Blog & Updates

March 29, 2022

The challenges and origin of SURREAL - an interview with Prof. Dr. Martin Dijst

Prof. Dr. Martin Dijst is the initiator of the SURREAL project and the consortium coordinator. Two ESRs, Usha Dahal and Gill Gurkeerat, had chat with him about the SURREAL project. Here is the transcript.

Q: How did the concept of the SURREAL project start?

Healthy Urban Living program: the foundation of the SURREAL project

As an urban geographer, I am keenly interested in how people live in cities, and healthy living is an undeniable part of urban life. Therefore, some years ago, when I was still at Utrecht University, significant funding was available for interdisciplinary research. At that time, I was thinking about healthy urban living because, you know, health is about where people are spending their time, participating in activities, mobilities, and also how the environment impacts their lives.

So, to receive that funding, I contacted different faculty members at Utrecht University, including the hospital research staff. After my discussion with them, we developed a research proposal on the interdisciplinary theme, healthy urban living. After receiving the funding from the university, we were able to hire a couple of postdocs to work on projects focused on healthy urban living.

It was, of course, nice to get the budget, but then you have to start working together. And I still remember the first meetings that everybody was using different concepts and was used to different ways of doing research, so we needed to learn our concepts and our approaches in research better, which took quite some time. But gradually, we understood each other’s complementary value quite well. This was also the result of having a nice group of people.

Later, I got employed at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER). Although I started working in Luxembourg, I used the networks in the Netherlands, especially Frank van Lenthe and Ilonca Vaartjes, as they were already involved in the Healthy Urban Living initiative. With Frank and Ilonca, I sat together on how to develop a challenging proposal for the innovative training network (ITN). I took responsibility for writing the proposal but received  their helpful advice and suggestions. We included a range of interdisciplinary concepts that would potentially help understand the complex relationships between exposures to urban environments, behaviors, and health, which later developed as the SURREAL proposal.

Q: How did the SURREAL team form?

Based on our networks, we composed our consortium. Frank was highly connected with Basile Chaix from Paris. I knew Monique Simons from Wageningen University and Claus Vögele and Kate Jones from Luxembourg University. I was familiar with the work of Mark Nieuwenhuijsen in Barcelona. Ilonca suggested Tim Nawrot from Belgium. I searched for some contacts in Estonia. I have found Kati Orru and Hans Orru who were willing to participate. Amit Birenboim from Israel was my former postdoc at Utrecht University on virtual reality. So, that was an easy connection for me. My preference is to work with people with suitable expertise and easy-going to stimulate interactions in the team. In that respect, I try to avoid very dominant persons. On an equal basis, all team members are contributing to the project.

Based on our networks, we composed our SURREAL consortium.

More or less in the same way we contacted stakeholders. Based on each other own local and national networks, public authorities, private companies, medical institutes and civil organizations were invited to join the consortium

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the meaning of concepts within the SURREAL project?

Complexities of urban health

In the SURREAL proposal, it became already clear from the beginning that we should apply a systems approach to it. That was also the lesson I've learned from my Healthy Urban Living program in Utrecht. It is really valuable to have different disciplines around the table since the academic staff only has partial knowledge. You can work on health problems from a medical point of view, but that doesn't help sufficiently  if you don't understand, for example, people’s behaviors in activities, how they are commuting, by car or walking or cycling. And also, you need to know the meaning of being exposed to different environments, for example, to some high-density environments or very polluted environments.

Understanding the complexities of urban health needs an interdisciplinary team around the table since the academic staff only has partial knowledge.

Other important players in urban health

On the other hand, at the end of the Healthy Urban Living program in Utrecht, I also was often involved in meetings with the municipality of Utrecht. They were highly interested in our program, and they wanted to make optimal use of it. Civil servants often have different health interests since they need to work on policies to make a healthy lifestyle easier. It could mean that you have to change behaviors themselves via lifestyle interventions, or you may have to change the environment. It takes a long time to make these decisions and implement them. It means different stakeholders also need to be included. So, for me, it was crucial that in this SURREAL project, we needed to have different academic disciplines but also different stakeholders, like policymakers, health professionals, companies, and of course citizens; all important players in urban health.

In SURREAL, we needed to have different stakeholders because they have interests and responsibilities to use the knowledge we produce.

Q: What is the main principle of the SURREAL project?

SURREAL is based on the principle that all knowledge of academics and stakeholders is partial and that ESRs learn how to handle this situation. Each time you have to be aware that we have unique knowledge. I always say that knowledge is situated. So, it depends on your work environment, education, interactions with others in your network, cultural background, country of origin, and history.

