Chairman of the Water Lecturers’ Platform Toine Smits tells

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If it were up to Toine Smits (65), he would guide the Netherlands through a network of living labs to a safe and sustainable country. Where water no longer inspires fear, but is used instead to improve life.

What kind of work do you do?

At Radboud University I am a professor of Sustainable Water Management. In addition, I am a lecturer in Circular Economy and Water Resources Management and a leading lecturer in Delta Areas and Resources at Van Hall Larenstein. I am also chairman of the Water Lecturers’ Platform. I bring the information and insights that arise from these networks to Delta Platform of which I am a member. There we look at how we, together with governments and other knowledge institutions, can convert this information into concrete actions and research projects.

Do I hear a Brabant accent there?

That’s right yes. Nistelrode.

Waterwork. Does that go along with being from Brabant?

Sure! Brabant also has a number of rivers, watercourses and pools. At the moment, the drought is a problem there. As a toddler I already liked water in combination with nature. Everything that grows, crawls and swims. That interest in nature has been passed on to me. Back then there were no computers, so I always played in the garden and in the woods. So something with biology was obvious. I followed a teacher training in biology and chemistry. Later I obtained my PhD at Radboud University. I specialize in the restoration of aquatic plants in the aquatic environment. When the Oisterwijk fens were so affected by acid precipitation, around 1985, I was part of the research team as a student. That research showed that intensive livestock farming was largely the cause of this. And that knowledge has been able to restore a large number of acidified fens and to reduce the emission of N, ammonium. However, as current events show, we are quite often bothered by a nitrogen surplus.

How did you end up at Rijkswaterstaat?

In the late 1980s, Rijkswaterstaat was looking for biologists to work on restoring the nature of the major rivers. Two years later I rolled into the management, management East Netherlands. Because I missed contact with the academy, I also applied for a part-time chair for Nature Management River Basins at Radboud University. That’s how the ball started to roll.

Now you are a professor of sustainable water management at Radboud in Nijmegen and a leading lecturer at Van Hall Larenstein in Velp. Is a career in “the water” sexy enough for young people?

Only when they realize how threatening climate change and biodiversity loss can be for their own future living environment. Only then do they see the necessity of developing and applying new revenue models in which they later have to earn a living. It can be quite sexy if you build your own future with your peers that makes up for a lot of what your father and mother’s generation have thoroughly ruined.

Delta Platform facilitates this process by sharing the latest insights and innovations and embedding them in education. Here, too, the concept of living labs comes into play.

How are you involved with Delta Platform?

From the different functions we are working on the same theme: climate change is putting the delta under pressure. It is a huge challenge to ensure safety in the future and to have sufficient freshwater available. Cooperation is particularly important in these complex water-related area challenges. We need to build solid consortia and pool available resources. We try to achieve this in living labs.

How does such a living lab work?

Government, water boards, social parties and education work together in a living lab. There is a leading role for hbo (higher professional education). Lecturers use their knowledge and experience for research and innovation in education and professional practice. Such a living lab is not a head and tail project and there is no hierarchy. The starting point is that we want to act in accordance with the three principles of the circular economy. In this context, we want to develop and apply innovations together with public and private parties that include a healthy revenue model. Actually, such a living lab is a dynamic environment where human and natural capital is better used to solve the complex (water-related) area challenges in a sustainable way.

With the Water Lecturers’ Platform, we are working on about six regional living labs in the Netherlands.

Why six? Isn’t it about one Dutch Delta?

Well, look at how the Delta is built. We have the Randstad, an urbanized area, Friesland, a rural area and then there is the middle of the Netherlands where the major rivers flow. All these regions have different problems, each of which requires its own solution. The Southwest Delta Regional Agenda provides guidance when dividing into regions. For example, we are looking for urban water solutions in the Rotterdam region. In Friesland, we are working on circular agriculture. And in the Southwest Delta, we want to move to a sustainably safe, economically attractive and healthy area with sufficient freshwater. There is attention for the cultivation of sea fish on land, the production of salt-tolerant crops and coastal defense with living nature, such as oyster dams. In addition to the landscape diversity of each region, culture also plays a role. Society in the Randstad is simply different from that in Zeeland. We take this into account. Moreover, control is in the region itself. For example, every living lab is regionally tailored.

In Zeeland we have Living Lab Schouwen-Duiveland. Why add a living lab?

Living Lab Schouwen-Duiveland is a relatively small initiative. It is a good example of how a living lab works. We must cherish that. We must also keep in mind that the island is part of the Southwest Delta, a larger scale.

Are there examples of successful living labs?

There certainly are. Only the term did not exist yet. The WaalWeelde initiative in Gelderland is one such example. There it was necessary to take measures for flood protection in 1995, while at the same time there was a desire for pleasant living, working and recreation in the fifteen municipalities along the Waal. However, Rijkswaterstaat’s plans were not in line with those of the municipalities. For two years, municipalities, knowledge institutes and NGOs worked together in the living lab on a plan that met all wishes, led by Radboud University. When the ‘inspiration atlas’ had been completed with suitable spatial interventions, the Province of Gelderland further embedded it administratively and ensured that a development budget of 60 million was used for this. That is a way of co-creation that works. Another example is the Living Lab Fryslân. There, Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, together with Noardelike Fryske Walden, ensured that a regional deal was created to boost circular agriculture in Friesland.

So that is going well?

No, it is not that easy. Such a transition requires alternative business models. Local farmers have looked at, among other things, wet agricultural products so that climate gas emissions from agriculture can be reduced. An example is bulrush, which is now used as a low carbon building material. The point is that you can offer a farmer an alternative reliable earnings model that is good for both the environment and the climate. You didn’t just realize that. It will take years.

So there is already something going on in the farmers’ yard! When will the people of Zeeland notice something?

In Friesland it took two years before the living lab started. But many good things are already happening in the Southwest Delta. All ingredients are present. We are now looking to connect and streamline the initiatives so that we can make better use of human and natural capital in the region.

What lessons do you draw from the other living labs that you can use for the Southwest Delta?

It is of course helpful if the regional government steps in at a later stage. After all, a living lab is there to provide a good interface between bottom-up and top-down. However, in a number of cases we have noticed that these government parties very quickly fall back into their natural role as rulers and that they ignore the original rules of a living lab, about which agreements were made at the start. You notice that the participants of the living lab who were so active in the beginning go back to the “parking position” of: “Okay, if you know so well let’s see …”. And that, of course, is eternally sinful.

How do you get people to board?

The game of seduction. If parties realize that together you are able to pool resources and knowledge and really help transitions with new revenue models, then they step in. In the initial phase of every living lab, it is therefore necessary to first gather a small group of “early adopters” around you. Success easily copies itself.