Looking back and glances forward with director Petra van Dijk

22 December 2023

'The springboard is ready: next year we can really take off'

It was a dynamic year for MindLabs, and therefore also for director Petra van Dijk. Not only because of the move and opening of the brand new building, her official appointment and the growth of the core team. She also welcomed interesting new partners, made preparations for a new RegioDeal and had to deal with major developments such as Midjourney and ChatGPT. Looking back, she is satisfied with 2023. "Because of all kinds of preparations, we will be able to focus entirely on content next year. I can hardly wait!"

About a year ago, Van Dijk - after several months as interim director - was officially appointed as director. Were there any specific goals for 2023? "To open the new building with a good party and to recalibrate the ambition with the board because of new challenges. We succeeded; we now have a great building at our disposal, and I am working with a board that is behind a shared ambition for the coming years." She also wanted to get the stage for knowledge sharing for and by partners off the ground. "Will also succeed." And with the launch of the new RegioDeal, we've come a long way.

Looking back
Van Dijk has been associated with MindLabs in various roles for about four years. "But with the commissioning of our building, I now see meetings and initiatives coming about much more easily. We have a very clear presence now. We and our partners have hosted hundreds of people from the city and province this year. We can now better show what we do and how we work together. Striking moments were, for example, College Tour where Twan Huys talked to a room full of Fontys Journalism students, or the Weekend of Science where Tilburg University and Fontys ICT involved children in ChatGPT and demos with robots, VR and serious gaming. Or the interaction with technology that I see happening almost daily in the experimentation rooms of ROC Tilburg. But we also always like to drop in on the business partners in our building with tours, making the short lines between knowledge institutions and companies palpable for visitors."

Preparing for the RegioDeal
Working with Midpoint Brabant on the new RegioDeal Broad Prosperity took up much of her year. "The government has allocated €12.5 million to eight innovation projects from all kinds of initiators. It's about liveability and well-being, sustainability and driving innovation with people at the center. In our project, researchers will deal specifically with the use of virtual people. Using our own avatar MAI as a prototype, we will develop, implement and evaluate all kinds of things in the coming years. We want to know how we can use this form of technology in a good way to contribute to issues in education, care and media. In addition, together with the Municipality of Tilburg, Midpoint Brabant and Citymarketing, we will determine how to form one effective ecosystem in the Spoorzone. So that we can put this innovation area well on the map and make it work as a magnet for talent and new economy. So that will also be interesting."

Sharpened mission statement
Van Dijk and her team have also recently been working on MindLabs' internal organization, she points out. "Behind the scenes, we have broadened our team and our range of knowledge. Because we received many questions about what generative AI actually is, about what you can do with it and about its reliability. This topic suddenly became very close for many people this year, with the launch of ChatGPT." Given all the recent developments and social debate surrounding AI, the board broadened the mission. In the coming years, MindLabs will focus on research and development of technology that enhances human capabilities as well as embedding it in society. We want to work next year to ensure that employees of our partner organizations have access to basic knowledge and start thinking for themselves about good applications in their working environment. We want to ensure that good considerations are made about what suits the values in our society."

Van Dijk continues: "In our association we have access to ethicists, legal scholars, technology experts and we are literally and figuratively in the middle of society. We can bring government, business, knowledge institutions, human rights organizations and end users together and present issues. And with our experts we can act on what we learn from this. This is how we can really be of social significance."

Work behind the scenes
All the plans for next year, by the way, would not be possible without the expansion of the team, the director points out. "I am extremely happy with the growth of our core team from 2 to 4 FTEs. By the way, no one is employed by MindLabs; everyone is made available by partners in our network. Partly because of the creative and knowledgeable new colleagues, we will be able to focus on our core business with more energy next year."

"This change in the MindLabs team means more time for bringing issues and knowledge and expertise together," Van Dijk explained. "We've learned that partners' ambitions have to be a really good match. And there must be serious willingness among all partners to invest in solving issues and innovative solutions."

Shooting out of the roller coaster
During the farewell interview with Van Dijk's predecessor, Loet Visschers, in early 2022, the former director expressed a clear expectation. "I would have liked to have really shot out of the roller coaster yet, but that's probably going to happen under the wings of the new director," he said. Whether that roller coaster has now departed? Van Dijk responds, "So far we have been mostly busy moving into the new building and making preparations so that everything is right behind the scenes. So recently we have been working on the springboard. The actual jump, that will follow next year."