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Utrecht’s Co-Create Program Empowers Students to Tackle Social Challenges

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According to a recent health assessment, one out of ten residents in Utrecht experience extreme loneliness [1]. Alarming figures for Utrecht, and reason to take immediate action for the local communities. How to help decrease the feeling of loneliness and promote the feeling of belonging among the inhabitants of the city?  In the spring of 2018, this was the exact question to be understood and solved by multidisciplinary teams taking the two weeks elective course “Co-create: life’s professional challenges” or “Co-Challenge” jointly designed and delivered by the University Medical Centre Utrecht (UMCU), the Municipality of Utrecht, and the Career Services of Utrecht University (UU).

Co-Challenge course

In recent years, UMCU experimented with educational methods in order to innovate its curricula. The UMCU employees who have become the creators of the Co-Challenge program held the belief that there was a gap in the educational system: students do not learn about concept development. After several pilots the Co-Challenge was created, an elective course that gives Bachelor, Master, PhD students as well as recent graduates of the University of Utrecht the opportunity to develop entrepreneurial and professional skills by tackling social challenges in multidisciplinary teams.

The course has a duration of two weeks, is full-time and all about finding conceptual solutions for real-life challenges of the Municipality of Utrecht. Students form teams, work on their concept and attend short inspirational sessions and workshops. The solutions are not necessarily implementable, yet the process of generating a concept puts the students “on the spot”, challenges their critical and entrepreneurial thinking, as well as providing the municipality and other stakeholders with creative ideas upon which actual solutions can be built.

Innovative solutions for aging and transportation

The challenges proposed during the course normally address the social needs of the city, with the municipality providing the input.  For example, the theme of last year’s Co-Challenge course was focusing on pollution and transportation issues in Utrecht, inspired by the concern of the municipality. It has become a habit to go as far as possible by public transport or car, and walk or cycle the last bit. As Utrecht is expanding very rapidly, this is becoming less and less feasible. The winning concept of the 2017 edition was the “Skyover”, a bicycle bridge that connects the industrial district Lage Weide and the remote district of Overvecht with high unemployment rates (15%). The goal of the Skyover is twofold: not only would the bicycle bridge increase employability rates by connecting a remote district to a lively industrial hub of the city, but it would also reduce pollution levels and the pressure on the infrastructure of Utrecht.

In the 2018 edition of the Co-Challenge, teams addressed the problem highlighted in the introduction of this article: loneliness in the city of Utrecht. The winning team, called +Pack, came up with the concept “Wise Words”, aiming to connect the elderly and primary school pupils by bringing them together for school presentations or artwork. By connecting the two groups, the team addressed the feeling of loneliness that many elderly are facing in Utrecht.

Co-creating with impact

Despite the fact that the students’ ideas may remain conceptual and not implemented straightaway, or at all, they inspire the UMCU and the municipality of Utrecht to innovate their solution-generating processes. Notably, close communication between the stakeholders raises awareness among students of the current social issues that the city of Utrecht is facing. Additionally, it promotes the visibility of the municipality as an employer – it has been reported that the municipality of Utrecht has received more placement applications since the start of the Co-Challenge.

Undoubtedly, participation in the Co-Challenge program has had a great impact on the students themselves. Not only do students further develop their critical, creative and entrepreneurial thinking, but they also broaden their horizons by working in multidisciplinary teams and expand their professional networks by participating in the events linked with the course. Moreover, the students are able to exercise their citizenship by actively engaging in the social life of the city by thinking outside the box and proposing innovative conceptual solutions to real-life problems.

This article is based on a case study originally written by Anna Silvius (University of Groningen) developed as part of the WEXHE. This and other 80 + case studies from across Europe will be made available in the project website soon. For more information on WEXHE, please visit www.wexhe.eu

  1. Information taken from co-challenge.nl

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