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When Professor Rob Zuidwijk started out in academia, he was researching pure maths. “Actually applying knowledge was seen as controversial. I still remember maths professors telling us that applied maths is bad maths,” he laughs.

Now his work pushes the boundaries of collaboration between research, teaching and industry. Recently installed as the professor of ports in global networks at the Rotterdam School of Management, he is one of the leading academics in the SmartPort initiative — a project that pulls together maritime expertise across several academic disciplines and connects it with the business challenges faced by the giant transportation hub at Rotterdam’s port.

The Port Authority, local city government and the companies on site formed the partnership with Erasmus and Delft universities, including RSM — the business school at Erasmus — after years of working together convinced them they needed a formal structure to deepen co-operation. Set up to boost the regional economy, SmartPort has roused interest from international collaborators and competitors, and has become a draw for foreign students.

Spreading 40km along the Dutch coast, the port of Rotterdam was once the largest in the world. With 450m tonnes of cargo passing through every year, it still dwarfs others outside Asia. Prof Zuidwijk says working in an industrial cluster of this scale and complexity is “a very inspiring environment”.

“Erasmus and Delft have always felt that there’s a great opportunity to see the port of Rotterdam as a research laboratory. And some professors have done that, but these projects were usually down to individual personal relationships with the port. Now we have a more strategic relationship.”

He argues that the SmartPort agreement, signed in 2010 but including Delft only last year, has given “new momentum” to efforts that build on the port’s international reputation for pioneering efficient and sustainable logistics. Over the summer, Singapore Management University started to collaborate on research and course curricula, linking schools in two of the world’s major maritime and commodity trading centres.

Multidisciplinary approaches are best suited to real-world challenges, says Prof Zuidwijk. Initiatives such as the fully automated terminal at Rotterdam, or new ways of linking seaside logistics to inland waterways and railways, appeal to the natural curiosity of academics, he adds. Experts in the different faculties included in the SmartPort initiative, which range from business and law to economics, public administration and even maritime history, can play their part.

“For example, using barges and trains rather than trucks has a positive effect on the infrastructure, but it changes the business model and introduces new risks and liabilities — that leads to exploring the legal issues,” says Prof Zuidwijk.

450m tonnes

The amount of cargo passing through Rotterdam’s port every year

As Michiel Jak, SmartPort’s managing director, puts it: “It’s quite difficult to make a good match between academia and the real needs of companies — but this is real life. So you don’t have to, as it were, sell it to the other side.” For Mr Jak, it is crucial that research at SmartPort is led by the needs of business, saving it from academic abstractions and making sure it is relevant to more than one company.

Both Mr Jak and Prof Zuidwijk are proud of the global nature of SmartPort education courses, but there is a downside for the Netherlands if few of the students stay on in Rotterdam itself — partly due to a policy not to hire their own doctoral students as faculty.

Prof Zuidwijk adds that local companies can be dismayed as talent moves overseas. “They see a lot of bright people coming by, but then they go back to Greece or China.”

For Mr Jak, the workforce challenges are also paramount but he sees the global network of SmartPort students and alumni as a strength: “Rotterdam needs a connection on all levels with ports worldwide — of course I’d prefer to have them in the Netherlands. So we also focus on educating the professionals here.”

Alongside the MA and PhD students, executive education programmes aim to reinject expertise into the companies operating at the port as quickly as possible. “Nowadays the speed of change is so fast and so complex that you really need permanent education to keep up,” Mr Jak says.

He adds that ports also have an image problem. “Logistics worldwide need well-educated people: we can demonstrate that it’s about the latest tech, about business model innovation, and that it has the human factor, too. It’s not just working on a crane and loading containers on and off a ship,” he says.

“We want to show that only the best students are allowed on to the SmartPort programmes, and it looks good on their résumé. What we are doing here is reinventing what a port is in the modern world and what it will be in the future.”

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