Can you describe what you do?
I work at KU Leuven with a large team of bright scientists and students, where we seek to solve potential security and privacy issues of the digital future. We aim to be at the top of an international ranking, which is reflected in the composition of our group, with over 20 nationalities. I also draw energy from teaching the beauty of mathematics and cryptography to my engineering students. The subjects of cryptography and privacy are closely connected to policy, because they all essentially deal with the questions of who has control over what information in our digital society. An increasingly important aspect of our work are smartphones, clouds, social networks and intelligence devices that are gradually taking control over our lives. Amidst all this, I try to do my bit for society by serving in the National Register’s Privacy Commission, which involves testifying in parliament as well as talking to journalists, managers and the broader public. It’s a fascinating job, where everyday brings something new. Our latest challenge is in developing a close collaboration with Imec, hoping to expand our collaboration with various industries and bring some of our ideas to the market.
Alongside my professional activities, I also lead the Interfak Bigband, KU Leuven’s jazz orchestra which I co-founded in 1984 and still play the saxophone with the Interfak Dixieland.
How do you perceive Leuven?
Leuven is a small and liveable city, with a very strong international feel. Thanks to the University, it’s also very young and dynamic. Every year, I enjoy the end of September, when students return and the city comes back to life. There’s a great cultural scene in Leuven with plenty to choose from which, unfortunately, translates into plenty of competition at our Bigband’s annual concert. It can be quite difficult to get noticed, funnily enough.
Leuven is a city with a rich history – while I love the buzz of New York or Tokyo, nothing beats a city with a past.
What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?
Leuven is a city with a rich history – while I love the buzz of New York or Tokyo, nothing beats a city with a past. Leuven is at a human scale, whilst still retaining many of the advantages of a larger city. The University clearly makes all the difference here: not only is it a safe space for science and reflection, but it also represents entrepreneurship and people coming together to work on a better future. And thanks to the University, Leuven has become very international in the last few decades.
How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Leuven awakened my two passions in life: science during my studies, and music. As a young student, I enjoyed the nightlife surrounding the local music scene and consequentially played in many bands, including a rock band that was invited on Marktrock. Many of my role models were “discovered” at the University – figures who showed me how science and engineering could become a passion, and how a scientist can contribute to society. And, despite me travelling a lot, it’s a great place to come home to.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
Perhaps more activities that would bring students, visitors and locals altogether – like free concerts throughout the whole year. More online administration services. And of course, I still dream that someday utility companies will stop digging up my street every few months, that the potholes will be filled, and that we finally get a neatly-paved sidewalk.
To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Leuven? If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
The Groot Begijnhof beguinage is a definite must-see. I would take visitors for a drink in the Blauwe Schuit, or a coffee in the Gambrinus. There are plenty of great restaurants in the vicinity, too. And in the evening, there’s sure to be a nice concert to be found somewhere.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
These last few years, the City and University have been ruled by two living legends and it’s kind of hard imagining a future without them.homes.esat.kuleuven.be/~preneel