For over a year and a half now, local organizations and authorities in South Limburg have been focusing their attention on macroeconomic problems affecting the region.
One of these is the demographic challenge represented by the fact that the younger generation, instead of staying and settling down in South Limburg, tends to move away to the Randstad area of the Netherlands (Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht) or to the European attraction pole of Brussels.
“Many of our international students too, leave the region, which is a pity and a loss, as this region invests a lot in “human capital” with too little a return for the region itself, says Professor Philip Vergauwen, Department Chair Accounting and Information Management (AIM) at Maastricht University.
After completing their studies, many youngsters leave the region because they feel that it does not offer them the jobs that fit their education.
“We have to be careful not to end up in a vicious circle,” adds Vergauwen. “Important employers are also thinking of relocating part of their activities to the Randstad area, where they think themselves to be closer to economic developments.”
Building upon existing competencies
Many local people and organizations, however, share the common belief that the Limburg region can still grow and even grow faster if it finds a “raison d’être,” if it develops its own specialty.
This is how a number of important companies, joining forces with provincial and municipal authorities and higher education institutes, came up with the idea of creating a Smart Services Hub in South Limburg.
The Smart Services Hub is based on the conviction that the region can become a centre of excellence for long term innovation by building upon the competencies that are already present in Limburg-based companies such as APG, CBS and DSM and eventually grow into the service region of the Netherlands in the fields of insurance, administration and finance.
“By using the pool of knowledge available to design new and innovative services that do not exist elsewhere in the Netherlands, the region has a unique chance to claim leadership in smart services,” explains Vergauwen, who was actively involved in the establishment of the new collaborative network on behalf of Maastricht University.
“Maastricht University can and has to play an essential role in achieving this goal, because it already possesses the knowledge and a good record of experience in processing data information to conceive and design new, smarter and innovative services.”
Designing new and innovative services
Vergauwen gives a practical example of the way in which the UM and a pension fund company such as APG could collaborate within the Hub.
“UM researchers could help APG to drastically change and innovate the way it does business in pension funds, by devising smarter ways to use their data to support existing activities and develop new strategies.”
“It is important for a pension fund company to know and understand the needs of each one of its customers, because a good pension scheme for person A might mean something totally different from a good pension scheme for person B.
Smart service: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole” (Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt)
Photo: Teddy Llovet via Flickr, some rights reserved)
If the customer data is organized within a smart structure, the company will be able to improve its service by adapting it to the individual desires or demands of each one of its customers. This will allow the company to run its business in a more efficient way because it will be able to provide a more personalized service and even come up with innovative services.”
In this early phase, the two UM teams at the core of the Smart Services Hub initiative are the information management team, specialized among others in econometrics, operational research and business intelligence both at the School of Business and Economics (SBE). Over time, the network hopes to attract new teams and to collaborate with the UM’s Service Science Factory, which is also a centre of expertise in the development of innovative services for companies.
“There has been a considerable increase in recent years in the mass of data available in companies and the methodology to treat the data has also changed dramatically,” Vergauwen points out.
“These developments continue to happen so rapidly that a better link between companies and educational institutions, where many of the new methodologies are developed, offers valuable opportunities for both parties.”
Going one step further, Vergauwen argues that it is easy to conceive that each collaborative project between a company and an educational institution can yield insights and lessons which can also be important and useful for other companies.
The Smart Services Hub will therefore aim to stimulate its partners to join forces and opt for an open innovation model that will be beneficial to all.
A collaborative network
So far, 32 partners have joined the structure, which was officially inaugurated on 7 September in its dedicated Smart Services House in Heerlen. “Obviously, there will always be strategic data that companies will not want to disclose, but the driving idea behind the collaborative network is based on the belief that its members have overlapping needs and can become stronger by joining forces and sharing their knowledge.”
The Smart Services House officially opened in Heerlen on 7 September 2012 (Photo: ©Alf Mertens)
One of the innovative aspect and main strength of the Smart Services Hub lies in the fact that each partner is also a customer. The Hub will not need to look for clients because the participating companies and organizations will be simultaneously the suppliers of insider knowledge and information as well as end customers.
Vergauwen nourishes high hopes for the initiative: “If the network succeeds in its ambition to become leader in smart services in the fields of finance, administration and insurance, it might even attract new businesses into the region.”
By Sueli Brodin
SBE participates in Smart Services Hub Heerlen
Smart Services in the Maastricht Region