SmartPort: Fostering Local Research Impact Through an Innovation Ecosystem

Local leaders address how to achieve sustainable growth at the Port of Rotterdam in a way that realizes the economic and social ambitions of the region.

Coauthored by Wilfred Mijnhardt, policy director at Rotterdam School of Management, and Dan LeClair, executive vice president and chief operating officer at AACSB International.

With total cargo throughput of 445 metric tons, it is the largest port in Europe and eighth largest in the world. It is the gateway to 350 million wealthy consumers in the European Union and, with recent expansions, is well-positioned to accommodate bigger ships and capitalize on growth in container handling. But below the surface at the Port of Rotterdam, the challenges are daunting.

Its workforce is aging and it is getting harder to compete for technical staff. Land costs are among the highest in the industry, making space productivity a major priority. Fifty percent of the port’s activities are fossil-fuel based, and it generates a whopping 16 percent of the CO2 emissions in the Netherlands; meanwhile the rest of Europe’s industrial sector is transitioning to alternatives. To be competitive, the port needs to double container throughput, but there are no plans to add new roads for transporting goods to the hinterland.

Addressing the challenges of the Port of Rotterdam is tough enough. But for local leaders, the concern is not only how to achieve sustainable growth at the port but how to do so in a way that realizes the economic and social ambitions of the region. Their answer, based on a belief that innovation is the key, was to create SmartPort, to provide a central hub for knowledge development, dissemination, and application. A world-class port “needs a world-class knowledge infrastructure in the region.”

SmartPort is a strategic alliance between the Port of Rotterdam, the association of mainport entrepreneurs (Deltalinqs), the city of Rotterdam, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, Rotterdam School of Management, and the Delft University of Technology.

That was the scenario presented at the Rotterdam School of Management by Michiel Jak, SmartPort’s General Director, to members of AACSB’s Board of Directors and Committee on Issues in Management Education (CIME). Call it AACSB@RSM, the purpose of the meeting was to learn more about the context—in this case, Dutch and European—and generate new ideas about how business schools create value for society. For AACSB, which aims to articulate a new vision for management education, board and committee meetings now mean exploring what’s happening at the edge of business schools.

The SmartPort discussion revealed three observations about the importance of local universities to their communities when it comes to research. First, the opportunities facing any community are often unique, as they are defined by a mix of historical, economic, political, and cultural factors. The Port of Rotterdam, for example, wants to develop more reliable and sustainable connections between the transportation modes currently connecting the port to the rest of Europe. It also wants to capitalize on its strengths to move beyond being a landlord and develop new services and forms of value creation.

Why are local universities of importance to their communities?
  1. Opportunities facing any community are often unique, as they are defined by a contextual mix of historical, economic, political, and cultural factors.
  2. Local impact is supported by trust and cooperation across business, government, and academic sectors.
  3. Research impact needs a mutually agreeable topic, supported by inspiration and perspiration.

Addressing challenges like these requires rigorous, original research to offer creative and actionable insights, pointing to a type of scholarship that is neither basic nor applied. While the former favors generalizability over contextualization, the latter often falls short on inventiveness. And neither tends to be as multidisciplinary as desired, especially in connecting STEM with business and management. Research for local impact does not fit neatly into what faculty have come to value worldwide.

Second, it makes sense for communities to favor local universities for research engagement. Research for local impact is supported by trust and cooperation across business, government, and academic sectors. Locally, universities are more likely to share the same goals with other community stakeholders and invest in building reputation and credibility, especially given their ongoing role as part of the larger community. As part of a larger port innovation ecosystem, SmartPort helps to develop common interests among stakeholders and serves as a platform for cooperation. The importance of shared goals signals that research as part of a local ecosystem can be very different than contract research; research for local impact can be driven as much by mission as by money.

Third, research impact doesn’t just happen when a mutually agreeable topic is selected. It must be supported with inspiration and perspiration, and with project management and milestones. SmartPort applies a proven technique of “roadmapping,” a flexible approach designed to incorporate multiple points of interaction between project stakeholders and build a shared vision. It is about developing close and frequent engagement across stakeholders, to communicate about expectations and progress, and to develop mutual trust. Jak was careful to point out that roadmapping should also recognize that knowledge transfer is as important as knowledge development in achieving local impact.

As the changing higher education environment continues to tilt schools toward local research impact, we encourage business school leaders to define new forms of research; cultivate relationships with local stakeholders—in business, government, and nonprofit sectors—and other disciplines on campus; and create new structures and processes that enable the achievement of shared goals.

This is part I of a three-part series based on AACSB@RSM.

Wilfred Mijnhardt is policy director at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) at Erasmus University. He holds a bachelor's degree in economics, a master’s degree in public administration (both from Erasmus University), and a postgraduate certificate in management of change. He successfully participated in the joint ABS/BAM Development Programme for Directors of Research. Follow Mijnhardt on Twitter @wmijnhardt.