The story of Albert's melting glacier is a story of René's research in public management and technology

It was high in the Pennine Alps when Albert van den Berg, professor of sensor systems for biomedical and environmental applications, first truly realised what climate change means: the glacier ice had melted. To maintain the viability of our planet, we must all work together. In professor in public management René Torenvlied, he recognises the desire to look beyond the boundaries of his own discipline. 'We must educate a generation of students who understand the technical tools as well as the politics.'

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Thursday 7 January 2021

Supersmart weirdos and social connecters

They really need to talk to each other. Because Albert van den Berg repeatedly hears the same reaction regarding his research into nanotechnology: 'Ooh, dangerous. What about the ethics?' Albert wants to turn things around and use technology for societal issues. In René Torenvlied, Professor of Public Management, he has found a kindred spirit. 'How do we use technology to shape society? That's a question that really interests me.'

Albert: ‘René, you look familiar. But otherwise I had no idea, until I started browsing the UT net...'

René: ‘Is your memory letting you down, Albert? A year ago, we sat next to each other at a meeting at the University of Münster, to think about collaboration. We had a lot of fun...'

Albert: '...that's right! But did we talk about our work too?'

René: 'No, in the train home we were both exhausted. But even then, we thought it would be a good idea to share ideas. Seven years ago, I came to the UT - an offer you can't resist. Because for me as a specialist in public management, the greatest challenges lie on the interface between management and technology.'

Albert: ‘Have you got an example?'

René: ‘Look at the problems with the Tax Authorities. That organisation operates on algorithms. The awful issues with the childcare allowance originate in problems in those digital systems as well as the way people work together. For me, it’s a fantastic challenge to work together with psychologists, public administration experts and engineers to see what went wrong with the Tax Authorities. What led to such a callous government?'

Albert: 'You know what surprises me? No one says: it got terribly out of hand, I did a poor job - sorry, it was my responsibility. Everyone blames each other. I mean, that's not right, is it?'

René: ‘People do say sorry, but the current state secretaries have been appointed to clear up the mess. You won't make any progress if they leave as well. From a public management perspective, it is enormously interesting. But I'm terribly upset about this, it's become a sick system. There's a “we” and “us” feeling at the Ministries. People were soon asking: who gets the blame, who needs to go? Cooperation then becomes much harder. You can look at the university in the same way too. Academic life is extremely competitive. How do you ensure that faculties do not become islands, but find smart ways to work together? I love thinking about things like that. You then create connections which are really surprising.'

“For me, it’s a fantastic challenge to work together with engineers to look at the Tax Authorities: how could the government be so callous?”

We need nerds

Albert: 'The Shaping story also has a lot to do with connection. We give people a broad education, looking at societal issues and responsibility. But sometimes you need "weirdos" who are extremely good at research in one or other super material and who are not interested what you do with it. Is there room with Shaping 2030 for slightly eccentric nerds?'

René: 'In the master programmes, our motto is: strong in your own discipline, unique in connections. That fits well in Shaping 2030: allowing individuals to excel and make connections. To make a strong connection, you need to be very good in your own discipline. Which also means: we need nerds.'

Albert: ‘Shaping is also: more diversity. That means embracing the fact that some people are so brilliant that they have no time for all those other things.'

René: 'That's true, but it is important not to have a department with only nerds. As a scientist, you need many qualities: we want everyone to be the best lecturer and do top research and make that socially relevant too. And on top of that, be a skilled manager. But to excel as a team, you must bring together people who complement each other.'

“To make a strong connection, you need to be very good in your own discipline. Which also means: we need nerds.”

No Twente-style modesty, bravado!

Albert: 'So René, what would you like to have achieved in five or ten years' time to be happy?'

René: 'This is going to sound so old fashioned, but looking back at seven years at the UT, I am an incredibly happy person. Last year, I won the prize for best lecturer and I help develop the long-term plans with the UT master programmes. I really enjoy that. I am now supervising a student who is doing a double degree in public management with computer science. Fan-tas-tic. And, super important. The government is becoming increasingly digital and data driven. We must educate a generation of students who can operate in such organisations: people who understand the technical tools as well as the politics. I would be delighted if, in future, we could offer cross-faculty research and education in public management too and learn to speak each other's language better. There are some great opportunities for interfaculty cooperation. We have a lot of knowledge available on campus which other universities can only access through alliances. That makes us unique.'  

“I am now supervising a student who is doing a double degree in public management with computer science. Fan-tas-tic!”

Albert: 'The UT is an example of real Twente-style modesty. We tend to say: can we actually do what we say we can? We are too timid. We should be more proud of Twente.'

René: 'I'm from Leiden, which is entirely different...'

Albert: 'I thought I detected a hint of the western region in you. That's something we have in common. I come from Zaandam, so I share some of that Amsterdam bravado. I hope we will see more of each other in the coming years. Not just for education, but also for research.'

René: 'I would love to start up an amazing research project with you involving public management and nanotechnology...'

Albert: 'Such initiatives exist, but they are usually about the public perception of our work. "Ooh, dangerous", is often the feeling surrounding our work - what about the ethics? Why not turn it around: there are so many big challenges in society. How can we use technology to help you?'

René: 'Yes, that discussion about nanotechnology extends far beyond ethics. How can you help shape society? Implement the political agenda? That's a question that really interests me. Think about cybersecurity: how can you help prevent hackers shutting down the Hof van Twente municipality? Or what about all the possibilities of your chip research for healthcare at home?'

Albert: 'There's an opportunity for you public management experts to shake things up. It also provides us guidance: what is a good idea to do and what is nonsense?'

René: 'In recent years, we have linked up all the islands in my faculty into interdisciplinary groups. In these groups, we address these kinds of questions. That has been an important process and it works - there are all kinds of collaborations. Now we must ensure that in ten years' time, this is all anchored in the core of the UT.'

Albert: 'Let's shake hands on that! Shaping connections has been successful here at least.’

PROFESSOR ALBERT VAN DEN BERG (1957)

is professor of sensor systems for biomedical and environmental applications and scientific director of MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology. He also does research into the manipulation and movement of fluids at micro and macro level. Based on those studies, he develops chips which can be used in the medical world. In 2009, he received the Spinoza premium for his work.

Professor René Torenvlied (1968)

has been professor of public management at the UT since 2013 and as director is responsible for bachelor and master programmes. In 2015, he led the evaluation of the Netherlands crisis management after the crash of the MH17.