28 February 2020

Four alumni participate in the Nationale DenkTank for societal innovation

It is quite an opportunity to spend four months in a group of like-minded young academics to find solutions for problems that matter to today’s society. Four University College Utrecht alumni got that chance last year.

university college utrecht
Clockwise from top left corner: Mees, Vera, Martijn and Falco

The Nationale DenkTank – National ThinkTank - is a foundation aiming at a positive impact on Dutch society thorough innovative analyses and solutions. Founded in 2005 to connect government, university, and business, twenty young academics are selected annually to work on a relevant topic for four months. In Fall 2019, four out of those twenty happened to be University College Utrecht alumni. Was it a coincidence? Let’s hear it from the alumni themselves.

Vera Vrijmoeth (class of 2017) just finished her Master Inequalities and Social Science at London School of Economics and Political Science. "The DenkTank and the University College have a lot in common. Both encourage analytical thinking and collaborative learning, and attract participants with an innovative attitude."

Martijn Scholtemeijer (class of 2014): "After University College Utrecht, I continued my studies at the Selective Utrecht Medical Master (SUMMA) at Universiteit Utrecht. At the University College, I loved the emphasis on critical thinking and an innovative attitude, but I didn’t feel I held the practical skills needed to really change something. SUMMA gave me medical skills and insight into the healthcare system, but at times the study left me unsatisfied. I felt I needed to do something tangible for society. In the Nationale DenkTank I learned what is needed to go from a problem to a solution that has impact."

Falko Lavitt (class of 2017), now about to finish his Master Artificial Intelligence at VU Amsterdam, also felt he missed reflection on the societal impact of his discipline during his masters. "In Artificial Intelligence, the focus is on better and more efficient algorithms without considering their effects on people, or on society at large. By participating in the Nationale DenkTank on digitalisation I wanted to work on that gap."

"I am happy with my academic education and with the academic world as such,’ says the fourth thinktanker Mees van Tooren (class of 2018), who graduated with an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy at the London School of Economics. ‘But I felt the urge to act. The National ThinkThank bridged the two worlds. I also found back the collaborative spirit of the University College, and the willingness to give each other continuous feedback."

Digitalisation

The four alumni worked in multiple teams on a sub-theme of digitalisation. In December they presented their analyses and solutions to 400 representatives from government, public institutions, and business.

The proposed solutions varied from a PhoneForest that gives users a time-out from digital life  - co-designed by Vera - to Falko’s and Mees’ platform to support charities with your personal data. Additionally, Martijn is working on a platform that connects chronic patients with patients that have become specialists through years of experience with their personal health issues. In that way he hopes to empower patients while reducing the workload of Dutch healthcare professionals.

Ideally, the solutions become successful start-ups, campaigns or influential policy proposals. But whether the participants continue with their projects or not, the DenkTank has a major impact on their personal development and directs their future career.

"I have gained new skills at the DenkTank, and it certainly has changed my personal ambitions for the future", says Falko. "I realise now that I love work in which I collaborate with others in dynamic and performance-driven teams. That is not a given if you are specialist in AI."

The Nationale DenkTank 2020 is now open for applications. The alumni emphasize that the diversity of the group enriches the experience; the DenkTank will select both thinkers and doers. The main requirement is that candidates are societally engaged and driven to solve today’s societal problems. This year’s group will be asked come up with solutions to improve the resilience of the Dutch middle class, which is under pressure due to – among others  flexibilisation of the labour market and the lack of affordable housing.

Read more about the Nationale DenkTank.

On Thursday 12 March, Vera and Mees will together with other ThinkThank participants give a presentation about the Nationale DenkTank 2020 at University College Utrecht. Find out more.