Unexpected 'extras' from the heart of society; the gift from Leiden European City of Science 2022

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Henri Lenferink

Mayor of Leiden

'Science isn't just important for society because it enables new developments, it is also just plain fun. People enjoy it, and that is what we are celebrating this year. And the whole city is participating".

December 22nd 2022. Author: Sophie Zimmerman.

Header picture: Shot by Jannie de Groot. ‘The hot pink Wijscokar (Wisecream truck) by Jos van den Broek and Danny Molenaar brought on fun, scientific conversations’

In 2022, Leiden was the European City of Science. With a 365-day program for anyone with a curious mind, it has inspired countless people. What the organisation had not dared to dream of, truly happened: from the local community, a variety of bottom-up initiatives and science-related activities sprung up spontaneously. “It was a dizzying amount,” says the director of Leiden2022, Meta Knol. “Over the year, we started calling these unforeseen events the ‘Very Important Presents. It shows how well we succeeded in connecting science with society.”

Theatre group Domino produced 'Nieuw Licht' (New Light):
a 6-part tv show which played into the daily topics of Leiden2022
Photo credits: Roos-Marijn Kinkel

The organisation of Leiden2022 laid the foundation for a series of large-scale European events, such as the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF, the largest interdisciplinary science conference in Europe), the 33rd final of the EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS), and the very first edition of the EU TalentOn. In addition, a local program called Knowledge throughout the Neighbourhoods was developed. Through this initiative, numerous examples of co-creation and participation grew into one powerful example of successful public engagement with science. However, Leiden2022’s biggest success was the unexpected 'Community Bonus': an explosion of spontaneous initiatives that took place throughout the city.

Welcome to join

When designing the unique program structure of Leiden2022, compiler and intendant Lucien Geelhoed hoped that the program would act as a seed for growth. He therefore designed an open, flexible structure that invited everyone to join in. Geelhoed: “By designing this year-long program in a playful and inviting way, we hoped that people would feel welcome to contribute to it actively. This includes those with a scientific background, those from the cultural world, and those from society in general — and it worked."

With the title of European City of Science 2022, Leiden had a lot of work to do — and that’s exactly what happened. The city hosted a record number of over 100 (international) scientific congresses and symposia. It also welcomed big science galas, such as the very first New Scientist Gala for Science and Society, the high-profile, national Evening of Science and Society, and the festive Evening of Chemistry. Leiden2022 also saw large award ceremonies come to Leiden, like the prestigious Lorentz Medal.

However, the organisers could never have dreamed that Leiden2022 would have such a magnetic pull-on members of society. For Lucien Geelhoed, the fact that the local community wanted to participate was a childhood dream come true. He not only designed a program structure that could remain open and flexible but also opted for generosity as a starting point. As part of the visual identity of Leiden2022, for example, 9,999 unique QR logos were created. Through these codes, all activities could be announced in the digital 365-day agenda. This way, everyone who joined in spontaneously could also make use of the European City of Science brand.

Community bonus: a glorious snowball effect

And it worked. “We soon noticed that this European year of science was taken on and enjoyed by all kinds of communities. It really came to life in the city,” says Geelhoed. “There’s a whole community of people who came together and started to organise something. The real profit of Leiden2022 lies in its ‘Community Bonus.’ Many new collaborations and initiatives have emerged through Leiden2022. This shows how inspiring it can be if science and society really know how to find each other.”


The organisation of Leiden2022 sometimes lacked the necessary eyes and ears to oversee the many initiatives. For example, The Pronck brewery in Leiden introduced a specially-brewed beer, Sip of Science, with a series of unique labels — all in the style of the Leiden2022 QR logo. Large, previously existing public events also decided to recognise and celebrate the year of science. That’s why thousands of participants in the Leiden Marathon each received

a beautiful science medal, and the huge annual celebration of the Siege and Relief of Leiden was completely dedicated to Leiden2022. “By freely translating our overarching narrative of Who Knows? to Echt Waar?! (Really?!) they hit the nail on the head. For example, during the traditional Grand Parade, there was a whole procession of children wearing Pinocchio noses to refer to fake news.”, according to a gleeful Geelhoed.

Unexpected reach

Particularly captivating examples are the Wijsco-kar (Wisecream Truck) and Nieuw Licht (New Light). The Wijsco-kar is a converted bright pink ice cream van used by Emeritus professor of Science Communication Jos van den Broek and theatre director Danny Molenaar. The two cycled past primary schools and through Leiden neighbourhoods to develop a fun way to talk with children about science subjects. “Unexpected and uninhibited,” Geelhoed calls this initiative. “But that's why it's fantastic.”

By not gatekeeping and instead letting everyone participate, target groups were reached that the Leiden2022 organisation itself did not foresee. For example, the theatre group Domino — which largely consists of actors with disabilities — developed a six-part television program titled Nieuw Licht. With this program, they played directly into the daily topics of Leiden2022 and performed some remarkably different scientific research.

“These examples show the power of the community-building.”, says Geelhoed. “It proves that interaction based on curiosity leads to beautiful things, and new initiatives that will last for a long time.” The ‘Community Bonus’ will continue to contribute to Leiden2022’s Model for Public Engagement with Science. The most important lesson? Let go of control and choose trust. Then, the most unexpected things will happen. It's a bold approach. But in Leiden, they dare to risk it. As Geelhoed adds: “The messy stuff wins!”.

Children during the 3 October Parade were dressed up as Pinocchio to refer to fake news
Photo credits: Ton Laven

“These examples show the power of the community-building.”, says Geelhoed. “It proves that interaction based on curiosity leads to beautifulthings, and new initiatives that will last for a long time.”

Lucien Geelhoed, Intendant Leiden2022

Leiden2022 European City of Science

Leiden European City of Science 2022 is a 365-day science festival packed with activities, lectures, workshops, excursions, exhibitions, and events, for anyone with a curious mind,

For more information contact Leiden&partners at or +31 71 516 600.
Leiden2022 is an initiative of the Municipality of Leiden, Leiden University, Leiden University Medical Center and the Leiden University of Applied Sciences, supported by the European Commission and many local, national and international partners.