The European Week of Regions and Cities is the world’s biggest event specifically geared towards regional and urban development. Coming against a backdrop of a freshly-elected European Parliament and finalisation of the new College of European Commissioners, the 17th edition launched with the aptly forward-looking themes of: ‘The Future of the EU and the roles of Regions and Cities’, ‘A Europe Closer to Citizens and ‘A greener Europe.’ The event offered a unique chance to be immersed in the multitude of creative ways regions and cities maximise EU funding, both at the broad policy level to make Europe smarter, greener and more inclusive, and at a more prosaic level, to improve the daily lives of citizens. As the event continues to follow an ambition, started in 2010, to reduce waste production, its encouragement of paperless exhibitions provided lots of opportunities for hands-on learning - with exhibits featuring everything from Virtual Reality devices to beer made from bread-crumbs.
Getting closer to citizens
One memorable effort to make the EU’s work more relevant to citizens, no matter where they live or what they do, was on display at the European Parliamentary Research Service exhibit dubbed, WHAT EUROPE DOES FOR ME. At the initiative’s core is a searchable multimedia website which presents thematic or regional summaries of how EU funding can improve daily lives. It covers everything from the high-level, such as policies to protect personal data, to the more mundane such as product labelling to ensure safety standards. But as well as showcasing efforts to communicate the relevance of EU projects to the lives of citizens, the event also highlighted work to make the needs of citizens more relevant to EU project’s in the first place. One workshop, entitled ‘Science for Citizens: how science meets regions and cities’, kicked off with a panellist making the point that against a backdrop of increased mistrust directed towards experts and expertise, it was now pressing to involve citizens in research right from the beginning. Building on this theme, Marzia Mazzonetto, a Project Manager with ECSA (European Citizen Science Association), part of the EU-Citizen.Science initiative, stressed that anyone can get involved. She cited an EU-funded project called D-NOSES, which empowers Barcelona citizens to map odour problems in their vicinity by reporting them through a specially designed app. The project has been operational in 10 cities across Europe (and beyond), with longer-term plans to develop an odour observatory. Mazzonetto emphasised that the power of initiatives like this is that once people have data, they can apply pressure for politicians and policymakers to act. Indeed, in Barcelona, there have been 270 complaints from at least 35 different users since the project launch in 2016.
The ‘quadruple helix’ of stakeholders
But what happens when needs or ambitions conflict? According to panellist Nhien Nguyen, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, adopting the ‘quadruple helix’ approach which engages citizens, academia, industry, public authorities at local, national and transnational levels, can help. Here key stakeholders all have a voice and once they have collectively mapped the existing ecosystem (including not only scientific evidence but also tacit knowledge), they can co-create appropriate strategies. When interviewed by CORDIS, Nguyen added that, “if you want citizen science to work, there must be some base-line of shared-understanding.” She went on to explain that key to achieving this was the cultivation of critical thinking mindsets, alongside translation of some of the jargon so beloved by policymakers as much as scientists. She also stressed the importance of making citizen science fun and relevant, before adding that, “If people know this is their right, citizens are more likely to be engaged.”
The power of co-creation
One stand that caught CORDIS’s eye was that of the EU-funded BLOOM project, set up to enhance citizens’ knowledge about the bioeconomy with five regional hubs established to function as communities of practice. To identify key targets groups, barriers and opportunities, and ultimately develop outreach activities, the project has been undertaking co-creation workshops with stakeholders. One very practical output already accomplished in conjunction with European schoolnet, was a series of teacher-designed bioeconomy teaching resources, ‘working much like a cookbook’ as project member Dr Norbert Steinhaus informed CORDIS when we visited the BLOOM stand. The approach has now been tested with teachers across 10 countries. The process has so far also resulted in a publicly available co-creation guidebook and as Dr Ilse Marschalek, also of the project, pointed out, “seeds sown for later projects and the empowerment of people to start their own projects.” And with Horizon Europe fast approaching, CORDIS looks forward to encountering the fruits of this inspiration, at a future edition of the European Week of Regions and Cities.