14 May 2018

‘Urban Agenda for the EU offers unique opportunity for experimentation’

The European Union is sitting on a gold mine with the so-called Urban Agenda for the EU, but policymakers can make even better use of the new initiative’s potential by focusing more on experimentation. This is the conclusion reached by researchers from Utrecht University’s Urban Futures Studio in an extensive study on the practical implementation of this new European working method.

For the first time ever, the Urban Agenda for the EU makes it possible for cities to directly influence EU policymaking and regulation by working in partnerships. This is a good initiative, since cities are usually decisive actors and come up with innovative and creative solutions to complex issues (such as the refugee crisis and the circular economy). The Urban Agenda for the EU was established in 2016, during the Dutch presidency of the EU, to make better use of the strengths of cities. As part of the approach, partnerships consisting of cities, national governments and European institutions meet on a regular basis to discuss and solve problems.

Cities aren’t always given enough freedom and support to experiment and innovate. There is still a lot to be gained in this regard.
Project Lead of the Urban Futures Studio project 'Experimenting with Cities'

For six months, researchers from the Urban Futures Studio studied the practice of the Urban Agenda with the aim of shedding light on this working method. In their research report ‘Learning to Experiment. Realising the potential of the Urban Agenda for the EU’, the authors argue that the EU can respond better to experiments in cities. ‘Cities are particularly good at cultivating the concept of experimental governance, or governing by means of experimentation, but they aren’t always given the freedom to do so’, explains Suzanne Potjer, first author and researcher at the Urban Futures Studio. As an example, one of the partnerships found that cities’ attempts to start up a circular economy are significantly hindered by strict European regulations on waste processing.

Learning communities

Potjer: ‘Cities are home to a multitude of experiments in which citizens, businesses, government authorities and knowledge institutions work on new ideas and solutions. However, our research shows that the Urban Agenda is not making optimal use of the new insights that result from these experiments. In addition, cities aren’t always given enough freedom and support to experiment and innovate. There is still a lot to be gained in this regard.’

Maarten Hajer, professor of Urban Futures at Utrecht University, adds that, ‘The innovative strength of the Urban Agenda is that it creates informal learning communities between people from different levels of government. Learning is in the methodology; for each theme, you consistently look at where the rules get in the way at every administrative level. Some cities and other partners do most of the work, but everyone can benefit.’

 

If the Commission does not respond to a number of suggestions, the whole thing will collapse like a soufflé.

Tipping point

Hajer points out that critical times lie ahead for the Urban Agenda. ‘It is crucial that the European Commission take recommendations from the Urban Agenda on board in the not too distant future. If the Commission does not respond to a number of suggestions, the whole thing will collapse like a soufflé. If the Commission recognises the added value, the network will be energised.’

Nicolaas Beets, special envoy for the Urban Agenda, underlines the urgency of the recommendations in the report. ‘We are currently at a tipping point. The first action plans from the partnerships have been submitted and processed. Now we need to go from theory to action, and that means actual changes.’