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Internationalisation for sustainable future

Active management of internasionalisation in a small university city in order to remain the vibrant local hub in the global knowledge economy
Groningen / Netherlands
Size of city: 
198 355 inhabitants


Frederic van Kleef
Policy Advisor and Programme Leader Internationalisation, Municipality of Groningen
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Groningen (NL), like many university cities, is becoming increasingly international. This is driven by demographic need and opportunity in the knowledge economy. The good practice represents an integrated approach to internationalisation to ensure a sustainable future for the city. Groningen is small and traditionally regionally oriented, thus the large-scale internationalisation is a relatively new phenomenon for the town. The city manages complex processes included in an integrated and participative programme which addresses four key aspects: housing, work, city living and communication. The programme aims at attracting, retaining and integrating new residents while maintaining a high level of social cohesion and liveability. It contributes to a sustainable economic, demographic and cultural future and makes Groningen an attractive home for locals and internationals.

The solutions offered by the good practice

Our good practice addresses both the external objective of remaining competitive in a globalised knowledge economy, and the internal objective of maintaining the high social cohesion and liveability that make Groningen such an attractive small city. Thus we provide an integrated practice for achieving resilience in a global setting.
We achieve these goals by actively managing internationalisation along four key dimensions: housing, work, city living and communication. Projects address problems in these areas as follows:
• combined on- and offline platform will improve access to local housing and housing support,
• a broad regional programme “Make It in the North” will open up access to the local SME sector and international knowledge migrants (through jobs portal, internship programmes and network events), thereby also adding to the innovative capacity and global reach of local enterprises,
• several “city living” projects will make the cultural and physical life of the city more accessible to new residents by improving way-finding off- and online,
• matchmaking organisation and events, to provide language support and social integration between locals and international residents,
• a new city site will provide English-language information for prospective and new residents of the city, and contribute to Groningen’s international profile.
These projects are coordinated and managed by a multidisciplinary team with local and international members.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

Our integrated good practices for managing internationalisation represent sustainable urban development by contributing directly to the demographic resilience, economic vitality and social cohesion of the city and its surroundings. In particular, we address inclusion by a calendar of events to stimulate and facilitate interaction between old and new residents and are exploring the possibility to include refugee groups in these too. Indirectly, we contribute to the knowledge areas prioritised by the local educational institutions: energy, sustainable society and healthy ageing, all of which are underpinned by sustainable development goals.
In terms of our approach, the scope and coordination of the International Groningen programme represent both horizontal and vertical integration. The projects combine physical interventions in the city (e.g. street signage, clubhouse), with community building programmes and coordinated, online information channels to improve access to local facilities, networks and (job) opportunities, and interaction between internationals and locals. The deep vertical integration of the programme is evidenced by the support of the “Akkoord van Groningen”, a high-level strategic partnership between the municipality and the higher educational institutions, as well as the broad participation of regional bodies and the private sector in sub-projects such as the Make It in the North initiative.

Based on a participatory approach

The International Groningen programme is fundamentally participatory in its nature. At a strategic level the entire programme is supported by the Akkoord van Groningen, a unique partnership between the municipality and the higher educational institutions in the city. For relevant sub-projects, such as the Make It in the North to open up the regional job market to internationalisation, a much wider group of stakeholders is actively involved, including SME organisations from the surrounding provinces, the provincial government etc. The projects which comprise the programme have been developed and implemented by mixed teams of municipal and university employees, international residents operating on a freelance basis, international students and interns. In the development phase we have worked extensively with focus groups consisting of international residents and local student project groups to better understand how internationalisation is experienced and what the key challenges for the city are. Additionally, the proposed projects have been presented in diverse contexts, such as to the University’s Council and Advisory Board, the municipal board, Dutch diplomats from northern Netherlands and regional representatives.

What difference has it made?

Since we are in the early stages of the programme, it is difficult to show major results as yet. But we can provide projections of the impact our good practice can reasonably be expected to have. For instance, a 20% increase in the stay rate of internationals over a period of five years represents a boost of 740 million euros to the economy, according to a recent analysis (see Furthermore, we already see local impact along several key lines:
• The topic has risen on the local and regional political agenda, thanks to the Akkoord van Groningen,
• Internationals are becoming more engaged as we ask them to join project teams and focus groups,
• Cultural stakeholders and companies are seeing ‘the international’ more and more as a potential interesting target group they have to facilitate in new ways,
• The municipality starts to embrace internationals in other policy fields as well, such as public transport, health care etc,
• We have outside interest from other secondary Dutch cities, as well as the Finnish city of Oulu.

Why should other European cities use it?

We propose that the practices represented in our programme are relevant for all smaller and bigger European cities which aim to position themselves globally in the knowledge economy.
Internationalisation offers at least two key opportunities for a city: improved attractiveness and innovative capacity. Increasingly important in knowledge migrants’ choice of destination are liveability factors such as affordable housing, shorter distances, lower pollution, cost of living etc. The focus on liveability offers smaller cities a good opportunity to profile themselves as attractive destinations for these migrants.
Additionally, diversity is now widely considered as a key driver of creativity and innovation in city development, so we can expect, and in fact already witness, that internationalisation contributes directly to innovative capacity.
These factors form a positive feedback loop where high liveability fuels innovative capacity and vice versa.
Hence our good practice could be interesting not just for small (secondary) European cities which are facing international (student) population growth, but more generally, for all cities which seek to profile themselves internationally in the global knowledge-based economy. We provide an integrated practice for achieving resilience in a global setting.