Eindhoven: a city ready to jump even higher

The ‘innovation space’ (formerly the gas lab), a square 1960s building on the campus of the Technical University Eindhoven, has been a hive of activity all morning. Robots are now being driven into this huge workplace, three quarters of which consists of glass in metal frames, and an electric motor bike which runs on formic acid; drones are being installed. Outside, there is a car which runs on solar energy standing next to a car which is 100% recyclable. Paving stones are being hastily straightened, the bar is being set up. Hours later, the party is in full swing, the presenter gives a sign and nine young people in red t-shirts suddenly form a line and turn their backs to the audience gathered here. There are numbers on each back, together they form 130,000,000.

© Bart van Overbeeke

The awarding of this amount by the State, the reason for this party, signals a new phase for Eindhoven. As the centre of the high-tech region Brainport Eindhoven, the city has lobbied fiercely for years to make it clear that it is an essential cornerstone of the Dutch economy. And that upgrading the standard of facilities in the city is a matter of national importance. There is a very good reason why Eindhoven has been at the top of the table of economic growth figures for years, with a peak of almost 5% in 2018. That is finally being acknowledged: following the government’s designation in 2016 of Brainport Eindhoven as the third ”Mainport” (key economic region) in the Netherlands alongside the Port of Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport, the State has been strengthening the financial bonds with the region. The grant of 130 million euros over four years is the first tangible result of that. Further negotiations are now taking place to realise structural support.

First Philips factory, Eindhoven

City awakening

In terms of European urban development, Eindhoven settled relatively quickly into the upper echelons of the national economy: next year, Eindhoven will celebrate the fact that it is 100 years since the city emerged from 6 villages. Philips awakened the slumbering Eindhoven in 1891, when they chose it for the production of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century: the light bulb. It was thanks to Philips, which attracted tens of thousands of workers to the city in just a few years, that the villages of Stratum, Woensel, Gestel, Tongelre and Strijp fused with Eindhoven. This created opportunities and space for hundreds of new homes and many hectares of factory buildings. The industrial revolution had reached Eindhoven and would never leave again.

Expansion would continue. By the second half of the 1960s, Philips had reached its peak, growing into the largest company in the world with 400,000 employees. In social terms too, the company put its stamp on the city: building homes, discount shops, providing study funds, pensions, sports and cultural amenities. In people’s minds Eindhoven and Philips, became inseparable. Philips left a mark on the city’s physical fabric: in addition to complete districts being built and parks being laid out, sport complexes and social centres were constructed, the futuristic Evoluon landed and, marking an important stage in the city’s continued development, a technical university was founded.

Debilitating blow

However, the globalisation of the economy, movement of production to low-wage countries and the transformation of industry from manufacturing to knowledge-based, dealt Eindhoven a devastating blow in the 1990s. Philips was by then in deep trouble and laid off 45,000 people worldwide, most of them in the Netherlands. The other large employer in the city, DAF, manufacturer of cars and trucks, went bankrupt. Redundancy notices were distributed door to door as though they were advertising leaflets. Whole families lost their jobs and their income. It was a social as well as economic disaster.

What followed was typical of the resilience of the city and the cooperative character of the region. Led by Rein Welschen, Eindhoven’s mayor at the time, 21 municipalities in the region paid 10 guilders per capita into a fund. The EU doubled this amount and enabled the setting up, together with industry and the knowledge institutes, of an economic development programme – it was the birth of the ‘triple helix’, an executive board consisting of government, industry and knowledge institutes, which funded projects aimed at restoring the economy. That board still exists, as does the funding that supports its projects. It is now called Brainport Eindhoven.

High Tech Campus

Ground-breaking technologies

It was a successful approach. The path to economic recovery had been found, and now the region is one of the technological hotspots in the world, pioneering a number of ground-breaking technologies. Brainport companies and knowledge institutes think up technological solutions for countless global issues, such as health, mobility, energy transition and food. Lettuce that grows day and night without any significant water consumption, artificial heart valves which fuse with the body, a family car which runs on solar power, data centres which use minimum amounts of energy because they run on photonics (a light technique). It will all be, and in some cases already is, possible thanks to technology from Eindhoven.

