Public-Private Partnerships for Innovation, Education, and Creativity: A Case Study of the RDM Campus
On July 18, the Urban and Regional Policy Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States hosted Gabrielle Muris, director at the RDM (Research, Design, Manufacturing) Campus, in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The lunch discussion featured a presentation by Muris of the history of the site and the school, and featured a lively discussion between Muris and the members of Washington's local planning community.
RDM is located on the former premises of the Rotterdam Dry Dock Company, once one of the largest shipyards in Europe, and is within the former dockyards of the City of Rotterdam’s port. After going bankrupt in the early 1980s, the dock area was gradually abandoned and fenced off. Thirty years later, this site is the center for Rotterdam’s innovation economy and vocational training. Why and how did this transformation occur?
When the dockyards closed, a large and complex brownfield site was left behind, prompting considerable uncertainty of what the best use of the space would be. Around this time, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences was looking for additional space for their students and classes and wanted hands-on training for students. The former training center of the RDM shipyard employees was currently being used by Albeda College, a vocational training school, and was in need of funds and renovation. Meanwhile, the Port Authority of Rotterdam (which owned the now-empty docks) was eager to activate the area with new uses to prevent the area from becoming an isolated and vacant space, making it even harder to redevelop.
Led by several visionary entrepreneurs in each of the participating organization, all the parties came together and realized that their needs were complimentary. The abandoned facilities at RDM would be a perfect space in which to place a new type of educational institution; one where students, companies and educational institutions co-located and facilitated collaboration on innovative and sustainable solutions. This strategy built off of the industrial heritage of the site while contributing in a very real way to the economic development of the city and region. The discussion began in 2004 with an agreement signed in late 2005, and RDM officially opening its doors in 2009. RDM now occupies much of the former campus, including a large industrial hall called “Innovation Dock.”
Given the scale of school and the size of the renovation, RDM is an impressive case study of the power of a strong vision shared among a strategic number of motivated partners, who all experienced a “win” with the design of the campus.
The curriculum and space allow students to work directly with research institutions and businesses, creating an invaluable learning environment for students, all while accelerating product development for the companies and enabling schools to match their curriculum to on-the-ground issues. For Rotterdam itself, the school generates an important talent pipeline that bridges a gap between education and the regional labor market. Citywide, the school is a focal point of the city’s innovation and creative manufacturing efforts.
Equally interesting is that, by virtue of its location, RDM campus is a tool for connecting Rotterdam’s citizens to the port and to the city’s rich industrial heritage. Previously, access to this part of the city’s history was not possible. The establishment of RDM allowed the former docklands to be reopened to the public and reconnected to the city’s transportation fabric, infusing this area with ideas, energy, and young people. The RDM Campus also reconnected the surrounding community of Heijplaat back to the waterfront, a connection that was closed off when the shipyards closed. Regular hands-on workshops now bring local residents onto the campus itself.
The school also encourages a number of small, innovative projects within the surrounding school area, with the vision of making the school “a community of practice.” For example, students were able to apply study concepts by building an onsite zero carbon concept house, while utilizing local elementary school students to help grow plants to create green walls.
During the discussion, Muris spoke frankly about the challenges inherent in such a large operation, and especially in ensuring its long term sustainability now that the first few years of the project have passed. Nonetheless, she was adamant about her belief of the wider contributions this project has given to Rotterdam’s economic profile and overall resiliency, and was eager to have other cities adopt similar partnership models.