News - September 1, 2011

Three cheers for the golden triangle

Since last year, the 'golden triangle' has been the latest catchphrase in Dutch academia. Minister Verhagen and entrepreneurs' spokesman Bernard Wientjes will air their views on the subject at the opening of the academic year. How Wageningen UR's philosophy became government policy.

Knowledge institutions, government and the business world must join forces to generate more innovation. That, essentially, is what the 'golden triangle' is all about. So it is not comparable to the border area between Thailand, Laos and Burma, known for many years as the world's biggest opium farm. Nor to the agricultural 'golden triangle' between Milan, Turin and Genoa. No: in the Wageningen dictionary, 'golden triangle' refers to a network, not a geographical area.
Strong claims
It is no longer clear who used the term first. Cees Veerman used it in his farewell speech for Jan Kienhuis, chair of the Arable Marketing Board until 2003. Veerman said that Kienhuis always used the term 'golden triangle' for the close collaboration between government, marketing boards and companies. Wageningen UR, as knowledge partner, did not get a mention at this point.
'Golden triangle' attained its present meaning in a 2009 document outlining Food Valley Wageningen's ambitions for 2020. Now Wageningen had pride of place in the golden triangle. 'Wageningen UR is the engine of innovative technological development in this region', explained Food Valley chair Theo Meijer. 'By collaborating in the golden triangle of knowledge institutions, market parties and governments, we can create an environment that is completely geared to high-tech food production, following the example of America's Silicon Valley'. Strong claims by Meijer, who had probably already heard the term 'golden triangle', since he followed Jan Kienhuis in 2003 as chair of the Arable Marketing Board.
From that moment on, Aalt Dijkhuizen, board member of both Wageningen UR and Food Valley, worked the golden triangle into numerous speeches. At the beginning of 2010, the then minister of Agriculture Gerda Verburg took over the term during a discussion about dissolving the ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV). Both Verburg and Dijkhuizen argued against splitting up this ministry because they thought an 'important link in the golden triangle' (agricultural education) would get lost. They were afraid the intensive collaboration in the agrifood sector would dwindle. The ministry of LNV was merged with Economic Affairs, but the new ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I) adopted the golden triangle philosophy. 'The old ministry of Agriculture demonstrated how you can work successfully with government, the business world and the knowledge world, as we have also seen around the Wageningen knowledge cluster', said Maxime Verhagen in November 2010 in the lower house of the Dutch parliament. And so the golden triangle found its way into the new cabinet's policy.
Nothing new
The phrase may be all the rage, but what it refers to is nothing new. In the name of 'public-private partnership', Wageningen has been collaborating with seed breeding companies, livestock breeding organizations and the food industry for a long time. Companies and researchers set the agenda together in technological top institutes or centres, while the government takes care of much of the funding after a thoroughgoing selection process. 'The philosophy of co-innovation, in which government, companies and knowledge institutions collaborate, and the linking of parties in the knowledge chain make up the fundamental philosophy of Wageningen UR', says spokesman Simon Vink.
What is new is that Verhagen links the golden triangle to his new 'industrial policy': the government plans to merge the spending on knowledge by Economic Affairs, Agriculture, and Education and Sciences (including Science organization the NWO) and to concentrate funding in nine top sectors. This policy enables the minister to control the purse strings for all government research spending. Companies are asked to indicate which knowledge they need in order to create jobs. In exchange, participating companies are expected to invest in the top sectors themselves.
This enables Verhagen to save money on research and innovation, while maintaining control over the innovation agenda. The 'golden triangle' has provided him with a concept that helps him do this. If it is up to him, there will also be golden triangles in the fields of agrifood, horticulture, water, chemistry, energy, the creative industries, health, logistics and high-tech. Each of the top sectors is now working on an innovation plan, led by a heavyweight from the business world.
The opening of the academic year in Wageningen provides a nice opportunity to review the state of affairs. Between them, Maxime Verhagen (government), Bernard Wientjes (the business world) and Ruud Huirne (knowledge partner) are the golden triangle made flesh. Without doubt, they will sing the praises of the concept. The real question is how they will do this, and what examples they will use. Because everyone wants to know what innovation funding is going to be spent on in the years to come. The government will announce the top sector plans on Princes' Day, when the queen opens parliament. But perhaps the audience at Wageningen's academic year opening will get a sneak preview.
We needn't expect to hear any reservations about the 'golden triangle', although such reservations do exist. Herman Eijsackers wonders what happened to the general public in this narrative. In May this year, the chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of Wageningen UR proposed a symposium in May to provide clearer public input into the plans, with a view to strengthening public support for innovations. 'A limited group of citizens gets involved in discussions on technological and social developments, but what does society as a whole think about them? That is something we know surprisingly little about. We should listen to citizens more, put less emphasis on convincing them, and engage more in public debate.'
Eijsackers suggests we go for a 'golden tetrahedron' in order to include the general public. But that term isn't going to make it: it's much too academic. In that sense, the term Cees Veerman came up with eight years ago is much better. At least 'golden triangle' has a certain ring to it.
Opening Academic Year, Monday 5 September, 15.00h, Aula