Future Flux Festival: no innovation without interaction and inspiration

11 July 2019
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Over the past ten years, RDM Rotterdam has changed from a dilapidated industrial complex into a thriving biotope in which innovation flourishes. All this concentrated ambition, energy, creativity and ingenuity erupted during the Future Flux Festival. The most important insight? That working in teams with different competencies is vital to transform a good idea into a successful solution.

During his speech on the Future Flux Stage, Farid Tabarki decided to show a fragment from the Avengers action film: Endgame. The audience, relaxing on floor cushions or sitting on cardboard stools, watched a number of superheroes working in unity. Tabarki counted a total of 27 superheroes. ‘We no longer just have one superhero to save the world. We need 27 heroes, all with different competencies’, explained the trendwatcher.

Only together can we make the difference, stated Tabarki. Those operating alone are unable to keep the pace that is needed in today’s network economy. Apart from collaboration, diversity and communication are other important aspects of a network economy. ‘A network only functions if it comprises different people with different competencies and backgrounds. But these people do need to be able to communicate well together. Take an escape room, for instance. You can only escape the room with a team that has various competencies and communicates well together’, stated Tabarki.

A huge escape room

With a little fantasy, RDM Rotterdam could be considered as one huge escape room. A few hundred ambitious, creative and ingenious people with a diverse range of competencies come here every day to work in small teams on innovative solutions for problems facing the business community and society. The objective: to make such a success of their solutions that these ‘escape’ from the RDM site and can make the leap to the market.

Allard Castelein speaks more about a flourishing ecosystem for innovation than a network or an escape room. ‘It’s ten years since we established this site for innovation’, stated the CEO of the Port of Rotterdam Authority during the grand opening of the RDM Rotterdam 10th anniversary x Future Flux Festival. ‘Why? Because it’s not the strongest or smartest that survives but the one that is best able to adapt to the environment. And this environment is changing. We are facing two important transitions: the digitisation and the energy transition.’

Castelein is expecting that many startups will succeed in escaping from this RDM site. ‘How will this site look in ten years? Exactly the same and yet totally different. It will continue to be an innovative ecosystem with the same atmosphere and the same energy, but then with other innovations based on other technologies.’ Port economist Bart Kuipers further scaled up the expectations during the panel discussion that included Castelein. ‘In ten years, RDM will be an innovative hotspot of world renown. Many innovations that will then be used across the world will have originated on this site.’

On the Lijnbaan

The Future Flux Festival provides an initial stage for a large number of innovations. A team from Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences demonstrated the steel structure of something that ultimately is to become an autonomous electric vehicle. ‘This vehicle will soon be driving on the Lijnbaan behind the waste collector to collect the waste’, explained one of the students, who admits there’s still lot of work to be done. His team is waiting for the components that are needed to drive and control the wheels. ‘And we may also need to modify the structure. We probably don’t need the central section so we can make the vehicle shorter. That would be handy on the Lijnbaan.’

In an ‘orange bubble’, Wilco Stavenuiter from Tetrahedron explained to other young entrepreneurs that focus is important as startup. ‘We want to construct a crane that will enable us to install the latest generation of wind turbines at height. This crane doesn’t need to be able to lift over long distances or to lift heavy weights; it only needs to lift what’s needed for us to achieve our objective. This will also enable us to develop a cost-effective solution.’

Not all innovations originate on the RDM site. An example is Blue Jay, a team of students from Eindhoven that is working on a human-friendly drone. The aim is that the drone will be able to get close to people without frightening them. ‘It could be used to identify supporters with fireworks at a football stadium or to deliver medicines in a hospital’, explained team member Dirk Floren. ‘By giving the drone a face, it looks more friendly. One of the biggest challenges is the noise produced by the drone.’

Moonshot project

One of the most engaging users of the RDM facilities is André Schiele. This researcher and inventor from TU Delft made his name with innovative applications of robot technology in space travel. He has now established his X-Laboratory on the RDM site. ‘A lot of innovation focuses on something totally new, such as space travel during my fourteen years at ESA. But innovation can also include solving current problems that have a huge impact on society. That’s the reason why we established the X-Lab’, stated Schiele.

One of the first X-Laboratory innovations concerns the development of technology to compensate for wave movements. This technology will be used in the offshore industry and in the construction of offshore wind farms. But his heart lies in the ‘moonshot project’ he started: the development of a clean CO2-neutral transport solution based on his eX-drive mechatronics system. ‘I’m grateful that the Port Authority is tackling things in the right way at RDM. Our task is now to bring a lot of talent together in the X-Laboratory so that we can do the right things.’

‘Join the future’

One of the biggest challenges is educating talented people, according to Ron Bormans, Board Chairperson of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. ‘The future in which we now live appears to be a logical consequence of past developments. But ten or twenty years ago, we could not have predicted this future. It’s still impossible to predict the future now, but we do need to train students for this unknown future. We are doing this first by informing them about the past and present. It also applies: “if you don’t know the future, join the future”. The future is made here at RDM Rotterdam.’

Finding talent is also one of the biggest challenges facing Deltalinqs, the organisation in which 700 port companies are associated. ‘Looking at the future, the port companies need completely different competencies, but which? To be honest we don’t exactly know. The only thing we can do is to bring the business community and education closer together’, Cees Alderliesten from Deltalinqs told a small group of interested parties.

Even when we know which competencies are needed, it is difficult to interest people in new developments. A recent survey among workers in the fossil fuels industry is significant. They have the right competencies to switch to the biobased industry, but they don’t. Alderliesten: ‘They prefer to sit in their gilded cage. Many people in the port are conservative. Everything needs to be arranged perfectly, otherwise the barricades go up. But it’s time that these people took more responsibility for their future.’

It’s about implementation

There’s no conservatism at the Future Flux Festival. As the festival progresses and more and more music can be heard, most participants looked for a seat along the quay between the food trucks. Inside, singer Pink Oculus was on the main stage singing the final number of her set, a rousing version of ‘Killing in the name’, the Rage Against the Machine hit. After her performance, just before the room was transformed into a roller disco, Kees Koolen entered the stage. The man who made his name with and was closely involved with the international expansion of Uber, explained that the future is simply not as unpredictable as Ron Bormans suggests. ‘Because this energy transition is certain to happen, just not as fast as we all think.’

Koolen also emphasised the importance of a talented team to shape the innovation that is needed for the energy transition. ‘Technology can be copied, but that doesn’t apply to the team and the ambition of team members. Without a perfect team it’s impossible to build a large company’, stated the entrepreneur and investor, who gave the participants an important piece of advice: work hard. He explained how the management of Uber was used to meeting on Sundays and how the management of met every day late in the evening. ‘Burn-out? People who have a passion work every minute but don’t call it work. Success is a choice. A good idea doesn’t have value in itself; it’s all about implementation. Many people make a conscious choice not to be successful. They don’t have the patience and don’t build a team.’