University of Antwerp Programme for Product Development Turns 50

The beginning of a new academic year is always a special time for the University of Antwerp. Even more so this year for the programme for Product Development, which celebrates its fiftieth birthday. A lecture and celebration at the University halls on 20 November marked this momentous occasion.

Flemish Minister for Work, Innovation, Finance and Sports Philippe Muyters and City of Antwerp councillor for Economy Caroline Bastiaens were present to share their well wishes. “We should be proud of the innovative talent we have here in Flanders and specifically in Antwerp”, Muyters said. “For the last fifty years, this programme has been turning out well-trained innovative minds who are able to bridge the gap between ideas and products.”

Inventing and reinventing

Next to take the stage was David Pas, himself an alumnus and currently head of the design lab at Verhaert Innovation, a company that develops cutting-edge technologies and services for its clients. These fifty years mark only the beginning for the programme for Product Development, which first welcomed students in 1967, said Pas. He continued with a look back at the past and forward to the future of product development.

“Dear Programme,” he continued, “at age fifty, your midlife crisis is now behind you. You have proven your worth by upholding the motto of ‘user first’. But your biggest challenge is still ahead of you. The future will demand even more of a user-centric approach. Certain fields will disappear while others will become even more specialised and divergent. You will have to keep reinventing yourself to stay ahead.”

Finding a market … or making one

A good thing, then, that inventing runs in the blood for product developers. That is certainly the case for alumnus Jan Schoeters and his colleague, engineer Bart Schoeters. Their start-up IPee has taken an unconventional route to success. Their product: a self-flushing system for urinals that automatically determines the right time to flush. “Sometimes it takes a few detours to end up where you want to be”, Bart Geraerts said. “We had a product, but no market. Instead of abandoning the idea, we’ve chosen to persevere until people started to see that they did, in fact, need IPee.” Innovation, it seems, is not just finding solutions for existing problems. It also means anticipating problems, even in the men’s room.

Systemic thinking

Kristel Van Ael (Namahn) takes design thinking even further. This academic year she has begun teaching a new course in the programme for Product Development: systemic design. “Until quite late in my career as a product developer, I felt uneasy”, she said. “Creating more products, was that really all there was? It was not until I discovered systemic design that I realised what had been missing. Systemic design finds ways to impact complex problems such as waste, poverty or health care. Instead of inventing products, you find methods for positive change.”

New campus

Clearly, there will always be a need for people who perceive needs and find creative solutions. The University of Antwerp knows how crucial the programme for Product Development is in shaping students for precisely that task. The alma mater is looking forward to supporting the programme even further. “In 2021, we are moving Product Development to a brand new campus near Paardenmarkt”, rector Herman Van Goethem announced. As far as birthday gifts go, this is one that will lead the programme to even greater successes in the future.

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