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We are delighted to introduce you the first e-zine issue of our Erasmus+ project UniverCity Action Lab (UCITYLAB), the joint initiative of a European consortium of higher education institutions – Porto Business School, University of Ljubljana, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Institut Mines-Télécom – and UIIN to foster university- city collaborations to tackle urban challenges.

What is in?

Our first issue aims to highlight the motivations and the vision of the project, as well as shedding light into the institutional motivations of the partner organisations in joining this change initiative. The issue is also enriched with input from our supported Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance projects WEXHE & PEOPLE, recent reports and upcoming events relevant to the theme, presented for your attention.

The selected articles from our partner institutions reflect urgency in action, in addressing pressing societal challenges with novel ways of urban engagement, including forming of local stakeholder communities and setting-up relevant educational activities. Universities are called for adopting interdisciplinary models of teaching and research, and incorporating problem-based learning experiences in their curriculum that will require involvement of the city actors to co-create solutions.

While the consortium commits to the common goals of the project, our articles show our partner institutions have their local and organisational priorities to achieve over the course of their collaboration as well. These unique elements are stated as e.g. increasing of awareness among the
academics on the complexity of technological and societal change, innovation in service and product development with inclusion of citizens, development of new business models in accordance with the potential new solutions, and formation of sub-thematic urban research groups.

We wish you all a pleasant reading and plenty of inspiration for your own university- city collaboration initiatives.

As much as the cities are considered to be the engines of European economy with extensive job opportunities, and the educated population they attract, they are also places where the social and environmental challenges are concentrated, including mobility, sustainable land and energy use, inclusion of migrants, digital transformation and poverty.  

Without doubt, universities hold great potential to act as key actors in fostering dialogue among regional stakeholders to initiate and sustain joint actions towards creation of smart and sustainable cities. In that, the 2017 renewed Agenda on Higher Education has made clear references to the responsibilities of the HEIs, such as being ‘civic’ and ‘entrepreneurial’, contributing to both social and economic advancements in their regions. This transformation is particularly necessary, given the lack of student exposure to real-life challenges in traditional settings, and skills mismatches experienced upon graduation, with what is demanded by both modern industry and the society.

However, despite efforts, direct links between universities and cities are still weak. Urban engagement is not an inherent component of HE systems, nor are they a part of ongoing academic programs. HEIs lack relevant strategies, tools, resources, and knowledge to apply to engage in city initiatives. This is largely due to the alignment of universities with national policies and funding frameworks, and their increasing efforts for international recognition, rather than adopting a ‘Glocalised’ approach to external engagement. Part of the problem for this weak interconnection between universities and regional authorities can also be attributed to failure in understanding the underlying logics that drive each other’s activities.

Why is the HEI involvement in urban development vital?

Given the significant number of European initiatives supported under the umbrella of Urban Agenda, and Smart and Sustainable Cities, it is crucial to expand the bottom up support for the cities to co-develop, test and implement the solutions, and thus consolidate efforts. The HEIs can support anchoring innovation by raising interest in the urban areas they are based in, offer resources, and facilitate change.

Moreover, universities can exploit cities as living labs incorporating the open spaces, institutions, and local community in their research and teaching programs, while transforming their teaching methods from the ‘traditional’ to more ‘current’ ones, by offering adopting problem-based, experiential learning experiences to their students, and fostering the development of much demanded entrepreneurial skills.

To achieve its goals, the UCITYLAB project will target HEIs located in four major cities in Europe – Porto, Ljubljana, Barcelona, and Paris – with their students and academics, respective city governments, NGOs, urban development authorities and community partners and citizens. We believe by joining forces on this project we will be able to leverage a much greater understanding of the needs and solutions for urban challenges, and the ways that could be achieved on our own, thus producing a much more relevant, high quality, sustainable learning resource. Common challenges with urban innovation experienced by the partner cities will allow cross-border collaboration, and exchange of best practices and experiences for joint action, as well as a leading to a greater understanding of approaches to civic engagement, and entrepreneurial activities designed to facilitate this.

