As nomads through the Delta

Marco Lengton
Coordinator of the Master River Delta Development

The Master River Delta Development has started
It is Thursday morning 21 November. Four students, armed with a great Spotify playlist, are working in ‘their’ living lab. When asked: “Describe the Scheldt excursion in catchwords?”, Roel Spanjers, Robert Verwijs, Bob de Jong and Thijs de Weerd answer: “Challenging, gripping, high-quality knowledge, passion, interactive, fast-paced, energy and energetic”. And these are exactly the terms that fit the Master River Delta Development.

Working and learning in an interactive way in a river delta

In September sixteen students from all over the world started the intensive introduction to their master’s programme. They travelled a thousand kilometres in four days to get from the source of the River Scheldt in Gouy to the mouth of this fascinating river in Vlissingen. During the trip, the students were introduced to stakeholders and experts from the historic mining centre in Lewarde, the Antwerp port company, De Vlaamse Waterweg nv, the village of Doel, the Het Zeeuwse Landschap foundation and the new lock complex in Terneuzen. The so-called RIVER 21-concept was used as the basis for this journey¹. This concept, developed by French, Belgian and Dutch universities, is based on a combination of traditional knowledge transfer and interactive activities on location within an international context. The concept inspires students to think in a visionary way and to deal with deep uncertainty that involves the shaping of a future river delta.

Facilitator of change

River deltas around the world face complex problems. A rapidly growing number of people prefers to live, work and recreate in these vulnerable areas. In order to be able to do this in a sustainable way, social systems will have to change fundamentally: so-called transitions. The master River Delta Development offers graduate bachelors an 18-month programme to develop into a facilitator of change at master level (MSc). A facilitator of change understands (1) the different interests and perspectives of stakeholders, (2) is able to design a strategic and broadly supported intervention and (3) has the capacity to map out an adaptive change path. A facilitator of change operates from a broad knowledge of the functioning of delta systems.

Studying in a Living lab

The students work and learn four days a week in a ‘living lab’. One day a week they have lectures in the field of delta systems, system theory, transition theory, applied research and interactive learning. The students are also coached on this day. They reflect on their own development with regard to becoming a facilitator of change. Master student Rein Smeets knows how to summarise studying in a living lab: “During the master programme you build on your professional DNA from solid professional knowledge in living labs.”

To be selected for a living lab, the students had to write a motivation letter. In it, the student explained which of the curriculum’s learning objectives he or she wanted to work on. Based on these letters the supervisors of the living labs created the teams.

The students are currently studying in three living labs: (1) Flood Resilient Coastal Cities, (2) Competing Claims and (3) Robust Water Systems. Within Flood Resilient Coastal Cities, research is being conducted into the perception of stakeholders with regard to water safety, spatial planning and nature-based solutions in urban coastal areas. Competing Claims explores what future developments for the possibilities of saltwater food production (seafood) in the Southwestern Delta can mean in conjunction with other stakeholders. Robust Water Systems focuses on integrating the storage and availability of fresh water in such a way that it can be integrated into spatial development from which stakeholders such as citizens, farmers and the industry can benefit.

Three universities of applied sciences work together and share their river delta knowledge

The master’s programme is the result of a collaboration between Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences (Velp) and HZ University of Applied Sciences within the Centre of Expertise Delta Technology. Each university of applied sciences brings unique knowledge to the table: Rotterdam the city, Velp the river and Middelburg the coastal area. As nomads, the master’s students travel through the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta in eighteen months in search of knowledge about the delta system and to develop facilitator of change skills. Every semester, the students live in a different city and work on their learning objectives in a different living lab.


(1) Santbergen, L.L.P.A., & Verhallen, J.M. (2004). The RIVER 21 concept: envisioning the future of international river basins. NRC-days 2003.