Portrait of a Leader: Luc Soete, UNU-MERIT

  • 2011•11•08     Maastricht

    Professor Luc Soete is Director of UNU-MERIT, Dean of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, and in September 2012 will take on the role of Rector Magnificus at Maastricht University. In this brief portrait, Howard Hudson, Communications Coordinator at UNU-MERIT interviews Prof. Soete to find out more about the man behind the titles.

    Born in Belgium in September 1950, Soete is a tri-lingual child of the capital of Europe, who worked for a decade in England before moving to the city of Maastricht in southern Netherlands, where he has lived for a quarter of a century.

    Soete is a director-dean who believes in delegation and decentralization, in giving his staff flexibility, independence and trust while firmly admitting ‘the buck stops here’. His professional accolades are well documented, so instead this feature looks into what has driven him over the last 50 years, asking about his life philosophies and why he became an economist in the first place.

    It is drawn mainly from an audio interview recorded on a dark afternoon in late October 2011. A Friday at 4 o’clock, after a week in which Soete had chaired and spoken at meetings in both Bologna and Brussels.

    With all its connotations of travel, trade and science, ‘mercurial’ is a fitting description for a UN director and economist specializing in technological change; a description that also captures something of his ability to network.

    “Are there opportunities and do I jump on those, follow those, or NOT accept certain opportunities because I consider what I am doing myself is much more interesting?”

    Whereas some directors bulldoze their way to the top, Soete has a more inclusive – even opportunistic – approach based on sharing layers of power.

    Soete: “I don’t think I did anything to get myself ultimately in this position. I think it’s part of the career of any individual, seeing and pursuing opportunities actively. Some opportunities fail and others succeed. I think one learns much more from the failures in knowing how to build up a career which, certainly in the academic environment, is based on quests for new insights, which I think motivates any researcher, and at the same time is what I would call academic entrepreneurship.”

    “That is to say: ‘are there opportunities and do I jump on those, follow those, or NOT accept certain opportunities because I consider what I am doing myself is much more interesting?’ – which is also very valid. So this is a history of life. This last opportunity, a request to lead and be responsible for the academic part of Maastricht University, is also a fantastic challenge.”

    Was Soete playing the disingenuous diplomat? Was he verging on false modesty? I pressed him to explain how his networks had helped him, and how they might aid an organization to survive and prosper.

    Soete: “For sure it’s building up networks, but it’s within a very strong local context. Your networks are pulling you in all sorts of directions. Think of the UNU: these are international networks. They are very different from the old networks of the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT).”

    “When we started with the research institute here at Maastricht University, we were very much focused on the relatively small international network of the economics of technological change and in particular colleagues working on externally funded projects, including those financed by the European Commission. There has been a significant shift in the way these networks allow you to continue to develop an institution such as MERIT. It wouldn’t have been possible 50 years ago.”

    “And that’s why I’m talking about opportunities – the close collaboration at the start with DG Social Affairs at the European Commission, with OECD’s TEP programme and later on the Jobs study, the active participation in expert groups from the Maastricht Manifesto to SciDev, the setting up of Infonomics, the (failed) attempt to integrate with the Maastricht School of Management, the successful integration between MERIT and UNU-INTECH, the hopefully successful integration of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, to list the most important ones – because it’s only possible within these contexts. It’s only possible when these opportunities arise, and when you are challenged either to accept or refuse these strategies.”

    Taking advantage of opportunities, both political and technological, is important but first steps are by definition the most essential. I wanted to know when Soete first had the desire to become an economist, what motivated him, and if the same things still move him.

    Soete: “I realized very early in life that I wanted to be an economist. These were the 1960s. I’m really a child of the ‘60s and at that time – if you look at the economic data – inequality at the world level was probably higher than at any time in history.”

    “You had the beginning of decolonization. You had a phase of rapid growth in Europe, in Japan, following the Second World War of course, which meant that the rich OECD countries witnessed very rapid growth, whereas developing countries had remained stuck with very low growth rates; and accumulated over time this meant that OECD countries had the highest income level percentages since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.”

    “So that period in the ‘60s was really a period in which as a student you wanted to do something to contribute to solving this inequality, this injustice, which was very strongly felt in my case, and this was already the case when I was still a school kid in my secondary school in Brussels.”

    “And then afterwards when I chose to pursue my university studies in economics in Ghent, I started to realize that the world was much more complex, that economics was a constraining factor in many areas, that the whole idea of development economics was pretty complex, so then I specialized in development economics as a special master. In my master thesis, I already considered technology, admittedly rather naively, as the key factor in a potential development short cut.”

    Returning to the present day, I asked what his new appointment as Rector of Maastricht University would mean for UNU. Would he still take an active interest in global UN themes or would he narrow his focus on to more local concerns?

    Soete: “I still hope very much that I will have time to do some research and to give presentations and to participate every now and again in conferences in my own research field. With respect to development, I still plan to write policy reports, views or briefs addressing some of the most important issues which are dominating the development economics field.”

    Beyond this interview, Luc reveals a number of other beliefs in his Tans Lecture, given at Maastricht University on 10 November 2011. We learn that in his career he has aimed not only “to carry out excellent research, but also to have the ambition to change the research environment within one operates”.

    This ambition is a kind of entrepreneurship, something requiring “skills which are not straightforward in academics and which can be best described as humility”. Which brings us full circle: back to making space for others, for compromise, for sharing of layers of power. A paradox perhaps?

    Soete wryly sums up: “As researchers in social sciences, we are well aware that the ‘divine glory of the ego’ is socially a great nuisance; yet as individual academic researchers we are probably all obsessed by it. As British author G.K. Chesterton put it: ‘we all do actually value our friends for modesty, freshness, and simplicity of heart. Whatever may be the reason, we all do warmly respect humility — in other people!’”

    Luc Soete: A Mercurial Man by United Nations University

    This is the first feature in the new UNU Portraits of Leaders series. If you would like to nominate a UNU faculty member for the Portraits of Leaders series, please contact editor@unu.edu.