First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Matt Farquharson
There aren’t many cities that can claim to be leading an agricultural revolution. In most countries, the cities handle the services, manufacturing happens a bit further out and the muck and mud of green sciences happens over the hills and far away. But in the densely populated Netherlands, there are no hills, and nowhere is that far away. Yet, this is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products, with exports worth €79 billion in 2013, second only to the US. And beyond the bulbs, seeds, flowers and vegetables, it is also a renowned centre of knowledge, with most of the brains clustered in the greater Amsterdam area. “I have met many different companies that were not aware that Amsterdam boasts a large knowledge centre for chemistry, life sciences and ecology,” says Michel Haring, Professor of Plant Physiology at the University of Amsterdam. “Companies were taking their questions elsewhere, and when I realised that, I decided we need to advertise ourselves more and share what we have in terms of research and education.” And so, Amsterdam Green Campus was born. Haring describes it as a platform for bringing together all those involved in the green industries “to bring education closer to industry, and closer to the companies that will hire people”. And the range of talents is broad, too. Think educators, researchers, industry and government in all their guises, from those that toil in overalls to those that work in lab coats. The work of the campus is divided into three areas: genetics (breeding plants and vegetables), environment (sustainable horticulture and greening cities) and chemistry (product innovation and sustainable raw materials). While the campus doesn’t have a physical space of its own, many of the researchers and scientists involved are based at Amsterdam Science Park, Europe’s largest hub for science education, research and entrepreneurship. It is also connected to the broader Amsterdam Innovation Exchange, which brings together academics, employers, educators and the government in a number of fields, including healthcare.
One of the main goals of Amsterdam Green Campus is to help educational institutions provide the right training and develop the skills that the business world needs, from entry-level greenhouse staff to site managers, technicians, researchers and leaders of industry. “We collaborate with other institutions and help develop new kinds of education,” explains Haring. The Dutch education system is roughly separated into three streams: vocational, professional and university-level. “We aim to connect all the students of these different levels to the university level. Not that they all have to be university students, but they should know what’s happening,” Haring says. “One of the bigger aims is to make students more aware of what is going on at the different levels. That way, they’ll be more enthusiastic and better prepared for work.” On the simplest level, the campus gives masterclasses to students, but it also trains lecturers in the latest developments in green sciences and offers guidance on educational policy. It is preparing youth for undergraduate courses, based on the three strands of genetics, environment and chemistry. “There are a lot of changes happening in life sciences, and companies would like their people to be prepared, not only at an academic level but also at a practical level. Because things change so rapidly, we want to be more dynamic. We want to carry out the training so that students graduate with more than just the basic knowledge required to pass.” Haring cites a ornamental-breeding initiative as a recent success. “Some of the staff in this industry were trained years ago, and we are now in a completely different era, where more molecular knowledge is needed,” he says. Through the campus’s Novel Breeding Tools programme, developed by Inholland lecturer Nelleke Kreike, breeders were taught about the latest research and methods. “This is a training programme that really helps small companies who do not have access to all this knowledge,” Haring explains. “Companies that were not able to assess whether they should adjust their process to modern tools or not. For the first time, they could see what is possible and whether they could implement it, what it costs and whether they would benefit.”
Beyond the teaching help it offers employers and educators, a key part of the campus remit involves bringing students, researchers and companies together, often through the Green Student Lab. “By giving our students the role of explorers, we hope to use the power of these young students to tackle real questions that companies have,” says Haring. The lab is a prime example of how the campus benefits all involved. Firms get access to the Science Park and equipment they might not have themselves, and they also get free student talent to work on their research. The students, on the other hand, benefit from practical experience, while the universities get insight into the needs of employers. “You get better, better-trained people,” Haring says. “The equipment we have means companies can explore different areas of research, and it’s cheap. You can do pilot research without having to spend lots of money.” This kind of collaborative approach is common across the Netherlands, and should go some way to securing Amsterdam’s position as a leading exponent of green sciences for generations to come. “At the moment, this is a unique platform in the world,” says Haring, “because it’s chemistry, life sciences and ecology – a very broad spectrum of knowledge – all rolled into one. What happens here is world-leading.” And all within a few minutes of the city centre, with not a muddy boot in sight.