Understanding Society

Tilburg University is convinced that it can contribute to solving social issues by developing and transferring knowledge and bringing together people from various disciplines and organizations.

Robbert Coenmans, PhD student

'I’m not your typical scholar, but I’m doing really cool stuff here'

Robbert Coenmans

Robbert Coenmans is a jack-of-all-trades. At Tilburg University, he focuses on innovative educational projects such as the Law Clinics and the Brabant Robot Challenge. Besides this, he is working on his PhD, researching the consequences of robotics for health care. ‘I want to know how we can prepare for the great changes in our labor market.’

“I am hard to pigeonhole. After I completed my studies in penal law in Tilburg, I started my career at FNV Jong, the junior branch of the Dutch labor union FNV. Being chairman of this organization, I was automatically also a member of the SER, the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands, a body consisting of representatives of employers and labor unions, and independent experts. Through my work in the union, I developed a fascination for the labor market.”

“My switchover to Tilburg University was kind of impulsive. I was asked to come here by Professor Ton Wilthagen. At Tilburg University, he wanted me to occupy myself with the labor market. I started out as coordinator of the Law Clinics. This is an innovative educational project for law students working on behalf of organizations, so that they can prepare for their future jobs.

After this, I got into what became the Brabant Robot Challenge. Wilthagen felt that we had to pay attention to robotics and incorporate it in our program. There is a lot of talk in the media these days about robots stealing jobs. It is something that is going to change the labor market profoundly and this makes it an important topic to pay attention to in education, preferably in an innovative way. It does not make sense to apply an old-school approach to a labor market that is undergoing a complete renewal.”

“Our idea developed into an innovative and multidisciplinary educational program on robotics. In this program, we wanted to collaborate with other organizations in the area. The topic of robots and the labor market is quite relevant in the region. There is a lot of manufacturing industry here, and as a result of that the consequences of robotics will quickly become visible. Besides this, there is a great deal of knowledge here about robot technology, the labor market and the legal and ethical aspects involved.”

“The last thing we wanted was some kind of wild robot plan; it was to be a purely pragmatic program about the use of robotics now. We chose to send our students to healthcare institutions and have them solve practical cases there. This led to a nice mix of assignments and groups of people. Thus, one of the groups consisted of a pedagogue, a software engineer and a prosthetics designer. The groups worked on a variety of assignments. One group would work on how the care robot Zora could be put to better use, for instance, while another would calculate a business case for an eye surgery robot.”

“The Brabant Robot Challenge has yielded great results. Students felt they learned a lot from working with students from completely different programs and from doing a ‘real assignment’ for an organization. The health care institutions got their questions answered. The university now has a nice mold that it can use for more innovative educational projects. What it has brought me is that I know what I want to do my PhD on: What are the real consequences of robotics for the labor market in health care?  And how can we prepare for this?” 

“You’re asking if it’s okay for me to focus entirely on just one thing?  I’m not your typical scholar. What I do know is that I can do really great stuff here at the university.”

Brabant Robot Challenge

In 2016, Tilburg University organized the Brabant Robot Challenge together with educational institutions Fontys, Eindhoven Technical University, and Avans. Health care organizations such as  GGZe, HiT, Preceyes, RSZk and Vughterstede supplied issues to tackle for groups of participating students. At the end of this challenge, each group pitched the solution they had come up with.  The Brabant Robot Challenge forms the start of a network around robotics and there will be a follow-up later.