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Students become ‘change agents’ in Sustainability Challenge

Leiden students working to solve a sustainability problem at the request of an external party: that is the Sustainability Challenge. During a recent symposium, 28 groups of four to five students unveiled their solutions. The commisioners expressed great enthusiasm.

Lecture hall with all the students participating in the Sustainability Challenge

The Sustainability Challenge is part of the master’s programmes in Governance of Sustainability (GoS) and Industrial Ecology (IE). In this transdisciplinary course, students work together on a sustainability problem received from an external organisation. The commisioner plays a supervisory role and is the point of contact at their organisation. The organisations involved vary greatly, from non-profits to municipalities, large companies and so on. The projects that emerged from the collaborations are just as diverse. We will look closely at three of them.

Federico Bermudez: ‘It’s so valuable to learn how such a project works in real life.’

1) Sustainable skating

‘Let’s skate sustainably!’ A mainly international team of students presented their investigation into a Dutch phenomenon: the Floating Ice Rink on the Nieuwe Rijn. The municipality of Leiden asked: ‘Can this be made more sustainable without losing the charm of skating?’ The current rink is made of ‘natural ice’, in other words, frozen water. A machine keeps the rink at the right temperature, and that requires energy. The students analysed three alternatives: synthetic ice, a roller-skating rink and a more sustainable type of natural ice. They spoke to experts and organisers, and they interviewed ice rink visitors on site. ‘It’s extremely valuable to learn how such a project works in real life. There are many different stakeholders you have to consider. That teaches you to be flexible’, says IE student Federico.

The students’ solution was a decision tool that converts data into sustainability scores. The tool compares how the skating alternatives score on five dimensions of sustainability: costs, environmental performance, energy consumption, materials and social aspects. The final decision on ‘the best sustainable ice rink’ will require more data, but client Eveline Botter is already very happy with the research. ‘We’re getting a wide perspective because these students all come from different disciplines. Sustainability is about energy and materials, but it’s also about human behaviour. If visitors stop coming, why build an ice rink? Acceptance of a sustainable alternative is super important.’

Sustainable City Lab client Gerard Breeman, students Rosella Twisk and Thies Dinkelberg, and supervisor Michel Michaloliakos

2) Neighbour with tips

The group of GoS students including Rosella and Thies worked with not one, but two organisations: Energy Coaches (in Dutch) and Sustainable City Lab. The Sustainable City Lab is an initiative of Leiden University that connects scholars and students with residents of The Hague to make neighbourhood life more sustainable. It was the Sustainable City Lab that paired the students with Energy Coaches. Energy Coaches is a group of 14 voluntary initiatives in The Hague that work to combat energy poverty. The coaches visit neighbourhood residents to give free advice on energy consumption. In other words, they are ‘a neighbour with tips’. 

The coaches asked the students: ‘What is our impact, how can we measure it, and how do we increase it?’ Impact, the young scholars thought, can be measured using an administrative tool. It works as follows: during their first visit, the coaches note the current situation in the home and offer advice. On a second or third visit, they check which energy-saving advice has been implemented. The coaches fill in that information, and the tool calculates the positive impact. That is, the impact ‘for both the climate and for residents’ wallets’, Thies says. 

The broader social importance of Energy Coaches struck Rosella when she accompanied them on a visit to her neighbourhood of Laak. ‘You can see that the coaches are familiar faces in the neighbourhood. This allows them to enter the homes of people who normally wouldn’t let anyone in because of shame or mistrust. So the coaches can also spot problems like loneliness.’ The pair of students are also enthusiastic about the Sustainable City Lab. ‘Thanks to the Sustainable City Lab, we were able to unite a decentralised organisation like Energy Coaches under one theme by answering a question that affects all volunteers’, Thies recalls. ‘And you learn what’s going on in the city. Our project delivers information, but we also get a lot of information back’, Rosella concludes.

Miranda Danckwerts: ‘It was really cool to look at holistic ways to use forests.’

3) Sustainable forest use in Zambia

From The Hague to Muchinga province in Zambia: the Sustainability Challenge for these GoS students extends far beyond the Netherlands. The Minamba Research Farm (MRF) is investigating how sustainable forest use can create a long-term source of income for local people. The MRF hopes that increasing the value of forest products, such as fruit and honey, will reduce deforestation. Thus, Maureen and Miranda’s team investigated how best to spread knowledge about sustainable forest use among local residents. The aim was to encourage people to use the forest differently. The students also explored what role the MRF can play in this process in the community.

The students concluded that the focus needed to be on ‘the expertise, perspective and agency’ of Zambians. However, there is currently no physical or online forum that enables knowledge exchange. The students believe that the MRF can play a facilitating role in this, but network building is essential to that effort. Thus, their research highlights potential activities and partners with whom the MRF can collaborate. ‘They looked at actors in the region that I myself have not yet encountered in practice. That was really useful’, says client and MRF founder Klaartje Jaspers. 

‘It feels good that the MRF can use our research in practice’, Maureen says. Miranda nods in agreement, but it was the deep dive into local Zambian knowledge that has stayed with her the most. ‘For example, we also looked at holistic ways to use forests. That was really cool.’ 

Unique transdisciplinary education

Next year, new participants will take part in the Sustainability Challenge, a unique form of transdisciplinary education that responds to contemporary issues. Subject coordinator Valerio Barbarossa captures it nicely: ‘It teaches students to become liaisons between all the disciplines that intersect in sustainability issues. They become the agents of change.’

Text and photos: Elena Nguyen
Banner photo: Dr. Justin Lian

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