Fifteen Minute Cities

Peter van der Hijden

Peter is an independent higher education strategy advisor of Dutch nationality, living in Brussels. He acts as sparring partner, board member, workshop moderator and inspirational speaker for public authorities, non-governmental organisations, companies, media outlets, university- and professional networks

The story of the Three Princes of Serendip dates back to a Persian fairy tale of the fifth century and has been told over and again in word literature, for instance by Voltaire in his novel Zadig of 1747.  

The notion of unintended discovery functions in modern science as well, where often researchers connect ideas by chance, as did Hungarian-American Katalin Karikó when she teamed-up with colleague Drew Weissman at  the University of Pennsylvania, after meeting at the photocopier, and decided to further develop the messenger RNA-based gene therapy that lead to the vaccine that has saved our planet. 

The work of Karikó and her colleagues allows us to return to a new normal in which we can meet again in person and re-discover the physical proximity that is so crucial for progressing ideas and projects.  Studies show that online cooperation is very fruitful for carrying out specific tasks, but misses out when it comes to cross-team and cross-topic collaboration

Established companies and start-up incubators use physical proximity to stimulate such collaboration and enhance productivity. Student learning fits perfectly in this philosophy. Proximity within a diversity body of students and staff allows for discoveries and deep learning across disciplinary boundaries. Physical mobility as in the Erasmus+ programme will continue to take place, but in a (re)considered way and no longer as an automatic assumption. One person, one electric car will never happen as there are simply not enough rare materials at hand to equip them.

The notion of the 15-minute city was first introduced by  the Franco-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno 2016 and picked up by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo in her 2020 re-election campaign. In a 15-minue city, six essential functions should be within a 15-minute walking or biking distance: living, working, commerce, healthcare, education and entertainment.  Local proximity is combined with a global outreach through the internet, allowing our citizens to feel fully connected, whilst using motorized means of transportation only incidentally.

City planners and student housing developers respond, as shown abundantly in this Trend Report, by building living, learning and working facilities, well-embedded in thriving cities and offering all the facilities that students need to learn, live and be creative, within easy reach.

Our universities are responding as well. Many engage in the EU ‘European Universities’ initiative aimed at strengthening and connecting local innovation eco-systems in order to retain talent, increase functionality, productivity and mobility. They plan to share their R&I infrastructures and pool their teaching capacities, notably through ‘micro-credentials’: short recognized high-quality courses that learners can follow online and in blended format before, during or instead of their regular degree programmes.

The twenties of the 21st century promise to be roaring. Awakening from lockdown hibernation will unleash unprecedented amounts of creative energy at a moment on which there is more capital than ever looking for meaningful destinations. A moment also at which the information technology driven industrial revolution is finally starting to translate into increased productivity.  A time in which climate change forces us to radically reconsider city planning and mobility. Universities, cities and student housing developers should act in concert and address these challenges, saving the planet and allowing our students and young professionals to become the ‘Modern Princes & Princesses of Serendip’.

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