Inge Genné, Programme manager at VITO and a group of (internal) water technologists, made the internal switch from the  Sustainable Chemistry Department to the Water Management & Technology Department (WMT) at the beginning of 2016. At the same time, the Flemish Knowledge Centre Water (Vlakwa) was also incorporated in VITO. "We monitor the Flemish water system under the VITO umbrella. We do this by listening to the needs of stakeholders and by accelerating innovation in the water domain based on an integrated approach. We are now seeing that Vlakwa and our water experts have a strong reputation."

The start of your career in December 1991 is closely linked to the birth of VITO. In fact, you might have been the very first newly hired VITO employee!

(laughs) I'm not sure whether I really was the first one – perhaps HR could look into that. But it is true that when I applied in the Summer of 1991, VITO did not yet officially exist. I was recruited by the HR Director of SCK, after which I had to wait until VITO was officially established before I could get to work.

You also combined two roles in your first position: that of VITO researcher and that of PhD student.

That’s right. After completing my studies in chemistry (University of Hasselt and the Catholic University of Leuven), I wanted to start an application-oriented PhD in polymer chemistry. At VITO, I was given the opportunity to combine the PhD research with a role as a researcher (these temporary contracts have now been replaced by the scholarship system). My PhD was therefore one of the very first VITO PhDs.

You started researching membrane technology and you are now the Water Programme Manager today. How have you seen your working environment change over the last 28 years?

In the early nineties, the focus was on membrane development, both for electrochemical and filtration applications. At that time, there was no mention of water purification or contract research for membrane filtration. However, pressure on groundwater reserves led to growing industrial interest in water saving and reuse. I then began focusing on the field of process optimisation, ranging from water audits to the implementation of reuse scenarios.

In the last almost three decades, VITO has also changed a lot as an organisation. What initially started as a rather academic research organisation, quickly evolved into a customer-oriented innovation organisation that was more readily responsive. We then began to organise ourselves more strictly as a modern company, with a focus on targeted training for commercial and management positions. In the third and final wave, the focus was firmly placed on the social impact. As far as the availability of sufficient water is concerned, this impact is, of course, evident.

And as a Programme manager, you ensure that VITO takes on the role of 'accelerator' in the management and transition of the Flemish water system.

There is a lot of movement in the field of Flemish water, not just at VITO but also in (drinking water) companies, cities and innovation policy. Cooperation is obviously very important. During the recent periods of water stress (for example the extreme drought in the summer of 2018), we have seen how important it is to look at the bigger picture and work from this.

The reorganisation of VITO in 2016 came at just the right time. VITO resolutely opted for the development of a multidisciplinary water team and united hydrology, data and IT specialists with experts in the field of technology, economy and policy. This cross-pollination has had a stimulating effect. A colleague recently described it as follows: "Looking beyond the boundaries of your own expertise forces you to be more focussed." And that's exactly what we need!