Letter from the Low Lands: The end of geo-innovation in the Netherlands

October 15, 2009

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The governmental run "Space for Geo-Information (RGI)" program ended recently with an impressive farewell event that included awards, great speakers and an enthusiastic crowd.

Clear mission
Initiated in 2003, RGI received a Euro 20 million grant from the Dutch national government in March 2004. The funding initiative proceeded from the fact that geospatial research in the Netherlands was, in general, too scattered and a wide gap existed between the supply of and demand for knowledge.

RGI's mission was "the improvement and innovation of the National Geo-Information Infrastructure and the geo field of knowledge in the Netherlands for satisfactory and efficient administration and powerful industry."

In 2005, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) characterized this gap between research and practical application as the Dutch paradox: "Although knowledge creation is strong, innovation activity is only average." In other words: Business research and development intensity, one of the most important indicators of innovation activity, is relatively weak.

Setting up the network
How did RGI go about running the program? RGI established an office and created a network of knowledge institutes, public authorities and companies. It then started to co-finance projects, so total investment has been close to Euro 40 million. RGI also invested in communicating the results through books, awards and events.

In order to focus, RGI co-financed projects around four major themes: National Geo-Information Structure, Public Order and Safety, Spatial Planning and Design, and Consumer and Students. The most recent awards went to the following:
Receiving recognition in the science category, Peter van Oosterom, professor at the Technical University of Delft commented, "[I'm] delighted to accept this award; it is recognition of our work at the GIS technology section, with all partners involved in this open innovation project. RGI created a great platform for science, commercial companies and governmental science to work together. Government, at executive levels, were also important contributors in describing the 'as is' situation. The longer term interest of science and the shorter term interest of commercial companies created a healthy challenging environment."

Next step
If the RGI approach has been so successful, why quit? Arnold Bregt, former science director at RGI and professor at Wageningen University said, "For a next phase, we were up against a series of other programs. RGI II did not make it on its own; it will be integrated into larger research programs." That seems a bit odd, since innovation approaches really need more time to be effective.

RGI's International Scientific Advisory Committee, Professor Dr. Philippe De Maeyer and Dr. Keith Thomson, have commented on the new situation: "In our view this will generate a loss of momentum across the Dutch geo-information community and will have an important negative influence on the position of the Netherlands on the international scene. ... An additional recommendation is that in any future proposals RGI should focus on scientific excellence, international networking and strong commercial linkages."

So there will not be a next step, for now, although I expect the Dutch geo-community will step up to the challenge and establish an integrated approach, re-confirming its international position.

Point of view
From my point of view, as RGI - this project of all projects - comes to an end, it will be important for all stakeholders to evaluate the progress made thus far. RGI served as a great networking and communication platform for all those who were active with geospatial technology in the Netherlands and has extended the technology beyond the traditional boundaries. RGI and its enthusiastic proponents will be missed.

But the real value of RGI will be known in a few years' time when we are able to look back at the results. Were the resulting innovation and the approach durable? What has become of all the great initiatives and how do we look back at them? Assuming we use the same terminology and perspectives, is there a worldwide index of geo-innovation by country or for any given part of the world? Should we have an "innovation map"? Or has our progress been integrated into other, larger innovation indices?

Certainly, there is a lot more "geo" and innovation going on in the Netherlands. I intend to report on these developments in the coming year.


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