6 June 2017

Interview Maarten Hajer, scientific director Pathways to Sustainability

“If you allow scientists from different disciplines to consider a specific problem together, something beautiful is born.”

Maarten Hajer
Maarten Hajer, scientific director Pathways to Sustainability

“If you allow scientists from different disciplines to consider a specific problem together, something beautiful is born.” The eyes of Maarten Hajer, Professor of Urban Futures, begin to shine. However, the new Scientific Director of the Strategic Theme Pathways to Sustainability is aware that researchers generally do not look beyond the boundaries of their own discipline of their own accord. But if it is up to him, that is set to change. How? With innovative new ways of working that facilitate and reward collaboration.

We would like the focus to shift from purely expertise to also thinking about how we can actually change things.

“If you ask me, Sustainability is the most interesting of the four Strategic Themes. Because the subject is so immensely broad: it encompasses technical, scientific, administrative, legal, economic and social aspects. There are an enormous number of people focusing on sustainability. Of course, other universities also conduct research into the field, but I think that Utrecht occupies a unique position thanks to our breadth of intrinsic expertise. The combination of exact science with the arts/life sciences creates numerous opportunities.”

The theme being so broad perhaps makes it slightly diffuse. Everyone knows what sustainability is, but not everyone is clear what the eponymous Strategic Theme involves…
One of the reasons for creating the Strategic Themes in 2012 was that we are still not connecting sufficiently across faculty boundaries. For example, there are now more than forty professors in Utrecht focusing on water. Just try and name another university that can make that claim! However, all of these researchers work out of their own institutes. There is still a lack of joint consideration of the wider sustainability issues. We are also not sufficiently visible in this regard: we are punching below our weight. If you unite these people and present them to the outside world under a sustainability label, we will be visible as a world player.”

And how do you unite these researchers?
“We want to unite people in innovative connections – and, for my part, this would expressly complement what they already do. We encourage researchers to much more actively seek out collaboration, for example, by only funding research in which various faculties (and social parties) collaborate. The LEG, Geosciences and Science Faculties coordinate Pathways to Sustainability at Utrecht University, but all faculties looking to make a valuable contribution are naturally more than welcome.”

What does ‘uniting people in innovative connections’ entail in concrete terms?
“At the moment, it is primarily a network. Everyone is part of their standard institute. But we are considering how we can build this into a community with a physical location. And in recent months, we have established four hubs (interdisciplinary research alliances) in which researchers attempt to connect with the outside world and consider various sustainability themes: Deep Decarbonisation of the Energy System, Future Food, City of the Future and WaterClimate and Future Deltas.

We would like the focus to shift from purely expertise to also thinking about how we can actually change things. That is why every research question features a component of transitional science, innovation science, governance, law. We have just received a number of proposals. This autumn, we want to present concrete plans to the Executive Board.

When will you be satisfied?
“Once we have made progress with innovative ways of working. Once a few innovative interdisciplinary initiatives have really taken root and resulted in successful applications for external funding. And when social actors are keen to be here to listen and discuss issues of sustainability. That people ask: what are you up to? How are you building that? I think that would be fantastic.”

More about the Strategic Themes
If you would like to find out more about Sustainability and the other Strategic Themes, please visit the website of Utrecht University.

How did this all start?
In 2010, the Veerman Report called upon universities to create more distinct profiles for themselves and to differentiate themselves from each other. Utrecht selected spearheads that cover research fields that are of importance to the university and link to (international) social issues: health, administration, climate, environment and education. Interdisciplinary working is standard practice in the Strategic Themes that were subsequently set-up. The university is investing in attracting more leading talent, stimulating collaboration and committing additional resources.