To make optimal use of different understandings of urban health, stimulating the dialogue is crucial in our systems approach. That is the reason that we need to focus on collaborative learning. The collaborative learning in practice (CLiP) project of SURREAL is an instrument to bring the knowledge together. We do that in a bottom-up approach to jointly develop an understanding of what's happening in urban society and identify different methodologies that could be applied. We have to design together solutions for health problems which are a crucial part of SURREAL. Especially, Wageningen University is working on lifestyle interventions with one of the ESRs, Julie Roelandt. That is done in co-creation with inhabitants, health professionals, and policymakers to merge each other’s partial knowledge. In this way, effective solutions are identified, tested, and embraced by all. In the CLiP, these interventions will be discussed by all ESRs.

In our systems approach, working bottom-up, in a collaborative learning approach, and  in co-creation are crucial to jointly develop an understanding of what's happening in urban society and identify different solutions and methodologies.

Q: What kind of challenges did you face?

I think it was quite easygoing. But the most challenging part was to get it funded because the innovative training networks (ITN) are open for all kinds of ideas. We have chosen urban health, but somebody else might be more interested in artificial intelligence and robots. You can come up with all sorts of topics, which means a tough competition. The major challenge was how to phrase the proposal to make it appealing to reviewers as well as  the panel members, who are taking the final decision on the proposal.

So, we submitted it in the first year, and as I remember, we got 86 out of 100 points. It is already quite good to get 86 for your proposal. But we were not funded since there were other proposals who received higher grades than ours. We reframed and rephrased the proposal with Frank, Ilonca, and a consultant. We added more details to the proposal, showing we have thought well about all aspects of the proposal and future projects, which worked out well. We received a valuation of 99 out of 100.  So, it’s very challenging to find the right way to frame and phrase a proposal for reviewers and members of a panel to get it funded. Reviewers are usually experts in the specific thematic domain. However, panelists are not always specialists in that domain. But we need to convince these non-experts too.

It was very challenging to find the right way to frame and phrase the SURREAL proposal for reviewers and members of a panel to get it funded.

Q: What kind of challenges are you expecting related to the project’s implementation in the future?

As this project involves 15 ESRs and their supervisors from different academic disciplines, countries, or cultural backgrounds, there is always a possibility of miscommunication or misunderstandings. These differences can create unintentional friction, leading to known and unknown barriers between team members. Therefore, we always need to be mindful of such challenges when working in a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural team.

There is always a possibility of miscommunication or misunderstandings, as this project involves 15 ESRs and their supervisors from different academic disciplines, countries, or cultural backgrounds.

Q: According to you, how can such challenges be overcome?

Well, my approach is to keep everyone on an equal level. I keep aside the hierarchy when it comes to dealing with such situations. I try to do as much as I can from my side, bringing everyone together to establish a successful dialogue. I am always keen to have an open dialogue, and I encourage others to do the same. I believe we need to allow everyone to speak up and share their ideas. These ideas can come in any form, be it orally or the written form.  I would also like to emphasize that an open dialogue involves active listening. If there is no active listening, it does not work at all. All the ESRs, supervisors, and stakeholders involved in this project need to understand that we have different kinds of and levels of knowledge and skills. However, such difference can be a massive asset for the project only when we are willing to listen and understand each other openly and respectfully.

My approach of overcoming the challenge is to keep everyone on an equal level and establish a meaningful dialogue.

Q: Being a mediator and the head of the project, you certainly have experienced a lot of chaos. We would like to know how you take care of yourself, especially your mental health?

So far, I have not experienced stress in SURREAL, but it happens in the other part of my job as director of a research department. Undeniably, sometimes situations can be very stressful, especially when it comes to the start and end of projects because we cannot always control all the development in projects. So yes, there are moments in which the staff can be highly stressed. However, I do use one strategy: when I'm in the office, I keep the door of my room open, so if somebody is passing by my office, they can see me sitting in my office. Then, it is easier for us to say ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ to each other, leading to small communicative interactions. It helps my staff interact with me and allows me to interact with them. These short communicative interactions encourage us to share our thoughts and experiences. Rather than suppressing the emotions or thoughts, it's always better to share them constructively when these are still fresh. Hence, I use such helpful methods, which are useful not only for me but also for my co-workers.

I keep the door of my room open, so it is easier for us to say ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ to each other if somebody is passing by my office, leading to small communicative interactions that encourage us to share our thoughts and emotions.

Q: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on different aspects of the project and the implementation process. However, for our last question - what do you think will happen when the project is over?

During the implementation of the project, I'm certain that we will be developing new ideas, and we will be observing new results from our ongoing research. These new ideas and findings will encourage us to write new research proposals for the areas where more research is needed, which may lead to another new ITN or other projects. I also hope that our unique approach in SURREAL will support all ESRs to become ambassadors of our approach in the next steps in their careers.

 I'm sure that new ideas and results will help explore the research gap that may lead to another research project. Also, I hope ESRs will become ambassadors of our approach in their future careers.

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