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New trends in urban governance: Examples from across the EU


URBACT recently published a series of reports outlined some of the most interesting challenges facing cities, related to New Economies, Job Generation, Social Innovation and Sustainable Generation, with examples from all corners of the EU.  So what messages do the reports have for urban governance? What trends were spotted and good practices highlighted? How are cities re-organising themselves in relation to these emerging trends?

Horizontal coordination

 A major theme of all the workstreams was the need to improve and innovate the horizontal coordination of policy and stakeholders.  Cross departmental cooperation within the local administration is a key component of this more efficient approach.

Across all of the four themes addressed an important role for cities was to develop and pump prime structural collaboration with civil society, business, education and government: the so-called triple and quadruple helix relationships talked about in the innovation world. The evidence presented is that these relationships and dialogues make it possible to address common issues and provide effective ways of tackling joint challenges. Both the New Economies and Job Generation reports are unequivocal that the city is in a strong position to make these connections and provide the glue that binds things together. For instance it is imperative for local government to be involved in the evolution of smart specialisation strategies because these strategies affect the direction of urban economic renewal. Failure to be there means the city’s input is missing. Local administrations can build long-term relationships that systematise permanent dialogue in different forms, whether they be independent bodies, partnerships or committees. The point is to generate the profile, commitment and scope with opportunities for networking, connecting employers, skills and supply chains.

In the case of social innovation the report looks at the ways in which citizens are getting more involved in the design and delivery of policy, in part as a necessity resulting from shrinking public budgets. This means new types of collaboration are emerging in the form of tools and systems, both online and off-line, that are capable of encouraging contributions from civil society. Matchmaking events have become common in cities such as Melbourne, Bristol and Amersfoort, using dynamic Pecha Kucha formats of 3 slides in 3 minutes to give inspiration and connect participants.  The Job Generation case study from Thessaloniki describes how the creativity platform there holds ‘crunch events’ -creative brunches bringing creatives together with the city and briefing them on fundraising opportunities. ‘Handpeak’ has emerged from this as an online platform promoting local creators and crafters and highlighting the importance of that creative community for the city.

In the case of sustainable regeneration relationships with stakeholders often entail clashes with and between those affected, in particular residents. The cities featured (Hamburg and Vilnius) are learning to move from top down to multi-stakeholder approaches, sometimes by way of citizen protests. The institutional models developed to move in this direction vary but in many cases the city’s role is enabler of change- facilitating, coordinating, convening the parties to stimulate action and broker deals. The case study of Hamburg shows how a cross departmental city committee was set up to steer the sustainable regeneration of Wilhelmsburg.  In relations to Job Generation Nyíregyháza piloted a youth employment forum to help all parties better understand the local skills and employment challenges.

External partners can also bring a lot of technical expertise. For instance, in the case of energy efficiency renovations and digital economies utility companies are important partners, with the capacities to create the systems of the future such as smart grids and decentralised energy. But their staff often have limited knowledge of how the city works, and both parties have to learn to speak the same language, to align agendas where possible. When cities are able to adjust and cooperate, then coalitions of purpose can effectively be built across public, private and not-for-profit sectors. These create conditions for solutions that secure greater sustainability, potentially without the need for substantial long-term public funding.

Vertical Coordination: Multi Level Governance

 As is often the case, challenges were reported in the lack of coherence or discord between city, regional and national powers. In some cases there were changes in competence with delegation from regional and national level to city level, without an accompanying increase in resources, as in Amersfoort’s case in the Netherlands. In other examples, for instance with the pilot Youth Jobs Forum in Hungary, centralisation of policy can make it difficult for cities to have enough room to act. The reports argue that cities need flexibility from the national level to come up with innovative solutions. The sustainable regeneration report, for instance, argues that the local level is often best positioned to understand need, to create the interventions that work. More local discretion is needed about how interventions are designed, budgets are managed, performance targets assessed and activities outsourced.

