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‘We have world-class expertise on the circular economy’

The province of Zuid-Holland faces a wide range of global sustainability issues caused by urbanisation, intensive horticulture and industry. The universities of Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam have the in-house expertise to define knowledge questions, set up research programmes and test results, says Prof. Arnold Tukker, Scientific Director at the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability. We spoke to him about the Centre’s strategy and approach.

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus collaboration focuses on four societal themes: Sustainable Society, Digital Society, Healthy Society and Inclusive Society. How does the Centre for Sustainability fit into this? 

Arnold Tukker: ‘Our Centre falls under the Sustainable Society theme, and we focus specifically on the circular economy. With its ecologists, lawyers, business economists, structural engineers, product designers, materials experts and public administration experts, the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus alliance is home to world-class expertise on this subject. Thanks to this wide range of scientific disciplines at the Centre, we can answer all questions concerning the circular economy.’

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus themes reflect wider social developments and themes. Which ones are important to your centre?

Arnold Tukker: ‘The transition to a circular economy is one of the most important policy agendas of our time. The topics of sustainability and the circular economy crop up everywhere. The United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda alone contains objectives relating to tackling climate change, sustainable consumption and production, and access to affordable and sustainable energy for all. Other important programmes include the Dutch National Research Agenda, A Circular Economy in the Netherlands by 2050, Horizon 2020 and the EU Circularity Package. A positive trend is that the subject of sustainability, packaged as the circular economy, is increasingly being included in economic acceleration programmes. Examples of this are the national Top Sectors Policy and the regional Next Economy Roadmap. But even a programme such as ACCEZ – which we set up last year under the supervision of the Province of Zuid-Holland and in cooperation with Wageningen University & Research and the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO NCW) – is based on the premise that the circular economy and prosperity are interconnected.’

The first phase of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus was completed in 2018. What are the results?

Arnold Tukker: ‘Linking the expertise from the three universities in the Centre for Sustainability has been a very successful move. The practice of bringing together groups of students in hubs, together with researchers and external parties such as municipalities and companies, is working particularly well. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm for using scientific insights and proven techniques to make society more sustainable. Thanks to this enthusiasm, we have also succeeded in acquiring new partners for the Centre such as the Province of Zuid-Holland, the Municipality of Rotterdam, VNO NCW and the Horticulture Top Sector. In addition, our visibility has increased, in the media as well as through the knowledge sessions conducted in the major cities of Zuid-Holland.’

How do you want to grow as a centre? 

Arnold Tukker: ‘We will continue to develop knowledge and innovation hubs based on cities, industry and our Greenport Hub. We also plan to strengthen our networks with companies, public bodies and the relevant departments within the universities. As the organisation and activities grow, we also need to be more structured. I’m very pleased to announce that six professors will be working together with the coordinators to take the hubs to the next level, thus ensuring good connections with a large number of faculties within LDE. 

‘In addition to our research activities, we want to expand our educational activities and attract students with the slogan: “Leiden-Delft-Erasmus is the place to study the Circular Economy.” We can certainly deliver on that promise with the programmes we currently offer: Industrial Ecology in Leiden and Delft, Integrated Product Design, and Materials Science and Engineering in Delft, and Global Business and Sustainability in Rotterdam. Moreover, in September 2019, we are starting a new Master’s degree programme in Governance of Sustainability at Leiden University, which will deal with interdisciplinary policy issues related to sustainability.’

How do you work together with regional partners?

Arnold Tukker: ‘The collaboration within the Centre for Sustainability hubs is demand driven. How does this work? For example, a municipality may have a question related to waste processing, so a City Hub graduate will write his thesis on this subject and be supervised by a researcher from the Centre for Sustainability. In addition, we intend to continue working on our larger collaboration programmes such as ACCEZ, which stands for “Accelerating Circular Economy Zuid-Holland.” Here we work on cases such as the circular development of The Hague Central Innovation District and the subsidence problem in the Green Heart region. Other cases deal with, for example, circular issues in major cities, Westland and the Port of Rotterdam. This makes the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus universities a structural part of the innovation ecosystem in the province in which they are located.’

What is your greatest challenge?

Arnold Tukker: ‘The tide has turned and we’re growing fast. What is essential now is that the hubs work in a more structured and uniform manner. So, as always, the challenge is how to keep everyone engaged and focused on what matters to us most: conducting scientific research on the circular economy and thereby creating a social impact.’

This article was previously published in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus newsletter.

Photo: Ernst de Groot
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