In this blog article, Konstantinos Kourkoutas, Coordinator of the CORE Smart and Sustainable Cities of the UAB and Angela Serrano, Head of the Unit of Strategic Development at UAB discuss how the critical mass of research and innovation institutions at the Autonomous University of Barcelona facilitated the emergence of a number of Strategic Research Networks (COREs), including Smart and Sustainable Cities. The research on the Smart and Sustainable Cities aims to integrate the knowledge generated by disciplines involved in traditional spatial research and planning with new disruptive technologies and methodologies.

The Strategic Research Networks / CORES (Comunitat Adreçada a Repte Estratègic, in Catalan) are interdisciplinary research communities, with a flexible organization   that bring together all the research groups of the different members of the UAB Sphere, in line with the objectives of the challenges outlined in the priority societal challenges of Horizon 2020, the RISCAT, and the local strategic development goals.

The CORE mission is to promote the R & D & I capabilities of the UAB and its Sphere through the support of the coordinated development of research and transfer strategies, with the ultimate goal of increasing the competitiveness of the member groups, both individually and collectively. Their aim is to generate and promote networking, to share resources and to coordinate actions required to effectively boost projects that may advance knowledge in the field and promote transfer of result into society and industry. Each CORE has a Strategic Plan and a community manager.

A Snapshot into the development of Catalonia Regional Innovation Ecosystem

The current challenge for European public universities is to ensure that research excellence translates into an economic, social and cultural growth for the region and that the public research can be accountable not only to the wide scientific world but also to the society and the respective challenges being faced.

The Regional Smart Specialization Strategies set up in 2010 by the European Commission identify priorities in which each region believe it has potential to grow and were set up by the interaction of the quadruple helix (government, industry, academia and society). Universities are key actors in defining and implementing such strategies, thus they had to make an effort to draft strategic plans that enable alignment with these policies. By taking part to the Regional Specialization Strategy (RIS3CAT in Catalonia), the Catalan universities have developed, for the first time, a strategic vision of the region and its key sectors and met new partners and stakeholders in order to be able to participate in the regional strategy programs.

The strength of the UAB proposal comes, not only from its own capabilities, but from the singularity of the UAB Research Hub – the UAB Sphere- in terms of critical mass. The UAB Sphere is an ecosystem of knowledge that aggregates research and innovation institutions contribute to socio-economic development of the territory. Aggregation in terms of increase of critical mass, sharing of resources, synergies, optimizing investments, and improving the sustainability of the system, results in an improved competitiveness of the territory. This definition has played an important role in the development project “Excellence Campus UAB.”

The award of the Campus of International Excellence (CIE) to the UAB by the Spanish Ministry of Science back in 2009, set out the ground for the development of the current RIS3. The UAB-CIE jointly focused on the creation of a regional plan to consolidate the centers on the UAB campus with the technology parks, companies and local municipalities. They aimed to create a vibrant regional hub of knowledge and innovation with a special emphasis on specific areas of specialization that could act as motors for local socio-economic development. The project implied, for the first time strengthening the collaboration among all the research and innovation stakeholders of the campus and the territory, and it represented a major shift in the vision of the university as an integrating and fundamental part of any regional strategy. This undoubtedly made it easier for the UAB to fit its future activities into the Regional Strategy for Intelligent Specialization of Catalonia 2014-2020 (RISCAT) since it coincided with actions that were driven by the spirit of integrating strategies and aggregating the capacities that had emerged from the UAB-CEI project.

It was already demonstrated that the set of institutions that make up the Sphere UAB-CEI had the necessary capabilities, both human and material, to develop successful projects in complex and strategic areas. Also, under the RISCAT instrument called Communities, the creation of thematic partnerships was proposed in order to meet the regional socio-economic demands and challenges in specific sectors. For the UAB in order to respond to these challenges and effectively articulate its own capacities, the Strategic Research Communities (CORE) were launched starting in 2013. The CORE networks were established based on a strategic challenge identified at international, European and territorial level and in which the UAB-CEI had a sufficient critical mass of research groups that covered the entire chain of value of each area. In this sense, the UAB has defined four COREs so far: Smart & Sustainable Cities, Cultural Heritage, Mental Health and Education & Occupability that act in the quadruple helix frame of territorial organization: academic field, productive sector, government sector and civil society.

