Universiteit Leiden

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‘Let knowledge flow through the neighbourhoods!’

Leiden during corona, loneliness in the elderly or making the city more sustainable. Students from Leiden University and Leiden University of Applied Sciences are working with the Municipality of Leiden on solutions to societal problems. How is this benefitting society? And where is there room for improvement?

Burgemeester Lenferink listens to the presentations.

‘This is music to my ears,’ said Mayor Henri Lenferink during his working visit, together with a number of aldermen, to PLNT, the centre for innovation and entrepreneurship, on 15 September. Administrators, students and lecturers from the University and University of Applied Sciences spoke about their special projects and their collaboration with the Municipality in the ‘Learning with the City’ project, which was launched in 2019.

From construction and waste to a healthier lifestyle

The projects are very diverse. Industrial Ecology students are researching and writing their theses about circular demolition and construction in Leiden. Their recommendations will help make the city more sustainable. Psychology students are studying what is needed to get Leideners to transition to sustainability energy, and more recently what social distancing during corona is doing to the relationships between population groups. Biology students are attempting to fight litter, and medical students are talking to the residents of the Stevenshof estate about a healthier lifestyle. The students from the University of Applied Sciences are also very active. For a marketing assignment, they have already raised 100,000 euros for charities in Leiden such as the Food Bank.

The attendees at PLNT.

What could be improved?

‘We want every Leidener to know we are a city of knowledge,’ said project manager Marieke van Haaren, who together with knowledge broker Lara Ummels is one of the coordinators of ‘Learning with the City.’ Central to the working visit was the question of how the collaboration could improve and what is needed to ensure that the results of all this research are not left to gather dust. Intense communication and feedback to both students and residents have proven crucial, said alderman Fleur Spijker. Alderman Ashley North suggested asking students henceforth to include the reaction of the Municipality and residents to the research in their theses. Then they would have a better idea of whether their findings and recommendations had taken root.

Assistant professor Benjamin Sprecher emphasised the importance of a good network with and within the Municipality.

Different languages

It also became clear that it is useful for students to learn to communicate about their research in different ways. So not only in thesis language but also in bureaucratic language and accessible language for residents. ‘Perhaps we’ll have to get students to unlearn the odd thing every now and then,’ Lenferink joked.

Student matchmakers

Benjamin Sprecher, an assistant professor in Industrial Ecology, spoke of the importance of a good network within the Municipality and of continuity in the collaboration. Vice-Rector Hester Bijl said she wanted Learning with the City to be more integrated in those courses where students work on societal issues. She said she would try to achieve this, but that she also wanted to give students an active role. ‘Students can be good matchmakers between supply and demand.’

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl with alderman for education Paul Dirkse and regional director Piet van der Ploeg.

Knowledge store

A greater physical presence in the city will also help. Regional director Piet van der Ploeg, from the University of Applied Sciences Leiden, spoke about realising a physical knowledge store by 2021, which will make it easier for students and residents to find one another. ‘Let knowledge flow through the neighbourhoods!’ he said. All the partners emphasised how this is a win-win situation: students help the city and its residents, and learn a huge amount from this practical experience, residents help the city address societal issues and the Municipality has new knowledge to work on. The organisers of the knowledge store are still looking for a fitting name. Win-win store perhaps?


Simone de Boer, a lecturer in cultural anthropology, explained how students and commissioning parties can achieve something new together. Her anthropology students were asked to help come up with ideas on how a welfare organisation could attract new multicultural volunteers and clients. The students researched the work process and made the following recommendation: make sure that the mentors are given good cultural sensitivity training. This is an example of how new questions and insights arise during the collaboration, said De Boer.

Text Linda van Putten
Photos Monique Shaw

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