This contributed not only to the founding of Brainport Eindhoven, but also to Philips bringing together all the R&D labs in the city in the High Tech Campus and gaving the city a solid basis of innovation capital. Further reorganisation led to Philips discarding countless company components, which later grew into world brands such as ASML and NXP. They surrounded themselves with more than 6,000 high-tech supply companies, which do not supply semi-finished products, but provide solutions based on their own R&D. The result is a region with a broad economic base, and a city which no longer depends on a single company. A city which acts as a magnet for international talent; young engineers from all over the world want to be involved in inventing the future in Eindhoven.

International character

Just as it did 100 years ago, the transformation of the economy is again making its mark on Eindhoven. It is fast becoming international in character – in 2009 almost 92% of all Eindhoveners were of Dutch nationality; now that is less than 87 percent. Fuelled by the growth of high-tech companies in the Brainport region, the influx of internationals from India and China has been particularly high. Chip manufacturer ASML alone takes on around 300 new employees every month.

Many of the international knowledge workers settle in the Meerhoven-district. The primary schools there show just how much of a melting pot this particular Eindhoven district has become. At ‘t Slingertouw primary school, there are 970 pupils, from 40 countries. At De Startbaan, 40% of the pupils are foreign nationals. From 2020 English will be the working language at the Technical University Eindhoven.

The increase in the number of migrant workers from Eastern Europe and visitors to the city also contributes to the metamorphosis from provincial city to metropolis. You will often be addressed in English at the cash desk in the supermarket; menus and signs are becoming multilingual. When you phone a doctor’s surgery these days, the phone message starts with: ‘For English, press one.’

Central Station Area

Champion in transformation

These demographic developments pose new challenges for Eindhoven’s municipal council. For example, there must be enough accommodation available for all Eindhoveners, new and old. There is significant pressure on the housing market – an increase in student numbers, knowledge workers and others responding to Eindhoven’s appeal, leads to a shortage of homes at all price levels. Eindhoven has been a champion of ‘transformation’ in the last decades, converting around 650,000 square metres of former commercial premises into other uses, mainly residential. The most striking example of this is Strijp-S, the former beating industrial heart of Philips, occupying 27 hectares close to Eindhoven city centre. Since 2000, this industrial area has been transformed into a post-industrial neighbourhood in which living, working and leisure mix. Strijp-S forms the major backdrop for the annual Dutch Design Week, which draws 300,000 visitors from home and abroad.

Eindhoven is on the verge of a new transformation involving another area close to the city centre: Eindhoven Internationale Knoop XL, where the railway station functions as an international mobility hub , as well as a key link with the city centre, rather than the barrier that it currently is. A place which serves as a ‘shop-window for Brainport’, housing not only the head offices of Brainport companies, but also a congress centre and a technological design museum. Climate neutral and completed within 25 years.

Building Offensive

At present, the municipality is working hard to speed up housing construction in the city, by way of the Building Offensive, which is aimed at achieving a production of 3,000 homes a year in the near future. This should significantly expand the market for student rooms and medium-priced rental homes in the coming years. There is an extra warm welcome for developers responding directly to Eindhoven’s needs and spatial planning procedures are streamlined. Procedures for zoning plans and granting of permits are accelerated, without losing sight of the dialogue with the environment. The municipality is also stimulating construction processes by way of an appropriate building policy.

The city’s decisions on new housing developments are impacted by a number of key concerns. Affordability is the first one. Agreements are made with developers to ensure that new homes remain affordable in the long term. New developments must have high architectural value, contribute to the city’s sustainability goals and preferably have a recognisable, Eindhoven signature. In March 2019 a new housing deal [ follows ] was made with the government. One key word in all that is ‘innovation’. In terms of housing design, accommodation concept and construction method, the city always look to the future. Examples of this are the accommodation concepts of Flexwonen and Friends-wonen.

But the greatest pride in the area of construction is possibly the production of the world’s first 3D printed concrete homes. Thought up by the TU/e, produced at De Hurk industrial estate and installed in Meerhoven by the municipality, this is an “urban planning triple helix” in which government, industry and knowledge institutes are so interwoven, that it is no longer easy to see who has the leading role. And that is how it should be: a collaborative process resulting in an innovative society in which there is room for everyone.