‘I’m kind of a hybrid’

| Michaela Nesvarova

‘Director? Yes, I’m a director, but what is that? It’s all about the team. I’m still just a newbie,’ says Sabine Wildevuur, the new DesignLab Director.

Photo by: Frans Nikkels

She might be a newbie at the University of Twente, but Wildevuur is certainly not new to transdisciplinary collaborations – something that DesignLab is focusing on and something that has defined her career so far. ‘I’m kind of a hybrid,’ she says, laughing, after asked how she sees herself. Because Sabine Wildevuur could be considered many things: a researcher, a writer, a manager, a communication specialist… 

Oxford, Kenya, DesignLab

To begin with, Wildevuur studied medicine, but decided she didn’t want to become a doctor, and combined medicine with another degree - in communication science. She moved to Oxford to conduct research on what internet could mean for healthcare, followed by a study on collaborations between scientists and artists. Later on, she spent two years in Kenya with the United Nations Environment Programme as head Internet. Eventually she founded and led the Waag's Creative Care Lab that aims to develop technology for innovation in healthcare, until being hired as the DesignLab Director in July 2019.

‘My career has been a bit of a turmoil,’ says Wildevuur. ‘But the role of technology in society has always been the essence of my work. It has always focused on how could ICT support people.’ Even her doctoral research thesis at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam – which she eventually decided to do – revolved around that topic, and is titled ‘Designing information and communication technology to enable person-centered care in chronic disease management’.

‘Open space, open mind’

Why the move to DesignLab? ‘A good question,’ says Wildevuur. ‘There are not that many places like DesignLab, where you can tackle grand societal challenges in a transdisciplinary manner. There was suddenly this opportunity to work with students, researchers, companies, policymakers and other external parties, in one place. And so I’m here.’ One could almost say that Sabine Wildevuur was destined to be here. ‘I come from a medical family, both of my parents are doctors. My father actually worked on research into artificial skin with Jan Feijen at the UT in the 1980’s. He worked apparently right here at this very spot, where DesignLab is now.’

Wildevuur started her new position just before DesignLab’s 5th anniversary, which it’s celebrating this month. ‘People before me built a platform that serves as an experimenting and pioneering place, and they put DesignLab on the map. It is an open, flexible environment with an open mind. It is a safe space for people to innovate. Coming from Amsterdam, you have no clue what this place really is. I was pleasantly surprised by the close connections between research, education and public and private entities and the huge variety of research here at UT. You think: how didn’t I know about this before?’

Different way of working

As the new Director, does she plan to make any changes? ‘No major changes. There is a solid base and now we want to focus on Responsible Design and Citizen Science, and expand our activities on and outside the campus. We want DesignLab to be the obvious place for people to go for research, education and projects to tackle wicked problems, involving the interactions between society and technology, which require creativity and an open, transdisciplinary approach. We are not an educational institute, but we facilitate educational activities. We are not a research institute, but we support research. We are looking into more long-term, sustainable collaborations. I like the initiatives such as the new Master-insert programme, which is important to teach people the skills and mindset to work on societal challenges.’

Wildevuur keeps stressing the importance of ‘another way of working and mindset’, of transdisciplinary cooperation. ‘We also need traditional research, scientists focused on their own field of expertise, but we also need to cross disciplines to deal with the demands of a fast-changing society. DesignLab offers this different way. We’d like to show that this way of working is here to stay. It’s not just a fruit fly, but something that we really need.’

Crossovers

Wildevuur is reluctant to predict where DesignLab will be on its tenth birthday. ‘In this field you never know where you end up. I like to quote the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire cat, when Alice asks which direction to walk. “Well that rather depends on where you want to get to,” says the cat and the girl answers she doesn’t care much. “Then it doesn’t matter where you go. You are sure to get somewhere as long as you walk long enough.” That is the same with us. You need to keep working and experimenting, although you don’t know exactly where you are heading.’

So for now, Sabine Wildevuur will continue doing what she’s always done – ‘connecting dots’. ‘I really like crossovers. I like combining the dots, bridging people and disciplines.’

SABINE WILDEVUUR

  • 2019 – now DesignLab Director, University of Twente
  • 2007 – 2019 Head of Creative Care Lab, Waag Society
  • 2000 – 2007 Founder of Like Wildfire on new media and science
  • 1999-2000 Research Fellow, University of Oxford
  • 1993-2000 Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG),
  • 1993  Master degree Medicine & Communication Science, University of Amsterdam