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16 December 2021

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Interview

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She herself also didn't think she would last so long in the Netherlands. She came in 1997 to study. But lo and behold: in the meantime, Germany's Lisa Brüggen has even been inaugurated as a professor at Maastricht University together with her husband Alexander. She as professor of financial services, he is professor of management control.

Not that Lisa came from far away. Although she moved five times before her tenth birthday, she cites the Niederrhein region, across the border near Venlo, as her place of origin. Brüggen combines her work at the faculty of School of Business and Economics with research at the Brightlands Institute for Smart Society (BISS). This is an institute of Maastricht University in which all faculties collaborate on societal challenges. Located at Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen.

Appearance

It's rather quiet there on this Monday morning in coronation time. No matter how you slice it, a woman is and always will be quite an appearance in the financial world. Of course, Brüggen is an internationally recognized expert in service marketing, financial services and pension communications. But also a woman and very committed to challenging the number of female colleagues both at university and in the corporate world. 'Well, at least I never have to stand in line for the toilet at a conference on pensions,' she laughs. 'And if I do speak, at least I have the attention.' But she will not fail, if at all possible, to explain that diversity is advisable: looking at an issue from as many sides as possible can only benefit the solution.

Not that she would give herself the predicate combative. 'My sister always says my ascendant is Libra. I need time to think about things properly.' For example, about how to improve people's financial well-being, possibly through the use of artificial intelligence. That's what she's doing research on at BISS. It is this combination of scientific research, social impact and cooperation with government and civil society organizations that makes her happy. 'This way I can share my knowledge but also put it into practice.'

"All organizations that are not diverse are missing out on tremendous opportunities. The more diverse a team is, the better the performance."

Diversity

Initially she chose science. 'The tricky thing about an academic career is that at the start of your career you have to be able to show that you excel in lots of different parts: teaching well, publishing, bringing in money. But that is also the phase when you have children as a woman, if you want children. That's pretty tough - by now my daughters are 11 and 13. During the time I was on maternity leave, I had very little time for my research and I was judged for that. I even considered quitting and going into business. I thought it was very unfair that they mainly looked at the quantity while, in my opinion, quality says something about what you achieve within a certain time. So that became one of the motivations for getting involved in diversity. To make sure that the policy for young women becomes fairer. Meanwhile, she sees that things are moving in the right direction. The deans, but also the previous chairman of the Executive Board Martin Paul as well as his successor Rianne Letschert, think no differently. My own faculty lags behind the most, but there too things are starting to move. It all takes a little longer than expected, but they are long-lasting processes.

AI-Hub

She gives an example. 'We recently became one of the national AI hubs, the AI hub Brightlands, where we bring together knowledge about artificial intelligence to solve social and economic challenges in Limburg. I'm in the financial services working group, which consists of about thirty people. And you can guess how many women are there? I am the only one! Hello, it's 2021, people! All organizations that are not diverse are missing out on huge opportunities. The more diverse a team is, the better the performance.'

Lisa Brüggen has been involved with the Brightlands campus in Heerlen for two years now. 'Since it became clear that the campus would become an AI hub, great initiatives have emerged in a short time. We have just submitted a grant application for an ELSA lab.' In it, ethical, legal and social aspects of innovation are examined and, where possible, improved. The ELSA lab of AI hub Brightlands combats poverty and debt with the help of artificial intelligence. 'From BISS, managing director Judith Kamalski and I worked very intensively together with Brightlands' CEO Astrid Boeijen and in particular Pieter Custers from her team. We wrote the substantive proposal from the interdisciplinary team at BISS and also involved Zuyd University of Applied Sciences and the Open University. There is a very nice dynamic, we have grown together well. I think we can ensure that many parties from Limburg, Belgium and Germany, from start-ups to very large parties, will find a place here where they can share and gain knowledge. And innovate and develop new things together. The ELSA lab is an example of this. Another thing we are working on together with the other campuses is data and digitization. That runs through all the organizations and sectors.

Poverty Reduction

How, then, can that ELSA lab contribute to solving problematic debt and reducing poverty? 'Using data science and artificial intelligence to collect as much data as possible which is linked and analyzed in an ethical and legally sound way. So that problems can be tackled more efficiently.'

Brüggen points to the benefits affair. We see that bureaucratic organizations are often far removed from the citizen. They mainly think in terms of processes and regulations. The human touch is missing. You hear that everywhere now. The idea is to use virtual reality to give policymakers a much better understanding of what it means for citizens to live in debt or poverty. So very specifically, we want to use virtual reality or some other simulation technique to enable that experience for policymakers. It is completely different from watching a film about poverty or looking up statistics about indebtedness or reading a policy document. Through virtual reality you are in the situation and that does something to you.

"I try to contribute to the education of empowered and critical citizens."

Critical Thinking

What - apart from knowledge - is the most important thing she wants to give her students? I'm increasingly realizing that it's not about the knowledge, because that changes all the time, it's more about a critical way of thinking. What I like about Maastricht University is the problem-based education. What you have to learn is: I see a situation here, what is the problem? How can I make that clear and find a solution to it by applying knowledge? I try to contribute to educating empowered and critical citizens. I try to impart awareness and ethics to them. Stand still for a moment, think about the consequences for a moment, adopt a critical attitude.'

This attitude also comes in handy when it comes to one of her specialties: communication about pensions. Lisa Brüggen is an expert in the field of pension communication. 'The Netherlands has the best pension system in the world. So people always have the idea that their pension will be fine. For a lot of people it's pretty well arranged, at least if you're a full-time employee. But the labor market has changed. As a self-employed person, you have to start as early as possible; the later you start, the more money you have to put in. Something really needs to be done for that large group of self-employed, but that is a difficult discussion in The Hague.'

Social Turn

She only really fell for the financial world when she could put a social spin on it. Like pension provision, for instance. I thought: this is really nice, because everyone hopes to grow old and perhaps still has fun plans. Only we only start to realize that from the age of 45. But my interests are broad and so I grew from pensions further into financial decisions. What I like so much here at BISS and on campus is that we don't only look at things with an economic view, but there are also ethicists and philosophers here who ask questions. About the debt issue, for example. Just the simple question of why we want to think about poverty is relevant. Because the answer has political consequences, for example. And what do those mean?'

"The Netherlands has the best pension system in the world."

Netherlands

Is she going to make her own retirement in the Netherlands? My husband and I are following the same career path. In the beginning we thought we would go back to Germany. But no, we like it here. It is a beautiful region and we really like the academic climate. At German universities the interaction is much more formal and professors are a kind of demigods. There, the academic middle class is much more dependent on a professor, while here you have much more autonomy and can still work together. And we really like the Burgundian atmosphere in Maastricht, with its good food and a nice bottle of wine.

This interview is part of the BRIGHT PEOPLE interview series, in partnership with Brightlands and Innovation Origins.

Written by

Yara Purnot