Science to Impact according to Levi van Dam, UvA & Garage2020


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Entrepreneurial researchers can be found in the social sciences as well. And Levi van Dam is one of them. Van Dam is a behavioural scientist at the University of Amsterdam and the director of Garage2020; a movement that wants to realise innovations in youth care. How does Van Dam create impact with science, and what is his opinion about the steps that need to be taken for a better valorisation practice?

What does Garage2020 do?

Garage2020 is a network that wants to use current knowledge and technologies to improve youth care and make it more attractive than it is now.

We design tools that, besides initiating the desired behavioural change in a child or young person, also have an attractive appearance and are easy to use. The experiential world of children and young people takes centre stage. They are naturally curious, which increases the chances that they will actually use the solutions we design.

There is an awful lot of knowledge available already, and in large quantities too, but it has not been properly used yet because the forms it is offered in are far too academic. Take self-help books, for example. These are written in such complex language that they only reach highly educated parents or carers, but not the parent who lives in a third-floor flat in the Bijlmer district of Amsterdam.

Does this also apply to Het Tienerbrein [The Adolescent Brain] by Jelle Jolles? Even though it was a bestseller?

Unfortunately, even that book is too hard to read for many parents. It is fantastic for parents who read books. But not every parent does.

Can you give some examples of the apps that you design?

Yes, we’re designing the Dutch app SEEV, which enables young people to pay their bills in an attractive way. And the Dutch app feelee helps young people gain insight into their own emotions by keeping track of their mood using emojis in combination with smartphone data about exercise and sleep.

There is too little awareness that society – the taxpayer – pays for our research and that, as a researcher, you should therefore give something back to society. As far as I’m concerned, more should be done to raise awareness about this at universities.

What are your tools for creating more impact?

By enabling researchers from different disciplines to work together, we want to realise solutions that are more in tune with the experiential world of children and young people. For example, we bring design thinkers from TU Delft together with psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, philosophers and behavioural scientists so that they can jointly come up with the optimal design. And, of course, we always do that in combination with the end users: children, young people and adults.

Are there challenges?

Certainly. And you can only achieve innovative solutions if you get to know each other’s methods and culture and respect these. Each discipline has a different focus. For example, an educational sciences researcher is focused on the results of his or her measurements, a designer is set on achieving a user-friendly design, whereas an anthropologist can observe a family for weeks like a fly on the wall without feeling the need to immediately capture everything in measurable concepts. The joint mission of all people involved in Garage2020 is to replace current forms of youth care with more attractive solutions. This mission brings us together as different experts, and enables us to step outside of our own disciplines.

And are there challenges at a higher level?

Regrettably, there is still a wide gap between research and everyday practice. Very few of the apps currently developed at universities are also commercially viable.

Many of my colleagues are not interested in converting their findings into a commercial product. They focus on scientific publications and supervising PhD students, and are less concerned with the application of knowledge. There is too little awareness that society – the taxpayer – pays for our research and that, as a researcher, you should therefore give something back to society. As far as I’m concerned, more should be done to raise awareness about this at universities.

And the funding system could also be better. There should be far more calls that focus on improving the ecosystem. For example, by publishing calls where interdisciplinary research is a condition for funding, you can encourage researchers from different universities and backgrounds to work together. Ultimately, this will benefit the entire higher education ecosystem.

I’m pleased that we now have the “Science to Impact” movement that is putting points like this on the agenda and makes people more aware of these. The fewer barriers there are, the higher the chance that our research will enable us to realise the innovative solutions that this generation and subsequent generations so desperately need!

Levi van Dam

Levi is a behavioural scientist at the University of Amsterdam. He combines his knowledge in the area of pedagogy and research with his ambition to make an impact on the lives of families.

Six years ago, he was the co-founder of the foundation Garage2020, which he now is the director of. Garage2020 is funded by care institutions, municipalities, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and various funds. Besides which, a Revolving Fund has also been established to support (digital) health start-ups that have the potential to grow into a limited company.

The idea is to make part of the future profits from successful start-ups flow back into Garage2020. In this way, the money will once again benefit the youth sector. ‘The earning model is still very vulnerable. Structural funding from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and the Association of Netherlands Municipalities is needed to be able to continue the Garage2020 network’, says Levi van Dam.

Besides Garage2020, Van Dam has developed the JIM approach, an evidence-based method with which out-of-house placements can be prevented. Together with Suzanne de Ruig, he set up the Dutch foundation JIMwerkt [JIMworks] that equips youth care and education professionals to work with this innovative approach.