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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 45 - May 2005   
 The logic of the ‘leap forward’
 Profile of the Seventh Framework Programme
 Eastern outpost of the European Research Area
 The agricultural tradition
 Birth of Europe-backed research
 Out of Africa
 Campylobacteria under the microscope
 When distant worlds meet
 Coping with life on the outside
 Researchers take centre stage

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Title  Crusader for innovation

Paul Kiekens, the head of Ghent University’s (BE) Department for Teaching and Research on Textile Sciences and Technology, is a tireless innovator and determined campaigner who refuses to accept the inevitability of decline. At Autex, which he founded ten years ago, he advocates a radical, bold and European approach to restructuring the industry.

How do you view the serious threats to the sector’s future in Europe?  

Paul Kiekens
Paul Kiekens
Paul Kiekens – By its very nature, the textile industry is, first and foremost, a mass-production sector. It produces essential goods that are as vital to people as their daily diet. Economic history clearly teaches us that, for today’s affluent societies, it has been a particularly powerful motor for growth, jobs and prosperity. A motor that the emerging nations have every reason to seek to appropriate. For them, it is a clearly traced road to industrialisation and a place they are determined to take up at the table of the global economy. What is more, they possess all the assets they need to do so, in terms of demography and competitive wages. 

We must face the reality of the situation. Two decades ago already we first began to lose the textile activities on which we had based our international leadership and this process will continue. Others are able and will be able to exploit the technologies we invented with an economic efficiency that we cannot match. 

Does this mean the end of textiles within the European economy? 

As far as the textile tradition that we built up is concerned – and I believe we have been very blind and lacking in foresight as to its sustainability – yes. It is a serious crisis and extremely painful in social terms.

But it is evident all around us that the wheel of technological history is not stopping. On the contrary, it is accelerating and has taken the form of the knowledge society. Just as they were in our industrial past, textiles – products so close to and so complementary to humans, so much a part of our everyday life – are now the agents of this exponential acceleration of the knowledge society. Europe is, in fact, very well placed to establish itself as a key player in this new environment. 

What, specifically, does this new environment demand?

Nothing less than a radical reinvention of the field of application of textiles in our society and, on that basis, a genuine industry renewal. Everything must be rebuilt on a paradigm of research and innovation, not on the usual sectoral basis, but on one that is totally open to every possibility. In the face of the crisis in their sector, textile specialists cannot do much by limiting themselves to developments rooted in their traditional know-how. 

In future, they must become the explorers and communicators of all that is happening in other disciplines. They must seek out fundamental discoveries and the latest applications in biochemistry, medicine, physics, material science, information and communication technology, engineering, etc. Amid the ocean of knowledge, new forms of textile intelligence must be created, putting textiles in places you would never expect to find them, and endowing them with attributes that other materials do not possess. 

What would be your priorities in an emergency plan for European textiles? 

Visit by Philippe Busquin to the University of Ghent Textile Laboratory (BE).
Visit by Philippe Busquin to the University of Ghent Textile Laboratory (BE).
First of all, to ensure the new impetus we need, there must be a drive for education and the high-level training of new generations of researchers. There is something paradoxical about advocating the recruitment of young people, the most brilliant possible, on board a vessel that today has the reputation of a foundering Titanic. To convince intrepid minds to hop aboard, universities, research centres and professional organisations must shake up their often compartmentalised and fossilised training structures. They must render them attractive through unrivalled excellence. They also need to open the doors to a very rich interdisciplinarity. In any event, this is the battle that Autex is fighting.

Secondly, sufficient funds must be mobilised. If Europe wants to retain a significant textile industry, then it needs to invest in ‘laboratory companies’ which are a constant source of inventiveness, innovation and daring. This textile intelligence sector cannot develop without the absolutely essential access to risk capital.

I would add that this renaissance – or restructuring – of the very ancient and rich tradition of our textile industry only has any meaning if it is first and foremost European. The time when each country or each region wanted to save ‘its sector’ is over. In this respect, I regard the creation of the European technology platform for the future of textiles and clothing as major progress. 

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