15 February 2017

IT department Utrecht University innovates in testing grounds

A digital assistant to help students find current information about the curriculum more easily ànd a car sharing platform for all employees at the Utrecht Science Park: those are the best ideas from the first edition of the ITS Proeftuin testing ground. The IT department Information & Technology Services (ITS)  wants to improve its service by responding to customer needs both now and in the future. The Proeftuin, a cooperative effort with incubator UtrechtInc, acts as a vehicle for achieving this goal. Five teams presented their innovative concepts for feedback and implementation during a pitch event on 13 February. The two best concepts will be realised.

By creating a testing ground, ITS is making room for innovation. 'Our leading researchers and lecturers demand innovative IT. As an IT department we can't ignore this. We have already achieved quite a bit by putting new technical possibilities into production. Examples include digital exams, apps for students and the use of iRods technology for research. However, we wanted to gain more experience with experimentation as part of the innovation process', said ITS director Carolien Besselink.

ITS wants the ITS Proeftuin to inspire employees to proactively respond to the changing IT environment. 'It's a place to explore whether a new technology can be usefully applied but most of all to experience the process of experimentation', said Besselink. 'Learning to think as a startup with a strong focus on a customer, hands-on and in co-creation and cooperation with partners, is a great addition to our way of working. Through the testing grounds we arrive at innovative ideas that we can use to our advantage as a leading university'. ITS sought out UtrechtInc, the incubator affiliated with Utrecht University among others, to cooperate on the project. UtrechtInc supports startups and corporate teams in conducting experiments, validation and implementation. 

Boot camp
Over 20 ITS colleagues gathered at UtrechtInc in January for a boot camp. They spent the morning learning how startups innovate as pioneers. Workshops including Business Modelling and Lean Startup explored the first phase from idea to validation. The Customer Discovery workshop gave them tools to tackle their service, potential opportunities and solutions. Next, the ITS team returned to the department and went to work. They needed to test assumptions with a target group and go through additional steps.

Pitch Event
During the Pitch Event on 13 February, all of the concepts were presented to an audience and a jury comprising representatives from education and research. Members included general director of University Administration Leon van de Zande, director of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance Martine Verbeek, and Corwin van Schendel student at the Faculty of Science. Ultimately, digital assistant Dana and care sharing platform UUber were chosen as the winners. According to the jury, every concept was of high quality but these two stood out in terms of innovation and the way in which they respond to existing problems at the university.

Marjan van Opstal-Gerla is one of the Dana team members: 'We started out with a different idea. UtrechtInc encouraged us to talk in-depth with students first. Using this valuable information, we were able to hone our solution to meet the target group's actual needs. We want to continue to do so during the follow-up phase'.

The UUber team is pleased to have the opportunity to further develop their idea. Above all, they are very excited about the testing grounds introduced by ITS. 'It allows small ideas to take shape and be turned into something concrete. The fact that a jury representing the business side performed the assessment tells me that our ideas are being taken seriously at the UU, too. It's truly encouraging, said team member Coen van Kuijk.

In March, both teams will have the privilege of spending one day a week at UtrechtInc to work on implementing their concept.

  • About Dana: Digital assistant to help students find current information about the curriculum more easily using existing communication channels such as Whatsapp. The concept incorporates machine learning.
  • About UUber: Platform for employees at the Utrecht Science Park to encourage carpooling.