week the rocket will arrive at my daughter's school. I'll be supervising the children at SpaceBuzz for a day in an astronaut's outfit. I am really looking forward to that! 

And how will you celebrate your great results? Any ideas yet?  
Enthusiasm is always palpable at our events where partners get to know each other and the technological possibilities. For us, those are the parties. We are a nice team and we notice it immediately on the work floor when there is a flow. At the moment it is a challenge to maintain the same atmosphere online. But we always share good news or moments through our social media.