‘Leiden-Delft-Erasmus is home to all scientific disciplines and to world-class expertise in the area of circular economy’

Interview with Professor Arnold Tukker, Scientific Director of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability

’In Zuid-Holland, we focus on global sustainability issues created by urbanisation, intensive horticulture and industry. The three universities have the in-house expertise to define knowledge questions, set up research programmes and test results in collaboration with regional partners', 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. Where does the Centre for Sustainability fit into this?

Arnold Tukker: 'Naturally, our Centre falls under the Sustainable Society theme. We focus specifically on the circular economy. With our 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 bundled within the Centre for Sustainability, we can provide an answer on all questions concerning the circular economy.'

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus profiling themes effectively reflect wider social developments and social agendas. What developments and themes are important for your centre?

Arnold Tukker: 'The transition to a circular economy is one of the most significant policy agendas of our time. You see the topics of sustainability and the circular economy cropping up everywhere. In the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda alone, there are objectives related 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 circular economy, is being increasingly included in economic acceleration programmes. Examples of this are the national Top Sectors Policy and the regional Roadmap Next Economy programme. 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.'

What is the basis on which your centre can now go on to build from the first phase of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus?

Arnold Tukker: 'Linking the expertise from the three universities in the Centre for Sustainability has been a very successful move. In other words, the practice of bringing together groups of students in hubs, together with researchers and external parties such as municipalities and companies, is working well. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm to make society more sustainable based on scientific insights and proven techniques. 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, both in the media as well as through the knowledge sessions conducted in the major cities of Zuid-Holland.'

Metabolism of Cities
One of the notable projects of the Centre for Sustainability is ‘Metabolism of Cities’. Last year, the Centre participated in the Central Innovation District Challenge with its Cities Hub and the Metabolism of Cities online platform. The Centre won this competition in The Hague and subsequently organised a hackathon with scientists, students and officials. Within a few days, this group succeeded in developing a dashboard which collected and visualised all materials and energy flow data from the city of The Hague. This represented the ‘metabolism’ of the city. Read more

How do you want to grow further as a centre? Can you give some examples of activities envisaged for the next phase of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus?

Arnold Tukker: 'We will continue developing our knowledge and innovation hubs based on cities and industry as well as the Greenport Hub. We also plan to strengthen our networks with companies, public bodies and the relevant departments within the universities. With the growth of our organisation and activities, we also need to be more structured. I’m very happy to announce that six professors will be working together with the coordinators to take the hubs to the next level, thus ensuring a good connection with a large number of faculties within LDE. The three hubs we will continue developing further in the next phase are, firstly, the Cities Hub that focuses on the built environment and urban areas; secondly, the Greenport Hub that focuses on agriculture, horticulture and rural areas; and thirdly, the Industries Hub that focuses on industry, materials and design. We have based this classification partly on the ‘butterfly model’ created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.'

'In addition to our research activities, we also want to expand our educational activities further and attract students with the slogan: ‘For studying Circular Economy, Leiden-Delft-Erasmus is the place to be’. 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 view the relationship with your 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 Cities Hub graduate will write his thesis on this subject and be supervised during this process by a researcher from the Centre for Sustainability. In addition, we intend to continue working further with our larger collaboration programmes such as ACCEZ, which stands for ‘Accelerating Circular Economy Zuid-Holland’. Within this collaboration, we work on cases such as the circular area 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 structurally a part of the innovation ecosystem of the province in which they are located.'

What is your greatest challenge?

Arnold Tukker: 'The tide is on our side 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 most to us: conducting scientific research on the circular economy and thereby creating a social impact.'