Marcus Fairs' Opinion column about Eindhoven following Dutch Design Week

"The future is a small, ugly town in the south of Holland"

Opinion: on his return from Dutch Design Week, Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs argues that "something special is happening" in Eindhoven, a dowdy post-industrial sprawl that was recently named "the most inventive city in the world".

I've seen the future and it's a small, ugly town in the south of Holland.

I've been in Eindhoven for Dutch Design Week for the past few days and the energy, creativity and imagination I've come across has been a revelation. Not only designers but entrepreneurs, civic leaders, restauranteurs and musicians are buzzing with an excitement and optimism that is both rare and genuine. They feel something special is happening in their city.

The trip is part of our Dezeen and MINI World Tour and even though this is the smallest and least attractive of the cities we've visited this year - other stops have included New York, Singapore and London - it's been by far the most interesting.

"The potential of what is here is just starting to come out," says designer Miriam van der Lubbe in our first MINI World Tour report from the city. "And there's so much more that can happen here".

I'm by no means the first person to notice that there's something going on in Eindhoven. In 2011 the city was named the world's most Intelligent Community of the Year by the Intelligent Community Forum. In July this year, Forbes magazine named Eindhoven as "hands-down the most inventive city in the world".

That accolade was based on research by the OECD, which found that the area leads the world in "patent intensity" - the number of patent applications per capita - a recognised way of measuring innovation. Eindhoven files 22.6 patents for every 10,000 people. San Diego, which is second on the list, files only 8.9.

It's an incredible turnaround for a city that, in the eighties, feared it was staring into the abyss when Philips, the electronics giant that was the dominant economic and social force in Eindhoven, as good as abandoned the city with the loss of 30,000 jobs (out of a total population of around 200,000). Things were so bad the city seriously considered changing its name - "eind" is Dutch for "end" - lest people take it too literally.

Fearing the fate of Manchester, where the loss of heavy industry blighted the city centre for years, Eindhoven moved quickly to reinvent itself, giving abandoned Philips buildings to creative people who, true to the local spirit of hard work and cooperation, self organised and got on with building their own future.

Local authorities and developers around the world now commonly use such "creative seeding" to add buzz to an area to aid gentrification (and ultimately sell real estate) but in Eindhoven there appears to be a more equitable social construct to the way this is carried out.

Annemoon Geurts, the founder of Kazerne, a new creative industries hub in a former barracks in the city centre, told me that the city had offered her non-profit organisation an "erfpacht", or social lease, on the building, meaning it would benefit from the value they added during their tenure. And with a 40-year lease, something that would be unheard of in short-term, money-grubbing London, they have an incentive to make long-term improvements.

Eindhoven's design credentials are well known. Dutch Design Week (unofficial slogan: "What you see here today is what you'll see in Milan in two years") is one of the best curated and most vibrant design weeks. Design Academy Eindhoven is a serious contender for the title of world's best design school and an increasing number of its stellar alumni (Piet Hein Eek, Kiki van Eijk, Joost van Bleiswijk and Formafantasma to name just a few) have remained in the city, running thriving studios.

But designers on their own can't achieve much; if they aspire to more than just being another wannabe on the design-fair circuit they need an infrastructure of industry, R&D and other creative disciplines around them with whom they can make bigger ripples.

And Eindhoven has these in abundance. ASML, the world's biggest semiconductor manufacturer, is based in Eindhoven. A drive through even the dullest industrial estate in the city reveals companies specialising in cryogenics, photovoltaics and biotechnology. RPI Paro, the advanced print-on-demand printing facility that produced our Print Shift magazine, is based in Eindhoven. So is Shapeways, one of the leading 3D printing companies, who we interviewed for the Print Shift project.

In fact many of the world's leading 3D-printing companies are clustered in what is known as the high-tech Eindhoven-Leuven-Aachen-Triangle (ELAt), as we discovered when we visited the region earlier this year. Here, high-tech, knowledge-based industries account for 20% of GDP.

These complimentary sectors tend to open their doors to creative minds, rather than turning them away, ripping them off or viewing them with suspicion, as is the common experience other cities including London. Designers in the city talk of an openness towards new ideas and a willingness to experiment that permeates industry, academia and the city government itself.

The procurement of Eindhoven's new corporate identity expresses this collaborative spirit: rather than go to a safe-pair-of-hands graphic designer, the city assembled a "Virtual Design Studio" of ten different creative businesses to figure it out.

Interdisciplinary collaboration - so often an empty cliche - appears to be an everyday reality in Eindhoven and they even have a special term for it. Proeftuin, which literally means "experimental garden" or "test bed", is a form of collaborative working between people of different disciplines that has been adopted by the city. Proeftuin was used to generate the city's (alas, unsuccessful) bid strategy for European City of Culture 2018 and would also have formed a key part of cultural activity in 2018, had it won.

It almost seems to be a precondition for designers exhibiting at Dutch Design Week that their projects display meaningful (rather than PR-driven) collaboration with a university research department, an online platform or even a multinational brand.

The attitude is most perfectly encapsulated by Dutch Design Week ambassador Daan Roosegaarde's concept for removing smog from urban skies using an "electronic vacuum cleaner", which he revealed in Eindhoven this week. Here a designer, researchers and politicians came together to address a real problem and found that between them they had the ingredients to do something about it.

In this case Eindhoven cannot claim these elements as its own: Roosegaarde is based near Rotterdam; the university is in Delft and the politicians are in Beijing. But Eindhoven can stake a convincing claim to the spirit, and that spirit offers a bright future.