The innovation process requires frequent and iterative interactions among the innovative factors, in which universities, research centers and private companies are central.

Ideally, partnerships can be the driving force to accelerate organisational learning, generate innovations and build capabilities among partners. At the same time, they can provide huge opportunities not only for the organisations themselves but also for the students and staff alike.

Despite that, while the advantages of partnerships can be massive, it is also good to acknowledge that there are some challenges involved as well when it comes to international co-operation.

In a worst-case scenario, they can create an environment of frustration, delayed implementation and resentment amongst the collaborating entities.

Fortunately, as the experience from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) shows, nothing is insurmountable if one is determined enough.


Learning from others

According to Dr. Gerd Kortuem, a professor from the TU Delft, the biggest challenges in the IoT Rapid-Proto Labs project were related to teaching. And those were also some of the reasons why the project kick-started an innovation regarding how he thinks about and conducts education.

“During the project, we noticed that there were significant challenges in teaching synchronous courses at various Universities. This is simply because the academic timetables did not match”, he says.

Admittedly, at the same time, Kortuem says that international co-operation has helped them to broaden their vision and adopt new models and practices.

This may as well be one of the best things about international co-operations. When we are open to learning from others, we benefit not only from their experience but also our own.

Through engagement with the project partners and client companies, Dr. Kortuem and his colleagues identified requirements for an innovative IoT education and developed a blended learning approach supported by a hybrid online platform.

“New innovative platform supports, for example, IoT programming tasks and gives students access to online teaching materials and peer-to-peer self-help groups”, he says.


In times of crisis

Dr. Kortuem admits it was not easy to implement such a massive innovation project during these challenging times and in the middle of a global crisis. As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic struck Europe in spring 2020 and it hit especially hard in the education field.

“I must say that the COVID-19 had a significant impact on our project as it required us to move all the education online. In a way, that was both inspiring and challenging at the same time”, he says.

Instead of thinking of how to support small groups of students, they were suddenly demanded to develop an education that supports hundreds of design students across Europe.

And they had to adapt within days.

Assistant professor Dr. Jacky Bourgeois from TU Delft agrees with Dr. Kortuem. According to him, the pandemic forced them to fundamentally change the way they operate.

The unexpected situation drove educators to re-think the way they taught and forced them to unlock some of the established structures. But as they say, in times of hardship, we learn, and we adapt.

“It was crystal clear to us, that keeping our staff and students safe was our top priority, but we also had to make a lot of compromises regarding the education we provide”, he says.

Dr. Bourgeois found both the emergence of autonomous and self-paced learning, especially promising directions towards agile and international multidisciplinary projects.

“As they say, in times of hardship, we learn and we adapt”, he says.


Re-thinking of education

According to the professors, the project pushed them to understand better the teaching structure in an international environment and seek potential alignments to it.

To do so, they had to experiment a lot and iteratively map the boundaries of what and how to teach students from so diverse backgrounds.

Dr. Bourgeois says that it turned out to be a task in itself as the design field is in a constant stage of transformation as every nation, university, research center, company and individual have their own culture and identity they bring to the table.

One could even argue that the project has changed his whole perspective on education.

And he is not the only one.

Dr. Kortuem also thinks that the project has changed the way they teach designers at TU Delft.

“Typically, designers do not have a lot of experience in, for example, software development and that’s why teaching them to conceive and develop realistic IoT applications and services can be challenging at times”, he says.

The professors both agree that The IoT Rapid-Proto Labs project played a crucial part in helping them develop an approach that is suitable for design students while at the same time being technologically challenging.