An interview with Martijn Rietbergen, SAUNAC co-coordinator, on the challenges and accomplishments o
Hogeschool Utrecht sent a group of staff working on the Smart Sustainable Cities Project to the bustling capital of Vietnam for 7 days. The Project leader, Martijn Rietbergen talks about smog, street interviews and inspiring meetings.
Rietbergen speaks to me via Skype from a hotel room in Hanoi. He talks about his experience of his first three days in Vietnam. Despite the audible fatigue and jetlag in Rietbergen’s voice, he is still giving off enough energy and enthusiasm to talk about the project. Rietbergen is a researcher, and leader of the International project SAUNAC (Sustainable Alliance of Urban Networks in Asian cities). This project is a follow-up to the design of the international educational module, Smart Sustainable Cities (the Essence project). For these projects, the HU cooperated with other colleges from European countries in the CARPE network coming from Great Britain, Spain, Finland and the Netherlands.
Rietbergen tells me that, “At the end of that project, the question was whether we could pass the education program to Asia. The Turku University of Applied Sciences already had contacts in Vietnam, so we decided to travel here and find out."
“It is not easy to roll out a European lesson program and expect that it will be started. We are now in a different role. In Smart Sustainable Cities, we were educational developers, here we have more advisory role”, says Rietbergen.
"When I tell them about the problems in Utrecht, I see them thinking with an asking look: what's the problem? In Hanoi the smog is above the city, traffic is a complete madhouse and there are serious problems with water quality and food safety.” It is clear that the differences in challenges between Vietnamese and European urban issues are significant and many. “We try to establish relationships between business and education,” He tells me. “At the HU and other European institutions, this is done very explicitly, but here it happens a lot less. Therefore, in the workshops, we have introduced a client; they are not used to this. To introduce creativity, we sent the students up the street to talk to the stakeholders that you find there. This was also to encourage them to think about how to approach someone, how to start a conversation? They are used to leaning back and listening. It is a very different culture. So you have to be careful.” I asked whether the Vietnamese students are unsatisfied with the innovative approach. "Wait a minute," says Rietbergen. Sifting through a stack of papers, the evaluations of the students, he reads out the questions “What did they learn, what are the benefits?” Rietbergen randomly extracts some papers from the stack and reads the answers. "A creative approach, a new survey method for interviewing, group work is efficient, teamwork, active involvement… Well, they seem to be picking it up, that is beautiful. "
Then a little Dutch question, “What do we actually do? Does the HU provide anything?” "We are here with seven people from the college. It is a beautiful team that can do a variety of things in education and research. For example, Nikolien van Lidt, the Head of the International Office establishes relationships with companies and the educational institutions here. Vietnamese people are able to come to HU, but HU students can also come here. Smart Sustainable Cities is facing global challenges, which involves the exchange of knowledge at a global level. You can do everything indoors or within Europe, but you also have a social responsibility to share knowledge."
For Rietbergen, there is also a clear personal motivation, "You are working on a project for such a long time, which you want to further develop and extend. This also improves yourself."
Looking back, Rietbergen reflects on the start of the project. "It was difficult to involve people. For these meetings in Vietnam, you are a long way from home. Teachers could not make themselves available or they would hear from their supervisor that they could not. Now the project is widely carried out within the HU, which helps. "
In addition, Rietbergen endorses every teacher. "People in this project are looking across their borders. You see that other disciplines in the university have a better understanding of what they are doing and then you have the cooperation with other CARPE partners. At the HU, we searched for Vietnamese students prior to this trip. There were already over thirty of them. We invited them to a meeting to tell us about their culture and suddenly there are these 19-year-olds who can tell you anything about their own culture. So worldly.”