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Reality has become too complex

Reality has become too complex

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? ICIS director Ron Cörvers would like to set up an urban lab at the UM to try and solve regional sustainable issues.

Ron Cörvers has been the scientific director of ICIS (International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development) since 2013, but still finds the time to supervise PhD candidates and postdocs. He is an ardent advocate of team science. “Instead of everyone fighting individually to bag subsidies, we do it together. This results in better applications and greater chances of success. Last year we submitted four proposals to the Joint Programme Initiative Urban Europe, a joint research programme of individual member states. Three of those were accepted, with ICIS as a project co-ordinator each time.”

When you say ICIS, you say sustainability. The energy transition, the climate issue, liveability and mobility in cities, all extremely urgent, says Cörvers. “But in practice, very little comes of the plans. For example, the cabinet has commissioned the provinces to erect windmills, but opposition from citizens is great. Everyone thinks it is a good idea, but not in their own back yard. You could say we are at a deadlock. There are actually municipalities that don't even want to look into the matter. I don't think the government will reach its target for wind energy on land.”

Even solar panels are met with resistance. In Lanakerveld, where there is already a so-called solar farm with rows of panels, there is to be a second batch of panels totalling the size of fifteen football pitches. “The city council took this decision, but citizens and other interested parties are protesting.”

Reality has become too complex. Enforcing what has to happen, doesn't work, says Cörvers. “You have to get all parties together much sooner and come up with solutions, as is done in a so-called urban lab. There, the city council sits around the table with businesses, citizens, social organisations, but also scientists. This is the realm of action research, in which the scientists' priority is not a publication but an actual application of their knowledge within a social context.”

Cörvers would like the UM to set up an urban lab on its premises, in which all parties concerned could put their heads together and freely discuss sustainable social innovation such as the energy transition in Maastricht. “Researchers could sketch scenarios or present alternatives, but also support the process. We would not be consultants, but maintain in a way a neutral position. I would imagine that several faculties would be involved, but also students.”

As far as Cörvers is concerned, the university is the most appropriate party to take a pioneering role in the sustainability debate. “We are independent or at least try to be. I feel that the city council or provincial government would be less suitable, because those are political organisations. Also, businesses and social organisations have their own interests. A university considers the collective interest of paramount importance.”

But how accessible is the world of academia? “For some it may be too ceremonious an institute. But if you could set up a beautiful open location like Tapijn, then that would work. You would have to get used to each other first, complete small projects, phasing out natural gas from a neighbourhood, to mention one. In that way, you would slowly build up a reputation. It doesn't all need to be done right now, because the problems will be around for a while yet.”

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