Changes in culture, style and perception

 All of reports talk about the way that successful administrations are the ones that are consciously moving with the times, reflecting on their modus operandi and making efforts to be more open, transparent, responsive and collaborative. By changing posture to more listening and dialogue modes, cities can change the way things are done as well as what is done.

Cor Haltackers, a citizen activist in Amersfoort, makes a very pertinent statement “The city looks like a wall. Most people don’t know on which they door they should knock”. In the New Economies report it is noted that for business and university partners cities are often perceived as bureaucratic and rigid organisations.  Learning to communicate, to understand each other is an important step in finding common purpose. Examples are given of ways to bridge these gaps, such as work exchanges, job shadowing, networking. City workers need to leave their desks more, go out and about to find out about what is happening on the ground.  Spending time in schools, businesses, and neighbourhoods is time well spent. In the case of San Sebastian, in the New Economies report, the surf cluster manager gained credibility and a deeper understanding of her new colleagues when she took up surfing herself.

In Gdansk the Mayor insists on a diversity of profiles in the senior team that helps to evolve a new mind-set to be open to differences. Amersfoort declared 2014 the ‘Year of change’, moving towards more collaboration, with the need to promoting learning amongst city staff.

These changes involve politicians taking risks. The Mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz: “there are risks everywhere in politics, but if you have faith you shall go against the wind”. The cultural change involved in releasing city data, for example in the Dublinked example, brings with it the risks of uncertainty and exposure. For some elected officials and city staff this is uncomfortable territory.

Finally the Job Generation report underlines how beneficial it can be for a city to set ambitious goals and communicate them effectively. Leeds City Region has launched a campaign ‘to secure a NEET free city region with more and better jobs in the skills of flexible workforce to sustain them.’ This serious ambition is well publicised in a clear and simple messages, using contemporary communications strategies targets at youth and business audiences.

Purchasing Power

 In several of the workstreams the purchasing power of cities was regarded as a mechansism for cities to open up new governance processes, such as commissioning for social innovation.  More localised and regionalised supply chains, in food or construction materials for instance, can be driven by cities to bring greater sustainability and grow local jobs. Purchasing power can also stimulate new economies, as in the example of open data collaborations, but this raises particular issues in a complex regulatory world of procurement. Cities will need to find new ways to allow experimentation and innovation prior to committing to final purchases, but without giving privileged advantage to particular companies. The case of Dublinked in Ireland provides some important lessons on how to ensure these processes are accessible and neutral and have an equitable basis, in order to reach a broad number of innovative businesses.


All work stream reports emphasised the importance of the different historical, political, cultural contexts in which these governance changes are taking shape. For instance, in the Central and Eastern European states the tendency is more for top down, command and control cultures. These member states have limited traditions of open dialogue with stakeholders and the process can sound too risky, so politicians sometimes cannot see how it could work. Many Western European member states have longer traditions of participatory democracy. But in all cases, regardless of the geography, it is time-consuming and challenging to build the requisite political and community commitment to underpin multi stakeholder and integrated approaches.

Infrastructure of shared spaces

 Several workstreams stressed the value developing new shared spaces in the city infrastructure, for stakeholders to come together formally and informally. These can take diverse forms, from hubs, online community networks, co-working offices, urban labs, or places that make use of existing resources or underused buildings, like libraries and public spaces. These spaces and places allow for encounters and connections, for people and businesses to meet to turn ideas into solutions. Camden Collective is a good example cited in the Job Generation report.

 Diagnosis and intelligence

 Effective diagnosis before treatment is central to the URBACT method. All the reports assert that local intelligence and mapping are vital to develop the right endogenous solutions. For Job Generation, the workstream suggests that both quantitative and qualitative data are required. Labour market data and forecasts can be supplemented with dialogues, workshops with employers and young people. Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership used this data to produce fact sheets on job trends, opportunities, wages, and qualifications.

For new urban economies a thorough understanding helps to reinforce indigenous approaches to bottom up new economies, building on local assets and linking to new specialisations.

To find out more…

 So, many lessons and examples of transforming city governance are to be found across Europe. More details and many more cases can be found in each of the workstream reports- a must for autumn reading!


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