Jan Peter Balkenende, took office as prime minister of the Netherlands in 2002. He would remain in this position for eight consecutive years, along the way winning four elections. A feat that made him one of the four longest serving prime ministers in Dutch history. He led the country through a time that can be best characterized as a period of political and societal turmoil. Illustrated by the global aftermath of 9/11, a political and religious murder and parts of the Dutch society becoming inward focussed and hailing to the right wing of the political spectrum.
Fast-forward four years, Balkenende is currently professor of Governance, Institutions and Internationalization at Erasmus University and partner at multinational professional services company EY.
I met Balkenende at Startupbootcamp’s HightechXL Demo Day earlier this year. I wondered how a person that has been so long at the epicenter of Dutch politics thinks about entrepreneurship, startups and the economic position of the Netherlands on the global stage. I also wanted to know how he thinks entrepreneurs can help Dutch society prepare itself for the future. A future that is coined by MIT scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as the second machine age. This is what Balkenende said in the email interview.
StartupJuncture: I was quite surprised to see you at Startupbootcamp Hightech XL Demo Day. Are startups a new interest? If so, why?
Balkenende: I have always been very enthusiastic about the spirit, creativity and courage of startup entrepreneurs. When I was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands I frequently visited startups. Medical startups in Leiden and startups in Amsterdam and Eindhoven for example. It’s always fascinating to see the cooperation between startups, universities and private companies.
As a professor on Governance, Institutions and Internationalization your key message is that government intervention is not the solution for the financial and social problems of our time. Why?
Today’s big social, economic and environmental problems can only be tackled in partnership between governments, the private sector, NGOs and academia. Governments cannot provide the solution in isolation. Examples of such partnerships are the Tropical Forest Alliance or the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative. My key message is that governments cannot intervene to solve today’s big problems in society, they must be part of new alliances.
In the Netherlands there is a stigma on failure. How can this cultural stance of the Dutch society towards risk taking, experimentation, failure and success be changed?
I am very positive about the entrepreneurial spirit of today’s student population. It’s encouraging to see so many socially engaged startup entrepreneurs are founding social enterprises. This culture could be stimulated a lot more in schools and universities. For instance via incubators or competitions, like those of ENACTUS. I believe that universities have a key role to play in helping to further boost the mindset of tomorrow’s leaders. Leaders that focus on the future and are deeply concerned about sustainability, corporate responsibility and cherish and foster creativity and risk taking.
In a recent interview Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten said that it will take us 100 years to change this mindset. Do you agree?
I am optimistic about the new economy of socially engaged, innovative, creative and highly motivated entrepreneurs that are mushrooming in incubators such as Startupbootcamp or Enviu Village Capital. You can see the emergence of another mindset. It doesn’t makes sense on the other hand to be “waiting” for an entrepreneurial culture to emerge. As if it has to be invented in a laboratory and we’re still looking for its DNA.
In the ‘Golden Age’ Dutch trade, science, military and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. The new companies that now dominate many industries are mostly American: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Tesla and Space X. Did the Netherlands lose its spirit of entrepreneurship, excellence and internationalization?
You can’t say we’ve “lost our spirit” by only looking at the number of new multinationals. The Dutch lead in areas such as waste management, water, agriculture and even host the world’s smartest region – the Eindhoven area. For a country as small as ours, we are doing an excellent job. ASML is for instance a leading manufacturer of photolithography machines that are used in the production of computer chips. In addition, Triodos Bank is globally a unique and successful example of a sustainable bank.
It’s also key to look if the growth of a company is sustainable. An example of an initiative that aims to foster sustainable growth is the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition of eight Dutch multinationals. The coalition does this by sharing and develop knowledge about the integration of sustainability in business. It’s truly unique that our companies stand out globally. They score high in benchmarks such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. The spirit to create economic, social and environmental value is truly vibrant in our small but ambitious country. Companies like DSM, Philips, Unilever are constantly reinventing themselves.
A key element for a thriving entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem is the close relationship between academia and the private sector. The role of Stanford University in the creation of Silicon Valley is a case in point. In the Netherlands however there is a strong fear for close ties between universities and the private sector. Do you understand where this fear comes from?
I don’t agree with this observation. In the 1970s there was indeed a gap between universities and businesses, but this has changed. Businesses are financing research activities of universities. Many Dutch universities are working closely together witch businesses. Friesland Campina for example recently opened a new innovation center at the Wageningen University.
The most important problems that the Dutch society has to confront concern inherently long-term issues such as the ageing workforce, energy and water provision, the economic future of the Netherlands and its position in a globalized world. Do you think there is in fact room for long-term thinking in the current political system? Politicians want to get reelected every four years?
Speaking for myself I first spent 14 years at the scientific institute of the Christian Democratic party. I then spend 12 years in politics as MP and as Prime Minister. I don’t think I could have functioned if I had only focused on ad-hoc short term issues. I focused constantly on the concept of a responsible society and its long term implications for policy making. You have to strike a good balance. As a politician you have to be responsive to the immediate concerns in society. But it’s also your task to timely flag the long-term challenges your society is facing. For instance, the rising costs of the welfare state or the need to invest in innovation in order to remain competitive.
The well-known silicon valley VC Peter Thiel laments that technology isn’t creating enough jobs. Similarly the authors of the book ‘The Second Machine Age’ Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that with the development of digital technologies like AI, connected devices, robotics etc, there is a real danger for the loss of many middle class jobs. If you look at the future, how should the Netherlands prepare itself for this societal shift and what should the role of entrepreneurs and startups be in this future?
Technological development is always a matter of changing orientation in the functioning of the labor market. Of course jobs will disappear. But if you have the right strategies you can also generate new jobs. It depends on entrepreneurship, innovation and responsibility. Furthermore, education, labor market, flexibility, disruptive change, innovation, extended international orientation are connected. The story of startups, as you could witness during Demo Day is a story of the future. I am very optimistic.