Leonardo Award

Dr. Thieu Besselink

Dr. Thieu Besselink

Dr. Thieu Besselink, The Netherlands, Founder and CEO of “The Learning Lab” in the category “Young Leonardo - Wisely Smart”


I believe we are living the beginning of what could possibly be a renaissance that is as profound, exciting, and disturbing as the one that Leonardo witnessed in his days. I like to think we are re-discovering ourselves and what it means to live on a finite planet. If this would be the case, what would it mean to learn for a renaissance? Or put differently, if we have to redesign virtually every system in which we live - from our exhaustive economy to our divided social structures, our science and education - what, how, and to what purpose should we learn?

This question lies at the foundation of the work I do with the Learning Lab, a think-do-tank dedicated to learning for social innovation. Part of the answer to this question I find in the idea that our time asks us to learn to make a difference, everyone in his own right. From this perspective learning is always for something, and in my case it is inseparable with making a societal impact. Learning not as the accumulation of abstract knowledge, but as a purposive, living experience in the world.

Someone to whom I owe a great deal of my intellectual life is my mentor Richard Sennett, who supervised my PhD. He inspired a sense of purpose and freedom in me that I had not experienced before, as he taught me how the study of society is not separate from our personal engagement, and also how my artistic experiences are as valid a source of knowledge as are my research or philosophy.After my research at the LSE and European University Institute I went looking for a learning that could connect disciplines and speak to peoples’ deeper motivations. I found that “labs” and “studios” allow for a more holistic and purposive kind of learning. They turn creating into a form of learning in a real life setting, allowing every aspect of a problem or of life to become part of the experiment.

Over the past 5 years or so I ran a series of labs at universities, in companies, theatre and dance studio's, polytechnics, banks, cities, governments, and high-schools. All starting from an experimental attitude of finding ways to make a difference, and discovering who we needed to become in order to do so. Facilitating them, and designing them such that they impact a system, rather than staying a project, is like making a theatre performance with a group of artists attempting to reach the world. A skill about which there is still much to learn, and which I believe we will need in the future.

I love the diversity of people I can work with in these labs. I could connect people of all ages, in many different countries, and with vastly different backgrounds or positions in society around common purpose. They show me how much we learn from a real encounter with someone truly different, and how we are deeply interdependent when it comes to solving our most pressing challenges. But also that it is a certain entrepreneurial ”hacker” mentality and people’s self-organisation that empowers them. Because ownership is distributed, from the underprivileged youth to the mayor and the manager, no one is in control. No one really controls the city, the school, or the company, leave alone our wellbeing or waste problem. It takes a particularly skilled community that takes ownership. This is why I worked to develop the Dutch School for instance, which aims at empowering teachers not just as the designers of learning and teaching, but also the facilitators of community.

It is often more difficult to explain what it is I do than why, because the projects vary so much.What weaves them together is my beliefthat we should be learning for a world that is uncontrollable, unpredictable, and surely unsustainable without our sense of beauty and audacity.

Dr. ThieuBesselink
18-11 1977


Founder of the Learning Lab
Associate professor at Utrecht University
Philosopher, speaker, teacher, social innovator, advisor, and social entrepreneur.