Simon Tans
Simon Tans

Column Simon Tans: You have a part to play

I am a doomsayer. Mankind is messing and fiddling with a complex machine of which we ourselves are a part in a completely uncoordinated manner. Because of our fiddling, this machine is getting hotter and hotter and more and more parts stop working. We open doors that may contain toxic fumes. We also sprinkle all kinds of substances in our own feeding trough.

Mankind has known for a long time that we are inseparably connected to the ecosystem, but especially during the last century we try our utmost best to not want to see that. It is pretty clear what our future will look like if we continue fiddling with the same mentality. We are with a huge number of people and although we individually understand that a revolution is needed, we are extremely difficult to control collectively.

But I am a cheerful doomsayer. I might see a dark future ahead of us, but that future is not certain in the first place. Secondly, we can still influence that future and thirdly, I do not let that future influence my mental wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. We might be past some points of no return regarding the climate, but every contribution that helps prevent our planet from becoming less habitable (especially for ourselves) is useful. And if I'm wrong and we are headed to a future in which we have found the right balance, then it is a good thing I did not let doom and gloom dominate my life.

Let's think beyond the ecological challenges; what makes this era so interesting, is that current developments could form the basis for a utopian as well as a dystopian future. Take AI and robotisation, for example. Did I read too much science fiction? Maybe, but I'm not voicing my own opinion, but that of people who are a lot more knowledgeable than me.

Last October, we organised a conference with the title ‘Services of General (Economic) Interest: State of Play and Current Challenges’. This title doesn't immediately make you think of future-defining topics. In Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), international economic law is even cited as the ultimate boring topic for a lecture, after which the protagonist takes off. Still, one of the keynote speakers during the conference gave a fascinating presentation on the fact that Big Tech companies (Google, Meta, Amazon, etc.) provide more and more general (economic) services. The idea of such a service is that they are crucial for taking part in society. In the past, these services were in the hands of the government. But now they are in the hands of these kinds of companies. If you start reflecting on that, you'll understand why the speaker envisioned a dystopian future.

The role of large companies, the environment, biodiversity, climate change, and artificial intelligence. The future of our job market, robotisation, and migration... There are few areas of expertise in which major issues do not play a role. That is why I'm a big fan of the slogan ‘you have a part to play’. But what is my part? That, of course, depends on your own area of expertise.

Together with a colleague, ecologist Constant Swinkels, I've conceived the plan to launch an interdisciplinary pilot. Legal experts, economists, and ecologist all working together on nature conservation, and how this could be organised better. Something to do with killing two birds with one stone, interdisciplinary learning and working on a (greener) future. Or not, because the more birds the better. In the background is the much bigger issue of how we can get society to stop separating economics from ecology. A great example of the poor interplay between economics, ecology, and legislation is Bodemzicht, an ecological farm in Nijmegen that has become so successful that the farm is now too biodiverse. As a result, the area is now legally barred from being classified as an agricultural area.

Sadly, it appears that learning interdisciplinary skills is quite difficult in itself, and on top of that, it has not yet been proven that such skills actually contribute to solving complex issues. The statements in IPBES reports and educational visions that interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration is the key are often strongly worded, but not really substantiated. Obviously, this does not automatically mean that it is untrue. Intuitively, it feels logical to me. Experts from different areas of expertise are needed to tackle the huge societal issues that we face. Apart from that, it is clear that students will work together with other disciplines more often in the future.

I am eagerly awaiting the results of our pilot. Ensuring the necessary revolution is extra difficult if you don't know what is required exactly. Who will say which area of expertise will provide the needed contributions? A revolution will probably require an interplay of pretty much all disciplines. In my eyes, we as an academic community are wearing blindfolds and running down a steep slope while trying to guide a large group of students - all of whom are also running behind us blindfolded - to a crucial point.

All too bombastic? Perhaps. I hope I'm in the wrong. That I do actually watch too much science fiction. That, in twenty years, I'll be in a boat holding a fishing rod, with my grandchildren teeming in the water wearing swimming aids. Knowing that everything turned out all right in the end.

Contact information

If you want to react to my article, please send me an email via simon.tans [at]

Want to get started with educational methods of the future? The new application round for the Comenius grants will start soon. Read more about the Comenius programme here.