Q: What do you think is important for an international audience to know about Leiden as a city?
A: First of all, it’s an old city. It’s well kept: almost just as it was in the 17th Century. You see a map of the city from 1675 and you can still use it to find your way around, and it’s still pretty accurate. This is important for residents. They feel comfortable.
It’s not a city for cars. People walk and use bicycles. This gives [Leiden] a liberal, pleasant atmosphere.
The population is well educated; when you look at the workforce, about 55% have a degree in applied sciences and this will rise. This gives the city a certain atmosphere [regarding] how people behave. Heritage and culture is very important to us. [Leiden University] is the oldest university in the Netherlands. We consider ourselves to be a knowledge-based society.
Our economy is mainly knowledge-based as well, especially Leiden Bio Science Park, which is almost 30 years old. This was a difficult choice in the beginning, [they] had to explain ‘we want to create a bio science park’ when nobody knew what it was, but they did it.
It’s a dedicated business park for the life sciences. It attracts new companies, and other companies want to join because this is a strong focal point. People want to be part of the community, to meet other businesses and people from the university medical centre.
What is also very good is the way in which we collaborate with each other. I meet the chair of Leiden University once a week, but we are in contact three times a week. The same goes for the vice mayors and the other members of the board. So there are very close contacts. We try to solve the problems we face together. We also try to grasp opportunities whenever they appear.
Highly educated people love the atmosphere here. We have four big state museums, a big local museum and 10 smaller museums.
Q: Being a smaller city, how do you try to raise your profile internationally?
A: Well, it’s easy because Leiden University is well known. [When we talk to people abroad], we find people already know something about the city – they know something about the business park or the university. This makes it easier to have a conversation.
But we also have to be modest: we are a city of 125,000 inhabitants. Quality is first: quality of living and quality of doing businesses.
We also try to take on the experiences of entrepreneurs who have come to Leiden before. So we look back at the steps they took in the beginning, how they think they have been helped by the local government and other institutions such as the university and the medical centre. Most of them are positive about that, and this is what we want people to know.
Whenever someone wants to invest or enlarge their business, we try to help to get their permits as soon as possible [and] to help them to do their job in the best possible way. This is what I think businesses like, as it allows them to focus on their main task, which is doing business.
Q: What kind of impact, if any, do you expect from Brexit?
A: First of all, it’s a pity. I think the British are Europeans as well – they belong with us. They were allies on all kinds of discussions on a European level and we feel weakened as Dutch [people now the UK is leaving the EU]. I think the same applies for the Germans and the Scandinavian countries.
But I think that we will find a new way to collaborate. We have collaborated for such a long time, I feel we will be able to stay in touch with each other. We have a city link with Oxford and we’ve discussed this quite often.
In the field of bioscience, frontiers and borders do not count in the same way because of the knowledge-based part of it; we need each other. Researchers tend to collaborate even when they are on the other side of the globe. They will find each other and keep collaborating with each other.