Hanze professor Johan de Jong about the added value of collaboration and the importance of outdoor exercise

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Promoting an active and healthy lifestyle is one of the biggest challenges in Europe, but it is also quite a complex task. The Erasmus+ project Communities of Practice for Healthy Lifestyle (COP4HL) has achieved fantastic results in this area. Dr Johan de Jong, Hanze professor Healthy Lifestyle, Sports and Physical Activity, leads this European project. His work as a professor focuses in particular on promoting sports and exercise, an important part of the strategic theme Healthy Lifestyle & Living Environment and linked to Citizen Science and implementation.

Johan, during the closing congress of this project you can a lecture with the title Three years of social innovation towards Healthy Lifestyle. Can you tell me more about this? 

'First of all: we specifically planned the congress in 2020 in the week for More Healthy Years, because it is an integral part of that. This congress concluded the COP4HL project with a unique approach to promote an Active and Healthy Lifestyle and Living Environment based on social innovation in five European countries and with 16 partners. The collaboration in the municipality of Groningen is considered 'rich practice' for Malaga (Spain), AlcobaƧa & Cascais (Portugal), Kaunas (Lithuania) and Odense (Denmark). The motto was: 'Think global, act local.' Experiences from the different EU countries are used in the region and communities.

There is a lot of (scientific) knowledge in the field of stimulating an active and healthy lifestyle, but it is often not possible to put this knowledge into practice and living environment in a sustainable way, taking into account the specific context. This process requires an approach in which you take much more into account in terms of the local context, culture, wishes, needs, and possibilities in the field of an Active and Healthy Lifestyle. Furthermore, making such a process learnable has also proven to be of great importance, and this can be done by developing so-called communities of practices in which citizens, public and private partners, and educational research institutions can participate. By focusing on five very different cultures, you add an extra dimension and diversity, which makes it all the more interesting for practice-oriented research. We were mainly looking for so-called guiding principles that are important/crucial in the development and sustainability of communities of practice for an Active and Healthy Lifestyle. So no one-size-fits-all approach, but use the local possibilities, insights of different COP participants, context, and culture when developing initiatives on the theme Active and Healthy Lifestyle. 

An important part of this was the local interaction between the business community, government, knowledge institutions and citizens, who together look for a good solution for complex issues. The COP approach thus shows many parallels with the innovation workplaces, as we define them as Hanze UAS. We take experiences and lessons learned in COP4HL back to our own region. 

That produces very surprising results. Malaga is known in Europe for its extensive outdoor fitness facilities. An important point for improvement here is that these outdoor facilities are not used optimally or only by a select age group. During an evaluation session in Malaga with directors of several companies involved in outdoor fitness, one of them said that COP4HL has had a lot of impact for his company that develops outdoor exercise equipment. Where in the past they mainly let the engineers determine the designs of this equipment, they noticed that they made a crucial mistake through their collaboration with students and researchers who involved citizens in their projects. This Spanish company realized through COP4HL that they had to actively involve citizens at the start of the design process of their products. Based on this learning experience, they immediately changed and adapted their business process. In short: students not only learn from professionals and companies but also vice versa.'  

The Europapark, the Groningen rich practice, was also based on collaboration with a number of partners, including the Municipality of Groningen, Plaza Sportiva and SWECO. How did that collaboration go and what are the results?

'The students of the master Healthy Ageing Professional (HAP), students of the Minor Da Vinci and professor-researchers have mainly been deployed by Hanze UAS. In addition, of course, the companies from the Media Park and many interested citizens. Due to the many initiated events with subgroups around different themes around Active and Healthy Lifestyle, innovation weeks for Da Vinci students, all kinds of activating initiatives arose from and in the neighbourhood.   

The Europapark is an exercise-friendly, physical and social environment with many people with their own initiatives. That by-catch I was just talking about also happened there during the Corona pandemic. Then, in the spring of 2020, the rhythm of this park changed from +20,000 temporary daily users to 1,200 permanent residents. Students from the Noorderpoort and the Alfa College, and employees of the Europark companies stayed at home, the lockdown at Leyhoeve (residential area for people over 55 with or without a care demand) ensured that the residents could not even walk around the block. The Europapark stood still for a moment.

But shortly afterwards, the park, which runs like a green stroke through the neighbourhood, got a real makeover. Where it was first mainly used as a walk-through route and a few boot camp groups, there were now new active users on the outdoor fitness field. And if the park is the setting for sunbathers, the water is fully used for stand-up paddling and rowing boats, for example. In addition, there is also more youth on the sports court. In fact, the public space was given a whole new look in the Europapark due to Corona. And the citizens' initiatives aimed at creative use arose naturally, as it were. Apparently, a pandemic like Corona can also contribute to social innovation in the neighbourhood and unintentionally accelerate it as a catalyst.' 

Excellent EU rating

The final report of the COP4HL project has now been completed and the project has scored 95%, where the maximum was 100%. Of course, this is just a number, but one that we can be proud of. As a consortium and Hanze UAS, these are excellent assessments in terms of the relevance of the project aimed at Active and Healthy Lifestyle, especially against the background of Covid-19. We received excellent/maximum ratings for a) the 'guiding principles' for developing and making COP more sustainable; b) the educational materials that we have developed on this theme, which are now used in various (inter)national education programmes and refresher courses for professionals; c) the design week as a method for social innovation together with various partners; d) the coordination of this three-year project with a very large consortium Through COP4HL we have involved more than 650 students directly and more than 3,000 indirectly. At the start of COP4HL, six companies were involved and this has expanded to 34. We started with four municipal partners and eventually, this turned to 73. This illustrates the impact that the project has had in an EU context, but also regionally on the field of practice, education and research. 

COP4HL has now been completed, but the ideas are fully utilized in the current and future innovation workshops and living labs in which we as Hane are involved. In addition, a new international follow-up project called SUSWELL (Sustainable Wellbeing) has been awarded and is now in full swing. With this, Hanze UAS is continuing on the path it has already set, together with citizens, public, private and educational research partners, with the aim of stimulating an Active and Healthy Lifestyle and Living Environment in the EU and the region: Think Global, Act Local!

Text: Luuk Steemers