Smart and Sustainable Cities within the CORE

One of the four COREs created is the one on Smart and Sustainable Cities. The territorial dimension of the City thematic allows for a strong interaction between groups of the network and regional stakeholders and the generation of knowledge and new initiatives / mechanisms that can contribute to the sustainable development of cities in the surrounding territory. In scientific terms, the aim was to integrate the knowledge generated by disciplines involved in traditional spatial research and planning with new disruptive technologies and methodologies that have emerged or are emerging and are changing both the organizational as well as physical aspect of our cities. During the three years in function now, natural sub-thematic groups were formed around topics, such as circular economy and city metabolism, digital governance and technological sovereignty, new models of productions and consumption in the city, connected vehicles and advanced mobility, spatial data and decision making models,  Societal Perception of Technology among others, creating over time a proper structure and self-organization. Another important part of the CORE activity was the articulation and interaction with the local quadriple-helix stakeholders, and the initiation of new projects, such as the UAB OPEN LABS project, which will be described in a subsequent article.

The COREs initiative has provoked the curiosity and interest of many Spanish and European universities that have come contacted us over the years to know more on how they can replicate the model. Thus, we think it is worthwhile to be included and mentioned within the UCITY project, so more people get inspired and start organizing and collaborating around strategic challenges in their territories.

Info COREs

https://www.uab.cat/web/research/cores-uab/uab-strategic-research-communities-cores-1345698259237.html

CORE Smart & Sustainable Cities

https://www.uab.cat/core-ciutats/

In today’s blog post, we asked Gregor Cerinsek (IRI UL) on his perspectives how University of Ljubljana aims to expand its role in the urban community through the UCITYLAB project. 

We live in the age of turbulence. The world is changing and it changes faster and faster, especially due to the exponential growth of technology. The digital transformation is happening so fast that human brains are not even capable to understand it. This rapid progress produces serious challenges which demand action from all of us. The fact is that the majority of people is not against the technological development. However, we should think about and discuss what could happen if we do not think about the consequences of this exponential growth on our society and humanity.

These challenges should affect our education system on all levels and demand for new interactive forms of teaching and learning. Problem is that university education is still mainly based on ex-cathedra lectures and one-directional knowledge passing where students have passive roles. Different faculties are furthermore focusing solely on their narrow academic fields, which leads to lack of communication and cooperation, especially between engineering and natural sciences on one hand side and social sciences and humanities on the other.

With this picture in mind, the Institute for Innovation and Development of University of Ljubljana (IRI UL) aims to foster university-business collaboration addressing real-life challenges of Slovenian industry and society in general. The UniverCity Action Lab project provides an ideal platform to enrich our model by enhancing university-city engagement through interdisciplinary students’ project-based learning. The established platform will serve for exchanging ideas, for identifying pressing societal and environmental challenges, and for co-creating innovative solutions for urban challenges with all key stakeholders involved. Students will work together with wide variety of key urban actors, including the representatives from governmental and non-governmental spheres, public bodies and agencies, educational institutions, all pursuing a common goal – to promote and enhance urban development strategies and inter-connectivity in the Ljubljana city.

We anticipate that the collaboration and intensive learning experience will provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate and apply the knowledge and skills they have gained through the existing university curriculum and to contribute to professional practice as discipline experts. In addition, academics (teachers, professors) will become aware of the multidisciplinary complexity of technology and urban development and will be furthermore challenged to modify their way of teaching to these new circumstances. Industry and all other stakeholders involved will get a fresh perspective in relation to product and service development – especially how to assess, understand and incorporate users/citizens and their needs. The project will provide valuable insights into “wicked problems” and “big unknowns” that the city and society is facing (such as climate change or urban development). It will contribute towards understanding of human dynamics and will uncover the surprising and complex ways in which people and citizens make decisions. Finally, when it comes to solving the city challenges, we will try to question the “taken for granted” by looking at it from an “outside-the-box” perspective and encouraging creative, trans-disciplinary insights.

Exciting times ahead!

