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.