| 6 minute read

Envisioning desirable futures together: UIIN participates in the Mixed Classroom at Utrecht University’s Urban Futures Studio

Tasha Day
Utrecht university library

The Mixed Classroom is an innovative education initiative out of the Urban Futures Studio (UFS) at Utrecht University. It is designed to bring together students, researchers, practitioners and policymakers to explore and address complex sustainability challenges collaboratively. I participated in the 2023/2024 mixed classroom as a practitioner as a way to have first-hand experience of the educational programmes that we explore, champion and promote at UIIN. The interactive programme facilitates face-to-face collaboration between different sectors and disciplines, bridging the gap between academic learning and real-world application, and fostering a dynamic environment where participants can learn from each other’s diverse perspectives and experiences.

The Mixed Classroom took place across 10 weeks where every other week practitioners and policy makers were invited to join the students on site. The set-up of the mixed classroom was a dramatological social movement – meaning that we conducted our sessions as if we were participating in a real social movement that was campaigning for a just transition. Together with the students, we strategized on potential interventions that would draw people’s attention to sustainability and justice issues and inspire them to get involved with activism. We learnt from people in various sectors: academics, activists in social movements such as Extinction Rebellion, policymakers, and local governors.

Learning from the experts  

Through the Mixed Classroom, we were collectively able to engage deeply with the topics of justice, sustainability and the just transition. We learnt through lectures, panel discussions and case studies about how, at its core, our current society is heavily reliant on extractive practices with fossil fuels. More and more people are aware of the need to transition to a post-fossil society, but this reliance causes a fatal short-termism and a slow transition to a post-fossil society.

A major barrier we identified to the transition in the Mixed Classroom is a ‘crisis of imagination’, where people struggle to conceive a society that is not based on fossil fuels and economic growth.

However, people are clearly worried about the future of our planet, and with the right ingredients, worries and concerns can turn into citizen engagement. In everyday life there are imaginaries that guide us towards alternative futures and with all this knowledge in mind therefore, it is our job, as a social movement, to create images of desirable futures, to change the way we relate to the past, present and future.

The importance of setting  

The setting of a social movement gave us space to think about what kind of future we would like to envision and ways in which we might already be able to embody that future in our workplaces, relationships and day-to-day lives.

This cross-sector and interdisciplinary setting gave us insights into how different parts of society are thinking about and acting on the transition. For example, companies and banks do not currently think in positive possibilities for the future, but rather in risks. A bank advisor participating in the Mixed Classroom remarked to us that it is their job to give their bank many reasons why they should not fund fossil fuels, but at present there is no job that focusses on showing banks what we should strive for i.e. a desirable future.

In general, language that is currently used in the transition is very negatively focussed on ‘anti-this’, and ‘reduction that’. However, this negative framing does not entice people’s involvement. In the Mixed Classroom, we discovered we need a positive framing – something exciting we can work towards together to get people on board.

Societal levers – Working together for the same goals

There is a ceiling – our current way of organising our society, our dominant economic system – and all our structures are based around this. To break through this ceiling requires different ‘levers’ to be pressed simultaneously. Different sectors of society have different tactics for delivering the same message; Extinction Rebellion, for example, is out on the streets or blocking highways, whilst other companies choose to put adverts about the climate crisis in the newspaper.

Receiving the same message from different angles adds legitimacy to the cause, highlighting the importance of different sectors working together towards the same goals.

Collective action – Practical challenges

Whilst the environment of the Mixed Classroom was inspiring and energising, I did notice some practical challenges related to this type of programme. A significant challenge I observed was the limited time available to deeply connect with the ideas and with each other. I had the impression that there was never enough time to get to the heart of the issue, to understand everyone’s perspective and later, what could be done to address the issue, highlighting the need for extended engagement to foster deeper understanding and collaboration. To me, this demonstrates the barriers to breaking down the silos that our society is very much structured around. So whilst students and practitioners are certainly interacting in this programme, there is only so much time that they are allocated to spend with each other before they have to go back to their day-to-day responsibilities.

I also perceived a conflict where the participating activists stressed that, in order to be effective, the demands of social movements and activists should be small, specific and simple. But on the other hand, we have limited time to combat climate change and we need big action. This lead me to the question: do we have enough time left to do effective collective action?

Don’t give up! 

I left UFS’ Mixed Classroom with the wisdom of the activists who participated in the programme in my ears – don’t give up. Being part of a movement or trying to enact social change, you often have to try the same thing ten times before it works. Try something out, see how others react, think about what went well and what didn’t, iterate and try again. But whatever you do, don’t give up.

It was clear to see that deliberative decision making and collective action are challenging, but equally, it is invigorating and inspiring to be in an environment like the Mixed Classroom. The power and potential that is created when you put this many heads with diverse expertise together around the same cause is palpable.

Ready for more?

If you enjoyed this article check out our series Uniting for sustainability: Five reads on higher education’s role in tackling the climate crisis or listen to our podcast Transforming education and designing a sustainable future with Dr. Leyla Acaroglu.

The Urban Futures Studio (UFS) is a research institute at Utrecht University dedicated to exploring the future of urban spaces. The institute aims to promote innovative thinking and foster practical solutions for just and sustainable development. The studio brings together academia, policymakers and societal stakeholders to envision and work towards a more just, resilient and sustainable future.

Tasha Day (author) is a Project officer at UIIN, where she undertakes research activities and creates content on a wide variety of topics including entrepreneurship education, sustainability and research valorisation.

Go to overview