Nature-based Future Challenge: expert coaches help students to dream pragmatically

Industry experts coach each team competing in the Nature-based Future Challenge. Specialists in ecology, landscape architecture, international governance, and all the other aspects of nature-based solutions lend their insight to help the student teams envision a nature-positive future.

The student teams competing in the Nature-based Future Challenge have worked hard. This April, the second assessment of their proposals has determine who moves on to the third and final round, leaving only the finalists. The subject of their reports is the Bangladesh river delta, one of the most vulnerable regions on earth. The complex of challenges the delta faces is broad, ranging from floods to droughts, with socio-economic stress on top. Students are trying to imagine innovative solutions that are good for nature and society alike, collaborating with the environment.

The student teams are supported by experts from the partner network of the Challenge. These professionals work at knowledge institutes, NGO’s and associated industry leaders, doing what students are now learning to: devising nature-based solutions to complex, international challenges. Their advice helps take the teams ideas to another level, although the teams need no encouragement to dream big. “The students are ambitious and use big words for big goals,” says Katie Minderhoud of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. “I’ve tried to provide a reality check: how do ideas translate to practice?”

Reality cannot be pigeonholed

“We can never welcome enough input,” says Ignacio Andueza Kovacevic, who is enrolled in the Masters Climate Studies and is a member of team Terraqueous. Like other teams, the team was coached to focus their attention on a specific part of the region, zooming in. “The coach’s comments alerted us to the scale of our plans. We were reluctant to make changes there but we reacted by making our proposals as concrete as possible. We believe our team sports the knowledge to assess the complexity of our chosen area, but without this input, that assessment might have stayed too general.”


Jelle Vincken, a hydrologist and stakeholder manager at WSP, advised the team he coached in a different kind of segmentation. “I saw a tendency to divide the land into tidy sectors, but reality cannot be pigeonholed. When making your cross-section, you should remain aware of transition areas.” The variety in landscape is what makes the Bangladesh river delta so interesting, he says. “Bangladesh shows the full range of problems that coincide with water. Some areas need to retain it, others have far too much of it. It’s a real challenge.”

Formulate clear questions

Both Minderhoud and Vincken praise the capacities of the teams they coach. “Beyond their scientific and intellectual capabilities, the team’s report was also presented in an attractive way,” says Vincken. “In my line of work we see a rising demand for clear, evocative illustrations and diagrams—ways to give a real impression of the proposed plans, not just construction plans.” Vincken has asked the team he coaches to present their completed plans at a meeting of his peers in the UK and the Netherlands. When he himself visited a conference on climate adaptation, he took back what he learned to the team. “The conference focused on the development pathways to a more climate resilient future—exactly what the team was so busy tackling.”

“Say clearly what you know and what you don’t know,” emphasized Minderhoud, with regards to how Nature-based Solutions are presented by the students. “Formulating clear questions is the bedrock of iterative research.” Minderhoud also motivated the team she coached to take stock of the policies and practices already present in Bangladesh. “There can be a tendency to swoop in as an outsider. That is where a governance perspective comes in: understanding the local context across scale levels and working with existing institutions, norms and practices, to explore what change is desired and possible, learning from the past and anticipating on the future.”

The importance of teamwork

“The members of my team all shared a drive to think about the future, but also a consciousness about reality. We can be pragmatic as well. It’s what has connected us,” says Andueza. The coaches agree that teamwork is one of the most essential skills the challenge tests. “Soft skills are so important once you leave university. My impression is that teams that connect and know how to work together are the teams that go far,” says Minderhoud. Especially on a project as big and diverse as this, where so many areas of expertise come together, communication is key. “Teamwork might well be the most useful skill,” says Vincken. At the end of April, the selection moment will show which teams know how to use it best.

Andueza explains how the Challenge has allowed him to meet like-minded people who are as interested as he is in learning more about Nature-based Solutions. “We’ve had such interesting and productive discussions and dialogues inside our team, and our coach’s commentary was definitely a part of that.” The coaches, too, have taken the Challenge as an opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of Nature-based approaches. “The Challenge has allowed me to look beyond my own discipline, hydrology,” says Vincken, “to learn more about solutions that deal with different aspects of the landscape.”

The finalists of the Nature-based Future Challenge are working towards presenting their finished concepts on 11 June 2024, during the Grand Finals.