Urban Forest Innovation Lab

Fostering local economic development through innovative forest exploitation

Edited on 19/01/2024

Project proposal by

  • Institution : Municipality of Cuenca
  • City : Cuenca
  • Country : Spain
  • Type of region : Less developed
  • Population : 53 512

I am looking for

  • Project Partners

The city of Cuenca (Spain) has more forest area than any other EU city (86% of its municipality surface), but the forest is relatively underexploited. The Urban Forest Innovation Lab (UFIL) project developed an innovative business sector around Cuenca's forest, by promoting public and private forest management and the creation of primary and secondary processing industries. The aim was to make the forest bio-economy a driver for social and economic development. To this end, the UFIL project addressed the existing lack of training and employment opportunities, and other socio-economic problems within the city such as depopulation and an ageing population. The project’s innovative bio-economy-centred training model focused on incubating and accelerating innovative businesses around Cuenca's forest, to enhance the preservation of the forest through sustainable management and to bring together key actors to develop the local and regional bio-economy. 


What SOLUTIONS did the Urban Innovative Action project offer?


The main solution was an innovative bio-economy-centred training model. This combined training, research, and the incubation and acceleration of forest-related businesses. The training comprised 21st century skills, forestry bio-economy and business, and environment innovation. It was complemented with practical work, using a ‘learning by doing’ methodology. During training, participants advanced innovative business solutions through a ‘bio-economy fab lab’, using Cuenca’s forest as a testing ground for prototypes. The main bio-economy areas to focus on were identified in a baseline study. To complement the training, businesses were invited to participate as sponsors and launch challenges to entrepreneurs, who tested their acquired knowledge and ideas against the needs of real companies. The project’s governance solution involved the partnership with stakeholders endorsing Cuenca's Rural-Urban Agenda, which establishes a bio-economy action plan for Cuenca’s forestry sector to 2030.


What DIFFERENCE has it made at local level?

From 2020 to 2022, the UFIL project team trained 84 people. Multidisciplinary groups of participants from different backgrounds (e.g. industry, agroforestry, business administration, IT, unemployed) were selected for the training programme, facilitating diverse exchanges and innovative business models. By the end of the training programme, 44 business models were presented with 15 of them constituted as bio-economy companies in the city or its rural surroundings. As a result, 78% of the people trained found a job, improved their skills or launched a start-up. Linked to social aspects, 63% of these latter entrepreneurs came from outside Cuenca. Also, due to the project’s business sponsor model, a company expanded its business development to the city. Finally, under UFIL's partnership work with stakeholders, over 51 000 ha of forest was certified under Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) forest management standards.


What PARTICIPATORY APPROACHES have been put in place for the project?


The UFIL project was implemented by a strong consortium representing many bio-economy dimensions and competences. This enabled active participation and a richness of approaches to Cuenca's bio-economy from the start. Public authorities (municipality and region), public and private universities, a forest certification NGO, a local public sawmill (the only one remaining in Spain), a local business confederation and a private consultancy all worked together in this committed and representative partnership. Throughout the project, and supported by the different partners' networks, participation and communication activities raised awareness about opportunities in Cuenca's forest, and gave insights into people's vision of jobs linked to the forest bio-economy. This allowed a better delivery of the activities and a grounded implementation of the project. The training programme was constantly being improved through contact with the participants and the local bio-economy sector, with the project team adapting the model and content to meet the needs and interests of the sector. However, the project team remained focused on the main objective: the establishment of new innovative start-ups linked to Cuenca's forest management.


How does the project tackle different aspects with an INTEGRATED APPROACH?


The UFIL project offered an integrated solution to the challenge of fostering sustainable economic development in Cuenca's forest. The incubation and acceleration of businesses in the bio-economy sector helped overcome the low resilience of the city’s economic fabric and its strong dependency on the tertiary sector. From a social perspective, the training programme and its results created economic opportunities for Cuenca, thus boosting the city's economy, and attracting and retaining talented people to counter the trends of depopulation and ageing. In addition, the project addressed the lack of forest-specific skills and knowledge in Cuenca by launching a training programme that included technical training in forestry. Finally, the project’s promotion of forest management and bio-economy business models ensured the active conservation of forests, the production of sustainable and low carbon products and services, the reduction of fire risks, and the economic valorisation of ecosystem services.    


Why should other European cities use the solution the project explored?


The UFIL project has been a success and has received many awards, with the main recognition coming from the Spanish Government through the Spain Entrepreneurial Nation High Commissioner. Therefore, it stands as a model that can be transferred to other European cities associated with forests. Furthermore, its success and potential to be transferred to other territories is shown by the fact that the UFIL continues operating and supporting forest bio-economy entrepreneurs beyond the Urban Innovative Actions funding period. The know-how generated during the project has been analysed, improved and kept within the local ecosystem and stakeholders, ensuring a viable ongoing model. All aspects and insights are ready to be exported. Entrepreneurship within the forest bio-economy is versatile and can be modularised and adapted to suit specific contexts and territorial realities. For example, it can be adapted to particular opportunities in areas, and the employment and skills needs of cities. It could play a role in many cases, as all EU cities are required to transition to more sustainable socioeconomic models.