Born and raised in Amsterdam-Noord, from starting his career at a small non-profit to landing a dream job as press officer at the Tour de France, Gijs Boerwinkel has come a long way to become the Head of Communications at Waag, a Dutch foundation for research and social initiative at the intersection of art, technology, and society.
So what did you do at the University of Amsterdam?
I started my bachelor’s in Political Science. After three years, I thought I knew what it was all about, as confident as one would be after completing a bachelor’s. I wanted to do something else that broadened my perspective on the world and was really interested in campaigning during my bachelor’s, so I ended up doing a Master’s in Political Communication. I did my Master’s thesis on the influence of De Telegraaf on government policy, which is a more populist, right-wing newspaper. Political Communication was all about the transfer of information between media, politics, and citizens. I look back to it and think, that was a good time. Useful for my work at Waag.
Could you tell me a little more about what you do here at Waag, and what the organization is all about?
Waag is an institute that researches the influence of technology on society. We have four departments: Make, Code, Learn, and Care. On one hand, we try to open up technology to make people aware of what’s inside and why, how it works, what kind of data it collects. We also try to get people involved in the designing of the technology. We have practical labs that try to do that in digital fabrication, open biology, and the textile industry. Are these things sustainable, and can we change the industry?
An example is the Fairphone, which started as a research project at Waag. The idea was to open up a phone and see where the parts come from and replace them with sustainable parts.A social enterprise eventually took over and sold over 100,000 units.
What is your role?
I’m the head of the Communications department, which tells the public what Waag does. We conduct public research, inviting different groups for their input. A big part of the Communications department is organizing citizen involvement, and sharing the results of the research findings. Our target groups are not just the general public but also policymakers, professionals, teachers, and the like.
I always say that it is easy to sell, for example, a can of beer, because you know what your product consistently is, but at Waag it is challenging because the target groups are so diverse and the messages are very different from project to project.
What does a day in the Waag Communication department look like?
Normally, because we do so many different types of research, your day can be quite fragmented. You’re writing a press release on digital identity, and as soon as you’re finished, you’re working on getting teachers to use 3D printers in education.
The topics are very diverse at Waag, so discussing with the people who work with the research how to get the message across is crucial. The longer you work here, the more you realize it is ultimately all about democratization of technology.
What was your favorite project at Waag so far?
The Ministry of Domestic Affairs. They were working on the digital identification systems. Currently, we have the DigiD. It has lots of things that are inefficient and confusing, so they are looking for new ways of organizing digital identity.
They asked us to help them define what digital identity was using as many stakeholders as possible, so we organized different events targeting different groups. We filmed interviews on the street, invited artists to come in, and we collected as much information as possible on identity. At the end of the day, it was quite a philosophical question. The answers could range from a Snapchat profile, to clothes they wear, to bars they visit.
Ultimately we found that people want to have more sovereignty and choice over their digital identity. It is an urgent issue of today, and we were able to inform the Ministry on the information we uncovered.
How did studying communication science at the UvA shape the work you do today? Do you get to apply the knowledge you have learned?
Originally I wanted to become active in politics, but I became quite cynical. I have realized that I really enjoy my work as it is aligned with my personal values, and there is a purpose to what I do. Studying political communication at the University of Amsterdam was definitely useful for what I do today. I apply my knowledge for informing citizens, getting them to stand up for a good cause, being participative.
What advice would you give current students of communication science who are trying to figure out their future careers?
Find an organization where you are able to find purpose in the work you do, because at the end of the day your impact is real wherever you are. Make sure it underlies your values, because working for something you believe in is how you get the most energy.
Cover: Thomas Korver