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‘You learn so much more than during your studies’

Graduates Bruno and Plym took part in the National Think Tank last year. Together with 20 other students and recent graduates, they spent four months pondering the future of our digital society. ‘You learn so much in the space of four months, not just practical skills but also about yourself.’

The anecdotes keep on coming: Plym de Jong and Bruno Verdam spent the last few months at the National Think Tank, and it would be fair to say they’re rather enthusiastic about the whole thing. Plym had just graduated in medicine and Bruno was able to postpone the start of his PhD in law. ‘I had been considering taking part in the National Think Tank for some time already, so now I had the opportunity I went for it straight away,’ says Bruno. But, Plym adds: ‘Don’t do it if the subject doesn’t appeal to you.’ This year’s subject was the future of the digital society. Plym, Bruno and 20 other young academics who had just graduated or were about to do so spent four months deliberating over the question: ‘How can we create a digital society that is healthy, resilient, inclusive and fair?’ Now the final report has been issued, we look back with these two Leiden alumni.

Future of the digital society

The final report consists of ten solutions to what the members of the Think Tank call an ‘optimally functioning digital society’. Bruno: ‘We’ve come up with an overall vision that emphasises three ideals for the digital future: togetherness, human contact and fair power structures. We wrote the vision as a letter to Prime Minister Rutte, which we thought was quite apt.’ And to make things clearer they represented their vision of the future, and all the solutions, in a picture (see below).

The National Think Tank represented its vision for the digital society in a picture.
The National Think Tank represented its vision for the digital society in a picture.

Phone in a tree

The solutions were very diverse. Plym worked on Phoneforest: a telephone tree that involves placing your phone into a leaf and hoisting it up until it is hanging in the tree. Plym: ‘Digital temptation – the temptation to keep looking at your phone – is difficult to resist, but it’s easier if you do this together. So if you install such a tree at a meeting or in a restaurant and everyone hands in their phones, you can all concentrate better and pay more attention to one another.’ And the idea is taking off: the prototype that they built is constantly being borrowed by businesses and organisations. Plym grins: ‘And, as I just told Bruno, we found a potential producer this very morning, so there will be more!’

Bruno Verdam: ‘Now, at the beginning of my PhD research, I’m using the skills that I learned at the National Think Tank.’
Bruno Verdam: ‘Now, at the beginning of my PhD research, I’m using the skills that I learned at the National Think Tank.’

Apps that violate privacy

Bruno helped write the vision and also worked on a completely different solution: starting a court case against apps that violate privacy. ‘You’re always hearing about the GDPR, the new privacy regulation, but very little is happening in the courts.’ When a court judgement would create some clarity. Bruno worked on the prior investigation for the case. ‘And we’ve now found a lawyer who is willing to take the case. So this will run for a bit!’

Work will continue

This also applies to the majority of the solutions: many members of the Think Tank have continued working on them since issuing the final report. Bruno: ‘You have devoted so much effort to a topic that you don’t really want to stop.’ Plym agrees. ‘We discussed this together. Some participants wanted to finish their degrees before returning to their project.’ The group will stay in touch regardless. ‘You become really close in such a short period of time because you work together so intensively and learn so much from each other. That’s what makes it so special.’

The Think Tank participants during one of the many brainstorming sessions.
The Think Tank participants during one of the many brainstorming sessions.

Practical skills

Plym and Bruno can’t stop talking about what a learning experience this adventure is. It begins with practical skills alone, such as techniques for getting a brainstorming session going, how to structure a problem and how it is smart to plan phone calls in your less productive hours. ‘I’ve noticed I’m also using these kinds of skills now I’ve started my PhD research,’ says Bruno. ‘The Think Tank has taught me that instead of ploughing through never-ending amounts of literature to try and decide where to start, I should first have a cup of coffee with three professors and ask them a few questions.’

Learning about yourself

They also learned a lot about themselves. Plym: ‘It’s unique how you learn to work with others, and how you also look critically at how you do this. What you need to be able to do a good job of something – answering those kinds of questions.’ And that can be confronting at times, she admits. ‘For instance, I discovered that I’m not very good at dealing with real pushback – something you can’t avoid with such an articulate and smart group of people as the Think Tank,’ she laughs. ‘But I also learned that I’m a real doer, and contrary to what I always thought, that isn’t something you can take for granted.’

Plym de Jong: ‘It’s unique how you learn to work with others on the National Think Tank, and how you also look critically at how you do this.’
Plym de Jong: ‘It’s unique how you learn to work with others on the National Think Tank, and how you also look critically at how you do this.’

Consultancy versus academic research

The National Think Tank is an extremely intensive programme – some of the participants even live together during the four months – so they both found it a challenge to maintain a social life too. ‘And it’s a form of consultancy, which is a very different way to do research than the scientific approach that we learned. We used design thinking, for instance, to solve problems and develop solutions,’ says Plym.

A real must

Would they recommend that other students or young alumni take part in the National Think Tank? In unison: ‘Definitely!’ Bruno: ‘You learn more than in any other degree programme or working on a board, not only in terms of practical skills but socially too. For me it also broadened my career perspectives: I was only looking at the legal sector, but now know there are so many more options.’ Plym: ‘That’s what’s so great about it: all the doors that open as soon as you say you’re on the National Think Tank. The contacts and experience that this gives you: it’s been incredibly valuable.’

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