In today’s post we asked Rui Coutinho and Catarina Reis about the involvement of the Porto Business School (PBS) in the UCITYLAB project, the vision of PBS in their engagement with urban stakeholders, and the potential impact of these collaborations on the city.

Porto Business School (PBS) was founded 30 years ago to address a common challenge: the gap between the levels of qualification and skills that Higher Education Institutions (HEI) delivered to young professionals and the level of expectations and demand companies requested to their workers. PBS was born out of the will and the passion of a few business people and the vision and boldness of the University of Porto. Still today, PBS’s governance model displays this unique DNA: academia and companies are shareholders, with equal decision power, and the educational offer is fully aligned with identified market needs.

Today, however, we are witnessing new collaboration models and new untapped opportunities: HEI’s are not taking full advantage (nor being active problem solvers) of the urban ecosystems they are based in. We know for quite some time that universities don’t have only the mission of teaching and researching, but in fact they are progressively getting involved with their surroundings, which means having an active role in their communities’ progress. It is not enough for universities to create knowledge, it is mandatory that that knowledge results in real economic value, but also social, cultural and environmental value. This goal can only be achieved if everyone is involved with a true triple-helix approach: universities, companies and cities working side by side to identify and co-create new solutions for collective urban problems, aiming at a sustainable economic, social, cultural and environmental added value. PBS aims at being on the edge of this co-creation, which motivated its participation on UCITYLAB.

Entrepreneurship is part of PBS’s DNA. That’s why we believe that, in order to truly co-create new solutions for the cities, we need to include technology centres and incubators, to support startups and spin-offs creation or to organise new open innovation challenges. These actions will only be successful if we identify the problems and needs the city presents, if the potential new products or services are able to solve them, if they are able to exploit the city’s resources, if they have a strong business case and also if they take advantage of the upstream and downstream synergies in its value chain. In conclusion, it is crucial to know if the potential new solutions and business models fit the city’s characteristics.

Besides that, we believe that looking into the city we are based in and detecting the challenges it faces, as well as the biggest tendencies, it’s the best way to be innovative in our education portfolio, developing learning methodologies and programs that enable the improvement of the needed skills for the city progress.

Furthermore, we are a collaborative school, differentiated due to the knowledge sharing and value co-creation, so the establishment of partnerships with city stakeholders is perfectly aligned with our modus operandi, being potentially beneficial not only for this specific project, but also for future opportunities. Therefore, we expect that UCITYLAB will enable PBS to help solving some societal challenges in Porto, in partnership with the city government and all the urban stakeholders and will inspire our students to the topic of co-creation for urban development.

By learning with other cities’ good practices and by testing new co-creation practices and solutions, we aim at helping the city of Porto’s endeavours to become a smarter city by creating a new course on urban co-creation that remains beyond the project lifetime, reinforcing the constant connection between PBS and the city and, therefore, having a positive impact on its citizens lives.

Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership Project University-City Action Lab (UCITYLAB) kick-off meeting has been held in Porto on 29-30 October, bringing together 5 consortium partners with representatives from Porto Business School, (Portugal); Institute for Innovation and Development of University of Ljubljana(Slovenia); Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain), Institut Mines-Télécom (France); and University Industry Innovation Network (Netherlands).

To be coordinated by Porto Business School (PBS) over the next 30 months, the UCITYLAB consortium will aim to embed Europe’s education and knowledge institutions into their urban environment to unlock their innovation potential and address metropolitan challenges. To achieve this, the project will first (i) map the status-quo of HEI practices involving city engagement at the national and international level, (ii) launch UCITYLAB Networks in the partner countries to start conversations with regional stakeholders for collaborative innovation, (iii) prepare the UCITY Challenge course program, and (iv) implement the program in two phases of theory and real-life projects the students will undertake together with city stakeholders.

The efforts will be put forward to strengthen the relationships between HEIs and their urban communities, build the understanding and practice of social innovation, entrepreneurship and urban development among HEI students, and in the long term to foster economic and social development in the cities where the partner institution are located. The role of the UIIN in the consortium will be prominent in the development of the knowledge base, supporting the development of University-City networks, as well as in the dissemination of the project outputs through its diverse range of channels.