future view

Technology is cool

20 December 2016 • 5 min reading time

There is strength in numbers. Paul de Krom, Chairman of the Board of Directors, always keeps this maxim in mind when speaking with potential partners. This time he met with Michiel Buchel, managing director of NEMO since 2003. NEMO is a well-known science museum in Amsterdam, and it is renowned for its website NEMO Kennislink. The museum is primarily geared toward families, while TNO focuses on the commercial market. Both parties see a great deal of common ground for cooperation.

: “NEMO introduces kids to the wonders of technology. Did you experience an epiphany like that when you were a ten-year-old boy?”

Michiel: “I remember visiting a forerunner of NEMO’s and seeing a lemon-powered electric motor. I thought it was miraculous. A natural source of electricity!”

Paul: “NEMO is very popular with kids. It’s the fifth most-visited museum in the Netherlands with 600,000 visitors in 2015. What’s your secret?”

Michiel: “We have a special appeal to kids’ innate curiosity. Once a month we have a real scientist in to give a Wake Up Lecture to kids. The kids are really surprisingly knowledgeable. Some can name six to eight different dinosaurs, or list all the planets in the solar system. They didn’t learn these things in school. They learned it on their own, because they are so inquisitive and want to find answers. Our goal is to awaken their sense of wonderment by getting them to engage with science and technology both at a cognitive and hands-on level, while using all of their senses.”

Paul: “Technology needs heroes”

Paul: “I really became aware of that youthful inquisitiveness when I was the driving force behind the Technology Pact. We were working to close the gap between education and the business community. I noticed that parents and teachers often had the wrong idea about the nature of technology. They tend to think of men in soiled overalls doing heavy work. Clearly, that image is very outdated. It is crucial to show people what technology really is and what it can do for our society. Another problem is that young people have difficulty imagining what professions in technology entail. What do engineers do? What do mathematicians do? I see a possibility for cooperation between NEMO and TNO in that area: NEMO is good at getting young people interested in science and technology, and we have people who can convert this technical expertise into smart solutions and applications.”

: “One important aspect that we have in common is the trust people place in us. NEMO and TNO are strong brands. People appreciate our reliability. We can leverage this confidence to forge lasting links.”

Paul: “Tell me about your ideas.”

Michiel: “Technology needs heroes. I remember watching the moon landing on TV in 1969. Chriet Titulaer gave a minute-by-minute explanation of everything that was happening. I hung on his every word. He was a hero to me. The popularity of NEMO and of certain degree programmes in science and technology is partly due to contemporary heroes like André Kuipers, Ionica Smeets and Robbert Dijkgraaf. They are uniquely able to enthuse and inspire people about science and technology. I can only assume that TNO has these kinds of heroes, too, but they are unknown in the wider world. That’s a shame.”

Paul: “Well, we don’t have astronauts on staff, but we do have plenty of other brilliant minds. Take Peter Werkhoven, for example. He’s a professor who could give a great lecture to kids in NEMO about robots and computers. TNO is a large organization, representing many different specializations. We can acquaint children with lesser known technical professions such as optometry and econometrics. Kids generally have no idea what these vocations entail. But they find it incredibly exciting when they hear that an econometrist might devise an algorithm that can enable a line of cars to travel down the road like a train, or that can be used to track down criminals on the dark web.”

Michiel: “The scientific research taking place at TNO, along with the expertise and applications we develop, deserve to be made accessible to a much wider audience”

Michiel: “At NEMO, we have extensive experience in organizing events to bring science and technology closer to people. The Weekend of Science, that we initiated, is a great example. The event is now being held in 150 locations throughout the country, every year in October. Companies and research institutes open their doors to the public. Is this something TNO would be interested in?”

Paul: “Absolutely. We’re already involved in a similar initiative. We participate in the Day of Chemistry and we’ve sent people to speak at the Night of the Nerds event. Still, I think we could do even more. Maybe we could showcase one of our great applications at NEMO. For example, we have developed a welding torch that automatically extracts hazardous gases from its immediate vicinity. A company has commercialized the torch and now exports it to more than 40 countries.”

Michiel: “We can take real-world examples to demonstrate that technology really can provide workable solutions for environmental problems or other issues. We both have an optimistic message to share. A few years ago, TNO published a booklet of FAQs from the general public. Publications like these can really help to change perceptions.”

Paul: “The booklet was entitled ‘Why is cheese yellow’. Clearly, both NEMO and TNO possess a tremendous amount of technical expertise. Can we join forces? I know for a fact that your website, NEMO Kennislink, is very popular.”

Michiel: “Three million visitors a year come to that site. Kennislink’s editors work independently and come from diverse scientific backgrounds. Editors keep readers up to speed on major scientific developments and place the spotlight on the science behind current events. The goal is to share new knowledge about ourselves and the world with everyone. The scientific research taking place at TNO, along with the expertise and applications we develop, are not only of interest to science journalists, but deserve to be made accessible to a much wider audience. Kennislink’s vast audience include high school pupils who use the website as a source for papers and the like. They make an interesting target group for TNO, because these young people will soon be heading off to university.”

Paul: “If you’ve turned 55 and you suddenly lose your job to a robot, you’re not going to be too thrilled. You need to make clear that robots take care of mostly dull and dangerous work, and that the worker can be re-trained and find a better job”

Paul: “Finally, I feel it is crucial that we are a party to the social debate. If you’ve turned 55 and you suddenly lose your job to a robot, you’re not going to be too thrilled. We need to make clear that robots take care of mostly dull and dangerous work, and that the 55-year-old worker can be re-trained and find a better job. Just look at the VDL manufacturing facility in the town of Born: much of the work there is now carried out by robots, but many new jobs have also been added.”

Michiel: “I agree wholeheartedly. My ambition is to make clear how science and technology can make the world a better place. I would be delighted if NEMO were to devote more time to programmes and exhibitions aimed at adults. We could then highlight more of the ethical side of things, promoting a healthy debate. Above all, however, I’d like to hear adults in such a museum rave about how cool technology is, just as kids always do in NEMO.”

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