One of the great things about teaching at a university is that you sometimes get to meet remarkable people. At the start of this year I was invited to join a new ThinkTank as academic advisor: 15 Stellenbosch University students, handpicked from the best the university has to offer, would deliberate with 15 students from KU Leuven in Belgium around the theme of the ‘City of the Future’ . The plan was that they would meet regularly, listen to experts from various disciplines, and then, in November, travel to Belgium to produce a document and present their findings to the media and university community.
I’ve just returned from the two week trip to Leuven. My voice is gone, I have a cold, and I needed a few days just to catch up on some lost sleep. But it was certainly worth it: the several months of expert presentations and countless discussions via Skype calls and Facebook messages and WhatsApp chats paid off last week Tuesday as the students presented their vision of what the City of the Future will be. They structured their presentation into three pillars: Survive, Breathe and Thrive. Survive identified the challenges the city of the future will face. Breathe suggested practical principles that can be adopted to mitigate these challenges. Thrive allowed the audience to dream of what the future city could look like; the audience were at some stage even asked to blindfold themselves and explore the endless possibilities of their own imagination. (An article in Dutch is available here. Also, Matieland reported on the ThinkTank here.)
But a ThinkTank is more than just the content it produces. It creates new friendships, networks and partnerships that will last much longer than the few minutes of the presentation, or even the two weeks of exchange. I got to know some incredible young scientists, theologians, accountants, artists, farmers, engineers and teachers, to name a few of the students’ professions. After what was a difficult year for most South African universities, talking (and singing and dancing and drinking and playing football) with these students made me aware of the passion they share – even if they disagree with me, or among themselves – over the future of South Africa.
Students are often portrayed as either ignorant apathetics or bloodlusting revolutionaries. This was not the students I got to know over the last two weeks. They are thoughtful, eloquent, passionate, accommodating, knowledgeable and not scared to test their comfort zones. They value social justice, transparency, ingenuity, creativity, diversity. They are, in a sense, the perfect citizens of the future city.
If this is the caliber of the next generation, I thought to myself during the final evening’s awards ceremony, our country is in good hands.
*Our hosts in Leuven were fantastic. Anse Heeren (second to right in the group photo), in particular, worked tirelessly to make sure everything and everyone is on track. Rector Rik Torfs (front, center), who had signed the initial agreement with the late Russel Botman, gave an engaging closing address, acknowledging the hard work the students put in. Next year the Belgian students visit Stellenbosch. Let’s hope we can return the hospitality in style.