For Silicon Valley you don't have to get on a plane, you just have to land in Tilburg. Spoorzone Tilburg offers plenty of room for visionaries, the experts of the future. With them we cast a glance into the crystal ball and conjure up inspiring quotes, wild ideas, cutting edge innovations and downright utopian perspectives.
Artificial Intelligence pioneer Merwin de Jongh founded Building Blocks in 2013 at age twenty-three (a year before he graduated cum laude from Tilburg University). Together with partner Alexander van Eerden, he saw the endless potential of data. Way ahead of the troops. And fortunately not too far; it turned out to be a golden move. In the year 2021, Building Blocks delivers consumer-oriented AI solutions to brands like Samsung, Hunkemöller, Corendon and Basic-Fit from their headquarters in Spoorzone Tilburg. Simply put: personalization algorithms that enable these brands to personalize their offerings and customer journey based on individual needs. To call Merwin's predictions "tantalizing" is an understatement: "In 2035, algorithms will be a normal part of our lives."
"We will all soon have a personal digital assistant"
Before Merwin takes us into the future, we travel to Namibia where he went on his honeymoon. A trip of several weeks, carefully mapped out by his wife. "She knows our wishes and tastes like no one else," he tells us, "and was therefore able - with a lot of time and effort - to put together the perfect vacation. But imagine if there were an algorithm that planned the ideal trip based on our data? An AI that knows us and books what we think is cool with the best intentions? Something like that could have saved my wife a lot of time. The cool thing is: technically this is already possible. But I predict it won't be used everywhere until 2035. And for much more than just travel. I envision a kind of digital personal assistant that every world citizen can use. An algorithm that takes care of the annoying chores for us. The goal is to leave us more time for the people and things that really make us happy."
So it's going to be a while before this utopia becomes a reality. What's the hold up, Merwin? "This doesn't sound sexy, but ethics and legislation play a crucial role in this. At the moment the situation is as follows: tech companies often offer consumers their products for free and then become very rich thanks to our data. Companies simply strive to maximize profits and legislation is structurally behind all developments. A lot has to change in the triangle of industry-consumer-government." To begin with, Merwin believes, companies must become more sustainable. And he is not talking about solar panels or green roofs: "Thanks to data you can really get to know consumers and therefore really help them. But only if you then put them in first place - by having pure intentions and being transparent, for example - do you build a lasting relationship with them. A relationship based on trust."
From a consumer perspective, Merwin predicts that by 2035, people will be paying to use digital tools. "Also, consumers will start making more and more conscious choices when using these types of tools. They will become digital savvy and no longer blindly click 'ok' at a cookie or privacy notice." Finally, to complete the picture of the future, it is also up to governments: "A personal assistant will only really work if we can mix and share data. With the consent of the user. The more we link together, the smarter an algorithm becomes. This requires good laws and regulations. A safety net that protects citizens and gives companies some leeway. This is a complex digital-ethical issue. But we'll have come a long way in fifteen years or so."
"Algorithms are going to change how we learn and work"
Merwin is convinced that human labor - even if we all soon walk around with a digital PA, that is - will always exist. But the type of work is starting to change, he explains. "Take Basic-Fit, for whom we at Building Blocks develop personalization solutions for customer service, among other things. The workday of customer service agents is already in transition. Instead of droning on about opening times or subscription types, they are shifting the focus to empathy during a conversation. The AI answers the simple questions. This gives the employees more room to make the difference in their treatment. And in more complex questions or problems. This is going to develop even more strongly in the future."
You see the same thing in other professions, Merwin argues. Even specialist and highly skilled work, such as that of lawyers and jurists, can be "algorithmized" with AI. "About 80% of what they do is repetitive in nature. In the future this will be taken over by algorithms. This will not make the lawyer or jurist obsolete. On the contrary! It frees their hands for that other 20%. The cases and work that are complex and where the challenge lies. Where the human touch is necessary." What is indispensable, according to Merwin, is that professionals do need to develop certain digital skills. Knowledge of coding, algorithms and AI is key. "You can already see HBOs and WOs slowly moving in that direction by offering more and more digital-based courses. In 2035 it will even be woven into every course: social or technical, economic or medical, alpha or beta. Whatever you study, digital skills will soon be part of your curriculum."
"Stakeholders are becoming more important than shareholders"
For his third prediction, Merwin zooms out a bit further. Level 'global economy'. "The classic economy is based on shareholder maximization," he explains, "where companies have shareholders who want to make more money out of their money. There are already companies that are discovering that you don't have to make an infinite amount of money. That you cannot use the resources of our planet indefinitely. And that there are many more stakeholders than just shareholders: employees, partners, governments, citizens, the earth. The movement from shareholder to stakeholder maximization is already underway and will radically change the global economy in time."
The major benefit of focusing on all stakeholders is crystal clear. "Everyone benefits from the return on investment. Don't get me wrong: I'm not against making profits, but I am against making as much profit as possible. Building Blocks also makes money, of course. But that is not our goal. We put the consumer first and as a result we earn our living. Our Big Hairy Audacious Goal? Not a garage full of Ferraris, but one billion consumers positively influenced."
"Tilburg will be the hotspot for 'human touch tech'"
"Tilburg has a strong social character. The city was once created by the merging of several herdgangen (hamlets, ed.) and is therefore completely different from cities that arose from a city core. The rise and fall of the textile industry is also steeped in cooperation. And that is still deeply rooted in the DNA of the city and the companies. The last ten years there has been a growing focus on technology. We are very good at innovating with the latest techniques and developments. Not so much good at innovating in the latest techniques and developments. So I don't think we're going to develop the very smartest algorithms here. What we are going to do, though? Invent the very best algorithm-based applications with the consumer at number one."
What this means specifically for 2035? Merwin makes no bones about it: "Tilburg will be the international hotspot for human touch tech. The perfect combination of our social and innovative character. Of the collaborative tradition, the experiments and the raw character of the city. I'm going to do everything in my power to get there. Together with digital entrepreneurial collective The Tailors (of which Merwin was a founding member in 2020, ed.) talents and, last but not least, education. In fifteen years' time, people will fly here from Silicon Valley to learn from us."
Spoorzone Tilburg is the new and pioneering talent and innovation district of the Netherlands. Adjacent to the railway station and well connected to the city, region and country, it offers the ideal base for your company or satellite establishment. In this raw industrial area full of culture, hospitality and history in the center of the city, people are working hard on the future. It is a knowledge-driven biodome built for and by creative entrepreneurs with interactive technologies and behavior as the basis. The presence of Tilburg University, ROC and Fontys Hogescholen provides knowledge, talent and vision. The area itself is compact and sustainably developed and offers a life long stay for entrepreneurs from startup to scale-up and beyond.More Spoorzone