New challenge has students design a ‘nature-based future’

Published on
October 2, 2023

During the Nature-Based Future Challenge, students learn that nature is key to a hopeful, green future. This international challenge has students collaborating in a pressure cooker to develop a future perspective for a delta. How can the flames be fanned?

WUR’s Student Challenge topic was not chosen randomly. A green future was also the topic of the Mansholt Lecture delivered by Tim van Hattum in Brussels on 20 September. He illustrated what Europe might look like one hundred years into the future if nature-based solutions are deployed. In an interview after the lecture, Tim van Hattum expressed his contentment at the fact that many students attended the address in addition to the government officials and politicians. Many of these students contributed to the map. ‘Fortunately, a considerable group of young people are calling for action. Getting them involved is critical’, he said.

Nature-based solutions is one of the topics that Wageningen University & Research will highlight during climate summit COP28. Prior to the climate summit, on November 29, the kick-off of the Nature-based Future Challenge will take place.

That was the idea behind the new WUR Student Challenge: the Nature-based Future Challenge. As was the case in previous challenges, students are offered the opportunity to work on societal challenges in international teams. Previous challenges addressed the protein transition and sustainable food production in urban areas. With each previous edition, enthusiasm increased, as did the international scope. Still, organisers Rio Pals and Marta Eggers felt that, after six editions of the challenge, the time was ripe for an entirely new topic aligned with WUR’s focus themes. How will they make this edition equally successful?

Positive message

There is no shortage of interest in the theme. Wageningen Environmental Research’s Martine van Moûrik knows why. ‘Ever since the industrial revolution, we have been trying to solve every issue with technology: increasingly higher dykes, pumping water into the sea to create dry land. We cannot continue along this route indefinitely. Working with nature and basing solutions on the water and soil systems is much better and is in keeping with WUR’s philosophy.’ Solutions such as these are found in the NL2120 and EU2120 future perspectives and have been met with national and international acclaim.

‘The important thing is that the message is a positive one and one that activates people. There is a lot we can do together.’ It is precisely for this reason that students will now work on nature-based solutions. The international student teams have from November 2023 till June 2024 to find solutions for a heavily populated delta in Bangladesh. More editions of this challenge will follow for other locations, such as the Mississippi Delta in the United States. The assignment remains unchanged: design a nature-based solution for this delta.

‘Everything merges in deltas’

Deltas are a logical choice from among all of the different regions, say Pals and Eggers. ‘There is a lot going on in deltas, as they are often heavily populated, and space is in short supply. At the same time, there is a lot of biodiversity, which is currently under threat. Moreover, the effects of climate change, floods, for example, are sorely felt in these areas’, says Pals.

The selected locations serve as an example to ensure that all the teams focus on the same delta. Eggers: ‘WUR has excellent contacts with local experts in two locations. They can help the students get started within the local context.’ Students also have international professionals with experience in nature-based solutions at their disposal.

The student teams will get together in design studios, the next critical ingredient in this challenge. ‘The great thing is that students start designing straight away’, says Van Moûrik, one of the student mentors in this challenge. ‘In a pressure cooker, you can devise a plan together quickly.’ The design process is circular, which means there are short spells of design and generating a vision, interrupted by gathering literature and practical knowledge. ‘An interview with a farmer, for example, to find out what issues they face.’ In short, not a linear process of gathering information followed by designing a solution, but improving the plan as you go.

Stimulating creativity

Designing nature-based solutions calls for a different way of thinking and working. The main objective of the challenge is to introduce the students to this approach, says Dean of Education Arnold Bregt. ‘WUR aims to provide a rich learning environment. That is included in our perspective on education. This challenge stimulates design skills, out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration. Students are very inspired by the topic of a nature-based future, which certainly helps them work on these skills. It is their future, after all.’

The Nature-based Future Challenges are made possible by the support of a partner network that includes the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and the University Fund Wageningen.

Find out more about the Student Challenge