Professor Derk Loorbach on poverty in Rotterdam: ‘I plead for small-scaled sustainable transitions’

Starting in 2003 Erasmus University has been organising the yearly ‘Rotterdam Lezing’: where a prominent scientist shines his or her light on an important and relevant Rotterdam-linked theme. This year Derk Loorbach, director of DRIFT and Professor of Socioeconomic Transitions at the Faculty of Social Science, will tackle the issue poverty, which appears to be a big and insoluble problem in the city. The lecture will find place at the Arminius Church on Thursday, June 7th, and is freely accessible.


What is your position at Erasmus University and what is your research about? 
‘I’m director and professor at Drift – a world-leading institute for research on and for sustainability transitions, based out of Erasmus University Rotterdam. We conduct transdisciplinary research to better understand and facilitate new ways of thinking, doing, and organizing in transitions. 
What we do differs from the usual scientific methods, because we take a normative starting point, "unsustainability", and experimentally develop solutions in real world settings through action research. I don’t believe we can address complex societal problems from our desks only. We need a real committed, active, and maybe even activist attitude.’

Why do you want to talk about poverty? 
‘It is an honour they asked me to give this lecture. With Drift we do a lot of projects inside the city and this is one of the central challenges in Rotterdam. 
Poverty is a persistent problem: the number of poor people in Rotterdam hasn’t seemed to decrease, despite all the money and policies. About sixty thousand families in Rotterdam live at or below the poverty line – that’s a lot. Many policymakers and scientist are trying to figure out big questions like: how to deal with welfare, debts, income, unemployment. They often come up with measures that lead to bureaucratic and costly systems or propose radical measures like a basic income. 
These approaches link poverty to a lack of money, so policy and scientific research mainly focuses on solving a financial problem. I would like to suggest to take a different perspective. We need a totally new way of looking at the subject if we ever want to solve it.’

'If we cannot solve the money problem, maybe we can solve the quality of life of a lot of people with less money to spend.’

Derk Loorbach, director of DRIFT and Professor of Socioeconomic Transitions at the Faculty of Social Science

What sort of view are you talking about? 
‘My university chair is about socioeconomic transitions; it is about ecological sustainability and social inclusion. I see the solution in guiding societal transitions towards a just, inclusive and sustainable society. If we cannot solve the money problem, maybe we can solve the quality of life of a lot of people with less money to spend.’

Can you give an example?
‘Financial poverty is usually associated with poor health. People living in Rotterdam South have a seven-year-shorter-live-expectance. Their eating habits are not as healthy. There is ‘energy-poverty’: sometimes the energy bills are even higher – because of lousy isolation – than the rent they pay. 
So we can start with increasing the quality of their lives, with for example bringing more green and more parks into the neighbourhoods. You can think of a food transition: organising local vegetable gardens and healthy food cooperatives. An energy transition: giveaway refrigerators that run on solar energy and reduce energy bills. “Fietsen op Zuid”: citizens give each other cycle lessons, et cetera. From a local and open vegetable garden people can get fresh vegetables for free. With a bicycle plan you can increase the mobility of people who don’t have a car nor money for public transport. There are a lot of good examples of how these (usually bottom-up) initiatives have a positive effect on neighbours.’ 

What has to be done in your opinion? 
‘All the money that is now spent on poverty reduction, we could better use for small, local initiatives like the ones I mentioned. These initiatives seem small but they can increase the quality of life for a certain group of people. There was a nice initiative in Carnisse called the Carnisse garden. It worked really well, they even organised philosophy-classes and neighbourhood-dinners until the city government allowed it to be turned into a big parking lot instead. This is an example of how it shouldn’t be done. We should start to look at the quality of life of people instead of related money-issues. 
This requires a normative, critical, and maybe little activist research attitude. It also requires researchers and policymakers who are willing to change, who can experiment and also learn from their experiment and who are willing to work together with citizens – who sometimes have very good ideas but not the means or money to realise these.'

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