Author Johan Op de Beeck interviewed Caroline Pauwels, Rector of the VUB, and Erwin Malcorps, President Sweco Belgium, about the societal challenges concerning knowledge sharing. Listen to the interview on Sweco’s podcast channel.
In Belgium, as in the rest of the world, we are faced with major societal challenges: climate change, the economic recovery, industrial renewal, huge demographic developments and so on. All of these are complex, interlinked issues that determine our general well-being. A scientific approach is called for here. How does this work in practice? Johan Op de Beeck talks about it with Caroline Pauwels, rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Erwin Malcorps, managing director of Sweco Belgium. Two organisations that are already open to the essence of this challenge, namely knowledge sharing and lifelong learning.
Knowledge transfer as the key to well-being
That knowledge transfer is more than ever the key to the well-being of our society is something both discussion partners agree on. More than that, they reinforce each other. For example, Sweco Belgium - completely in line with the value statement 'Transforming Society Together' - has been holding a chair at the VUB for several years. In this way, students contribute to objective knowledge building about current topics. Through internships and guest lectures, students get a feel for the reality in an engineering firm. Erwin Malcorps: "In the meantime, we’ve set up a new chair. This time around infrastructure asset management, because we get the feeling from the market that when we talk to the government, there’s significant need for objective knowledge about lifespan, maintenance of tunnels, bridges, roads, etc. and unfortunately there appears to be little material available about this. As experience experts, we’re reaching out to university students to help build that research."
The importance of research cannot be minimised
In interdisciplinary collaboration it’s important that you learn to speak each other's language and get to know each other's sensitivities. Caroline Pauwels believes that it’s up to the university to stimulate curiosity. Students need to understand what scientific research can lead to. That knowledge doesn’t just stop with obtaining a diploma. In a society that is evolving at lightning speed, especially in the technological field, lifelong learning is a must. Caroline Pauwels: “Businesses and universities must work to create the fine context that every - future - employee needs. That’s why dialogue with the business world is so important. Because it gets really interesting when you see something emerge from the research process that actually finds application. Keeping infrastructure safe, for example. Just imagine living in Italy where a bridge collapses. The ideas we’ve been able to apply by keeping the focus on applied research are of great benefit to society itself. It creates solutions to complex challenges, creates jobs, creates insights that then flow back into fundamental research."
Final goals are actually initial ones
"Methodological knowledge acquisition, in combination with lifelong learning, has something wonderful about it", says Caroline Pauwels. "It keeps you young." To make that happen, we need to cultivate the learning process. In that respect, the rector is also arguing for a different vocabulary. For example, she would rather hear "initial terms" instead of "final terms". A diploma is not an end point. Universities should offer a kind of life guarantee on degrees, with students receiving an update every year.
The war for talent
The atmosphere we create around acquiring knowledge should encourage you to continue doing so throughout your life. At Sweco, this translates into a training plan from the first day on the job. Erwin Malcorps: "Sweco hires around a hundred recent graduates every year. From the start, we involve them in projects with up to 10 or 20 colleagues with different profiles, and we let them brainstorm together. This openness and culture is enriching both for the employees and for the projects (and thus for society). Moreover, there is less need for job hopping after a few years. In this way, we’re also preparing ourselves for the jobs of the future. Twenty years ago, people were looking for engineers or draughtsmen. Technical profiles, so to speak. Today we have dozens of vacancies for positions that didn't even exist before. More than ever, there is a need for diversity in the workplace. ”
To put it in the words of Caroline Pauwels: “Je sais qu’on ne sait jamais” or “I know you never know”. At least that should be the attitude.