Degraded industrial regions – such as Zasavje in Slovenia with its former coal mines – are faced with social, economic and environmental challenges, such as unemployment, pollution and brain drain. To prosper, these areas need fresh ideas, bold visions and industrial restructuring, developed in partnership with local industry, community and citizens. The RUARDI project was a university-industry collaboration project involving an interdisciplinary student research team. It was conducted over a period of five months in 2015 and implemented within the Creative Path to Knowledge programme of the Public Scholarship, Development, Disability, and Maintenance Fund of the Republic of Slovenia.
RUARDI established cross-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder cooperation between different Faculties and research institutes of the University of Ljubljana, the city of Zagorje ob Savi (Slovenia), its local industry representatives (company Aereform), and local communities. The key aim was to conduct an interdisciplinary study which would provide recommendations for enlargement, optimization and integration of the existing city airport into the local industrial environment, community and everyday life of citizens. The long-term vision was to establish an aeronautic entrepreneurial hub for high-tech innovation and multiplication of regional social-economic development.
SMALL RESEARCH PROJECTS THAT BRING VALUABLE EXPERIENCE
The Creative Path to Knowledge programme, supported by the Slovenian Ministry of Education, Science and Sports and the European Social Fund, enhances cooperation between higher education institutions and industry, businesses, or other non-academic organisations in short-term research & development projects. The participating students thus get the opportunity to work on real-life challenges, gaining practical experience, additional knowledge, as well as competences and skills that are increasingly important for entering the job market.
The current programme (2016-2020) value is 10.625.000,00 EUR and aims to involve at least 2700 undergraduate and graduate students, as well as 1400 non-academic experts. The programme co-finances projects that are carried out in groups of 4 to 8 students co-mentored by academic and industry/non-academic mentors, and encourages the exchange of knowledge, experience and good practices. The projects can last from 3 to 5 months. University and non-academic partners have to apply for funding – if successful, the academic mentors recruit a team of students to work on the project.
REVITALISING A DEGRADED URBAN AREA
Zasavje is one of the most affected Slovenian regions – in the time of economic crisis, the unemployment rate in the region has grown considerably. Traditional industrial sectors are labour intensive and characterized by high levels of manual work and low levels of automation. In the past years, the production was globally moving to areas with cheaper labour force. These events have further aggravated the economic situation in Zasavje, causing serious economic problems, i.e. low standard of living, low income, dependence on the social welfare system, long-term unemployment etc. These kinds of areas can benefit by introducing positive visions and by enhancing new solutions and development strategies incorporating local heritage and involving their citizens as co-creators.
Air mobility and aeronautic industry can present key integrators and drivers having positive effects on the development of environment, region, local community and entrepreneurship. The RUARDI project aimed to provide a holistic solution of expanding and integrating the existing city airport into the local community’s everyday life. Three non-academic mentors from industry and research (Aereform and IRI UL), four academic mentors (University of Ljubljana), and eight students from four different Faculties within the University of Ljubljana (Faculty of civil engineering, Faculty of architecture, Faculty of social sciences and Faculty of mathematics and physics) commenced work on the RUARDI project in January 2015.
The core of the project was the students’ research and development of solutions. Among other activities, the project team had to identify the relevant stakeholders and actors within the local community, develop the concept and mapping, conduct research and analysis, evaluate results and provide development recommendations, disseminate results and participate in multi-stakeholder meetings. During this process, the students acquired new competences and an elaborate vision of the airfield, while the collaboration between industry and university partners supported the exchange of knowledge and best practices. The interdisciplinary study resulted in a detailed, 153 pages long study report, written by the participating students and their academic and industry mentors, and has provided concrete recommendations that were later included in the city’s development strategy.
DEVELOPING SKILLS AND COMPETENCES
The learning outcomes were assessed for each student individually by the involved academic mentors, based on the activities undertaken by the student within the project and their performance. The individual assessments had to be included in the final project report, required by the funding programme. One of the most important outcomes of the collaborative project were the skills and competences developed by the involved students, including creative thinking; solving practical challenges with the solutions being feasible technically, socially, as well as financially; communication across disciplines and stakeholder groups; ability to set, formulate and implement a research process that has clear objectives and performance indicators; as well as organizational competences of working in an interdisciplinary team.
This blog article is written with reference to a good practice case study report prepared as part of the Erasmus+ University City Action Lab (UCITYLAB) Project.