Thursday 24th – Friday 25th November 2011, Utrecht, the Netherlands
By Koen van Dam
The University of Utrecht organised and hosted a LERU Research Seminar and invited researchers of members of LERU, the League of European Research Universities, to discuss a proposal of a Joint Programme Initiative (JPI) on dimensions for new research under the Urban Europe research programme. Participants came from the Netherlands (Utrecht, Amsterdam and Leiden) as well as France, Germany and Belgium (Paris Sud, Munich and Leuven). The United Kingdom was represented by Professor Phil Allmendinger from Cambridge and Dr Koen van Dam from Imperial College London. The delegates came from a wide range of academic backgrounds, including computer science, geography, spatial planning, regional economics, cultural anthropology as well as childcare and education.
Professor Peter Nijkamp (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, chairman of the scientific advisory board of JPI Urban Europe and former president of the Netherlands Research Council NWO) presented the “Urban Europe strategic research framework” which has been prepared over the previous months with input from stakeholders and researchers in a number of meetings and workshops held in 2010 and 2011. Peter Nijkamp and Karima Kourtit co-wrote the document describing the proposed framework.
The Joint Programme Initiative is a concept of the European Union to involve individual countries (governments, funding agencies and universities) wanting to work together in research. It is a bottom-up approach allowing countries who want to work closer together on common topics to organise themselves and speak with a united voice. As such it provides a framework to coordinate national research programmes and helps simplify projects which cross borders. Currently urban issues are not yet part of any existing European frameworks, so in 2010 the JPI Urban Europe was started to coordinate research and make better use of European funding for studies improve cities in Europe. See the JPI Urban Europe website for more information.
The framework is based around four “urban images” namely Entrepreneurial City 2050 (Transforming urban areas in Europe as hubs of innovation and creativity), Connected City 2050 (Realising eco-friendly and intelligent intra- and inter-urban transport and logistic systems), Pioneer City 2050 (Ensuring social cohesion, integration) and Liveable City 2050 (Reducing the ecological footprint and enhancing climate neutrality), each highlighting the strategic dimensions of the initiative. From these three research issues have been identified: Urban Megatrends, Urban Networks and Connectivity and finally Socio-ecological Sustainability of City Systems. For each of these issues a number of research themes and illustrative research questions have been defined, providing a clear overview of the broad scope of the JPI. During the seminar three additional “experimental” projects were introduced. The first relates to monitoring and information systems and the drivers of long term urban developments, the second to behaviour, technology and planning in urban patterns, and the third to resilience, efficiency and social participation in cities as a response to new challenges.
From this strategic research framework the next step is to go towards a call for projects in a pilot phase. The seminar participants were asked to give feedback to the strategic research framework as well as to the proposed call. At the next Governing Board meeting in Oslo (14-15 December 2011) this work will continue and the supporting funding councils will meet in January. It is expected the call can be launched shortly afterwards with the first projects starting towards the end of 2012. The idea is that these initial projects, with an expected duration of two years, showcase the added value of European cooperation as well as the relevance of the theme to Europe. Eventually the aim is that the theme could become a part of the next EU funding programme Horizon 2020 – the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, because governments, funding agencies and research institutes have shown commitment to this research direction.
During the seminar the participants had the chance to comment on the described research theme as well as the plans for the proposed call for projects. I was able to introduce the Digital City Exchange programme, the specific challenges and our aims, and stress the importance of the cross-departmental organisation and cooperation. Discussing the JPI Urban Europe research themes I questioned, among other things, the fact that energy was not explicitly mentioned as one of the challenges underlying the framework, even though this touches all aspects of living and working in cities. Regarding the proposed call, I asked if the plan was to encourage synergy between the projects funded, or if this is not a requirement. It was explained that individual projects will be funded based on their own merit. Given the common subject of study, it is of course hoped that projects will have closer links and that findings and results can be shared. Furthermore, I suggested it is important to make cross-disciplinary research a fundamental requirement to study cities – and not just “things that happen to be in cities” – to ensure the themes are really addressed and phenomena not studied in isolation, which received support from the other participants.
Finally, I asked if the initiative could perhaps also be used to map existing projects in Europe and encourage cooperation of people working projects which are already running or are based on other sources of funding. The answer was that this was indeed part of the plan and that an overview of projects studying cities and urban areas has been prepared and will be made available. Furthermore, organising workshops or facilitating the organisation between the institutes would be another possibility which could encourage interaction between researchers across institutes and borders. The aim is thus not only to launch a call and organise European funding, but to start build an Urban Europe community.