A new management agreement, an updated committee of directors, a new strategy and a new CEO: at VITO, 1 January 2024 signified a new era. Among other things, this will be characterised by greater collaboration. Within VITO itself, between the many areas of expertise in which it works, but also outside these circles with external partners, such as businesses, governments but also civilians both in and outside Flanders. And Inge Neven, the new CEO of VITO, will shape this positive transition which should lead to a sustainable future. 'Striving to realise balance in the spirit of the European Green Deal, remains the goal. Which roads we follow to end up there is of lesser importance.'

It is mid-January when we step into the office of Inge Neven. We are there to hear about her plans for VITO, and her vision of the world, economy and society at large. During the meeting, our gazes wander outside where the snow is slowly melting. Snow in the winter; it's something we used to consider normal. However, due to the snow-free winters of the past few years, we see it as increasingly exceptional. 'The earth is not only heating up, the climate is becoming more tempestuous and unpredictable,' says VITO's new CEO. 'That makes it harder to outline a clear future. We must continuously strive to find a new balance with nature.'

A look at VITO's new strategy under Inge Neven clarifies exactly what she means. Whereas VITO's activities used to be divided into five subject areas, work is now focusing on three 'impact domains'. One of these is climate. Combating climate change, including reductions of emissions, remains an important goal (so-called mitigation). However, adaptation and resilience are now also gaining attention in order to deal with climate change and continue to function in the face of the climate crisis. This is an illustration of the ongoing quest to find a new balance.

Neven also refers to the flooding just before the New Year in East and West Flanders. 'If the Dender floods, we can monitor satellite images in real-time and use AI tools to indicate which activities are best for getting things under control quickly.' Unfortunately, valuable time is lost when governments must first get in touch with VITO. 'Moreover, as a research centre, it is not our job to organise issues on-site; we only do that on request, as per this flooding for example. We must therefore ensure that governments, but also civilians and businesses, have the tools they need to be more efficient. The story is all about resilience and the same story applies to many other domains too, from health, through economy, to geopolitics. Resilience is crucial on the way to a sustainable future.'


Resilience is one of the main ingredients in your positive transition. Does it also help combat negativity in relation to issues such as climate?

'It makes our climate efforts more visible, especially at the local level. Of course, the ultimate goal is to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 degrees at most, and to be carbon-neutral in Europe by 2050. But there are many different routes to realising that goal. We must principally look at a broader playing field and not, for example, try to resolve everything individually. We currently stumble from crisis to crisis, from PFAS to nitrogen but this is inflammatory and creates a great deal of negativity. Take the port of Rotterdam's ambition, for example, to store CO2 en masse in the bed of the North Sea (via carbon capture & storage, or CCS). This will create emissions in the short term but, in the long term, the net level will reduce. By taking that into account, you create calm and greater positivity.'

Furthermore, CO2 can not only be stored in the long term, it can also be used as a raw material (carbon capture & utilisation or CCU). VITO has been researching this for years. CCU falls under the impact domains of Climate and Sustainable Raw Materials. What does this say about the new vision of VITO's activities?

'It shows that the impact domains are not separated from one another but intrinsically interwoven. The impact domain Sustainable Raw Materials is very broad; it encompasses themes such as the bio-economy, circularity, energy and water. In the sustainable transition, well-integrated ecosystems will be aligned with one another, so they can reinforce each other. Just consider, for example, the exchange of residual heat between businesses so it is not lost, the integrated management of water, and the use of waste products as raw materials, such as the CO2 in the CCU story.'

The third impact domain is Healthy Living Environment. What does that involve?

'We all want to live in a beautiful, healthy and sustainable environment and that is our point of departure. It is the perfect, local Flanders story. And of the three impact domains, this one is most targeted towards civilians. There are huge challenges in Flanders: in a densely populated, small region, many issues must be combined, including housing, nature, agriculture and industry. By starting from different areas of expertise, we can develop appropriate and integrated solutions.'

How will the underlying integration of the three impact domains feel in the workplace?

'It makes us take a much broader, all-encompassing approach; we aim to encourage collaboration across domain boundaries and must use a highly interdisciplinary approach in order to create this type of system innovation. Herein, we work on specific needs - business, government or, more broadly, society as a whole - and offer corresponding, integrated solutions. We will use this all-encompassing approach a great deal in the coming years. As far as I'm concerned, it is an extremely important innovation.'

To manage the impact domains, the organisation within VITO has been rearranged, particularly at the top, with an updated committee of directors. How does that work?

'Every impact domain is managed by a multidisciplinary team in which the expertise of the previous VITO themes are combined. But it is definitely not a one-on-one. The expertise around energy, water and transition management, for example, are all apparent within one domain. We are thus trying to prevent new silos forming. We also wish to grow in the future and to enable that, we eliminated a management layer when introducing the three impact domains. We are thus creating new opportunities for our current and future employees.'


What does your growth look like?

'Sustainability, our core business, is already a hot topic and will become even more important. That is why we will substantially expand our impact in this area. By 2030, I am aiming to double our efforts. This should be apparent from a better and more extensive infrastructure. We can thus build on our increasingly robust IP portfolio (intellectual property), which we valorise in a range of different ways. We are also focussing on our unique technology platforms, such as 3D printing, electro-chemicals and data technology, whereby we will evolve into larger pilot projects, demonstration spaces and 'living labs'. This is also what other businesses expect of us; we demonstrate that the technology can work on a large scale so that their investments become less risky.'

In the end, innovations should lead to proper applications. How can this be further stimulated?

'We aim to work even more effectively from the perspective of our (potential) customers. Talking to them will allow us to get to the essence of the challenges they are facing. On this basis, we can see what VITO has in-house to provide support, with the emphasis once again on integrated solutions.

We will also work on commercialisation and earning money from our innovations. We can thus put our technologies into the market and generate resources which can then be invested in new research. And so, in a sense, we are constantly reinventing ourselves at VITO.'


You want VITO to be more visible to the outside world. How will you achieve this?

'We want to make greater efforts in terms of outreach. Not simply to promote ourselves but to make our expertise and know-how available to governments, businesses and citizens, the three target groups for our impact domains. As an independent research centre, we have a great deal to offer. However, we also realise that the usefulness and practicality of new innovations are often unclear to the wider public. By explaining innovations in a tangible and personalised manner, preferably using an interactive approach, we can make these more accessible.'

Finally, do you feel like a true VITO member already?

'I eat, sleep and breathe VITO. (laughs). I even dream about it now. The combination of an ecological, economic and social impact in my work really appeals. You can feel it in the air here and it lies deep in the DNA of all our employees. That energises me and gives me an appetite for adding my own contribution.'