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  • AS-Fabrik


    Bilbao Alliance for smart specialisation in advanced services towards the digital transformation of the industry

    Jordan Guardo
    Municipality of Bilbao
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    The project seeks to increase the competitiveness of advanced services sector of Bilbao (Knowledge intense Business Services – KIBS), preparing current or future workers of the KIBS sector, to acquire the needed skills, to supply digital transformation demands. Bilbao is leading a strategic alliance between businesses and universities, local service providers and entrepreneurs, to shape a collaborative pilot ecosystem based on innovative pillars and hosted in a tailor made space for experimentation and incubation of new services. New education programs for university students, entrepreneurs and professionals addressing the new challenges of the industry 4.0 and digital economy will be tested, while networking actions among the main stakeholders, supported by tailored IT tools, will ensure a good match between demand and supply. New business models will be prototyped to support specialised start-ups that will benefit from a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) test Fab Lab for the market validation of new products/services.
    At the end of the project, KIBS providers from Bilbao will have access to AS-FABRIK, the “factory for the creation of advanced services for industry”, gathering in a physical space an integrated kit of tools to shape new products and services for the new industry needs, and reinforce their competitiveness. This new model will lead to create a new generation of young and advanced service providers able to supply the challenging digital transformation demands.

    The innovative solution

    For Bilbao economic renewal is of paramount importance. The city is recovering from the global financial crisis, and despite having an unemployment rate significantly lower than the Spanish average, numbers are still high, and the city now faces the challenge of reinforcing its knowledge-based economy. The AS-FABRIK project is a coin with two sides: on the one side, it promotes “smart specialisation”, aiming to make manufacturing –a traditionally strong sector in the city- and related knowledge intensive business services (KIBS) services more competitive. On the other side, it is an instrument to improve the spatial conditions of the local economy, through the regeneration of the Zorrotzaurre area, a former industrial zone that will be turned into a knowledge-based new part of the city.
    City government is a key player when it comes to the creation of favourable spatial conditions in which the local economy can flourish; Bilbao has a key role to play on the labour market, to improve the match between supply and demand, and in retraining the workforce; Also, Bilbao can pursue smart specialisation policies:  in close collaboration with local stakeholders, promoting specific promising fields of economic development, in alignment with other policy levels, the private sector and knowledge institutes, which helps to guide investments into the most productive direction.

    A collaborative and participative work

    The main objective of the project will be possible thanks to the design, development and validation of a demonstrative model of a “Factory for the creation of advanced services for the industry” (AS-FABRK), based on a public-private collaborative process that will allow the achievement of the following specific objectives: to identify the mind-term, needs of the manufacturing industry regarding Industry 4.0 concept. Through Research Center and Public Agency; to carry out different interdisciplinary programmes for students, entrepreneurs and professionals so they can acquire the necessary skills to answer to the industry demands. Through University; to build a collaborative working methodology to match the education and expertise needs from the industry with the service providers (individually or in cooperation). Through University and Research Center; to create more and more specialised jobs in Bilbao as a result of the launching of new start-ups and new services. Through Business Support Center and Private Companies 
    The organisational structure of the Consortium comprises the following Consortium Bodies: the project coordination was done by the MUA who designated project coordinator; the Steering Committee has been responsible for the “major decisions” affecting the implementation and success of the project; the Technical Committee has been in charge of supervising the implementation of the work program and is for taking all decisions related to the operational management.

    The impact and results

    The project has contributed to the development of the advanced services sector of Bilbao in several ways. First, +70 local KIBS have been involved in the definition of Bilbao’s advanced services roadmap, co-creating strategic opportunity spaces to be exploited. From such opportunity spaces, 32 collaborations between SMEs-startups-entrepreneurs were stablished, based on the Partnership Brokering mentoring process, to develop and commercialise new technological services 4.0. Also 36 technological services 4.0 ventures were launched, and 12 of them finally consolidated their services in the market with the support of the Startup Boosting mentoring process. Beyond those numbers, +500 professionals were trained in data cycle technologies (embedded systems, IoT, data science, HMIs) as well as in digital business transformation drivers (e.g. smartisation, servitisation), thus significantly increasing their competences to foster new technological services 4.0 opportunity spaces, collaborations and ventures in the near future.

    Why this good practices should be transferred to other cities?

    AS-Fabrik has achieved a very significant success in transforming Bilbao. This has been possible due to three essential reasons: (1) Cities can leverage the smart specialisation strategy of their regions, (2) Cities can have an active role in the manufacturing sector, and (3) Cities must create landmarks of their transformation that generate a tangible asset in which to leverage a city-wide transformative process. Thanks to the URBACT project In Focus, Bilbao created a methodology to create its own smart specialisation strategy at a city level aligned with that of our region. One of the Basque Country’s strategic economic sectors is Advanced Manufacturing, and AS-Fabrik is the materialisation of that. –AS-Fabrik postulates a new way of supporting manufacturing industry from an urban perspective, and brings back many industrial concepts to the urban environment.  Postindustrial cities are widespread through Europe. During their respective de-industrialisation phases, many cities have expelled the factories from their administrative boundaries, and have turned their backs on the manufacturing sector. Bilbao followed a similar path, but has been working for several years in bringing back the industry to the city, not by bringing back the factories themselves, but rather by grouping training and research; creating a network hub where different companies can collaborate in order to access new markets or create strategic partnerships; and finally creating a startup ecosystem.

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    Kick-off meeting in September (Ostrava). Transnational meeting in November (Frankfurt).
    Transnational meetings in September (Torino) and October (Bordeaux).
    Transnational meeting in January (Grenoble). Final event in April (Bilbao).

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    Laura González Méndez. Project coordinator.

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    By mobilising a significant number of stakeholders, this Action Planning network had the mission to rethink the stakeholders’ agendas on business-led economic development and test how the smart specialisation concept might work as a driver. The network pioneered on how the policy concept of smart specialisation applies to the urban environment, more precisely the Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3).

    Smart specialisation at city level
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    Lead Partner : Bilbao - Spain
    • Bielsko-Biala - Poland
    • Tartu - Estonia
    • Timisoara - Romania



    •  Transnational Network Meeting - Bilbao Kick-off Meeting (07/01-07/02)
    • Transnational Network Meeting - Tartu (10/28-10/29)



    • Transnational Network Meeting - Bielsko-Biala (01/21)
    • Transnational Network Meeting - Timisoara (05/11-05/13)


    • AS TRANSFER office stock image

      Facilitating partnership brokering in an Industry 4.0

      An article by AS TRANSFER Ad-hoc Expert, Alison Patridge.

    • AS TRANSFER team during meeting in Paris

      AS TRANSFER - What is going on?

      What has AS TRANSFER been up to until today?

    • AS TRANSFER introductory article

      Boosting the competitiveness: lessons from Bilbao's manufacturing industries

      An article by the AS TRANSFER Lead Expert, Willem van Winden.






    More about AS Fabrik

    Euronews showcases in this video Bilbao As Fabrik as an example of service-based technology for an improved industrial sector.


    The AS Fabrik Transfer Mechanism pilot seeks to share the experience of Bilbao in the AS FABRIK Urban Innovative Actions project  with other European cities, which want to meet the ultimate approaches in the field of the smart specialisation in Industry 4.0 and digital economy. AS FABRIK was conceived to increase the competitiveness of the local KIBS sector and to prepare them to supply the digital transformation demands of the manufacturing sector. An strategic alliance based on knowledge and innovation that aims to improve the local ecosystems of cities, with city businesses, universities, local service providers and entrepreneurs hosted in a tailor-made innovative space.

    Smart specialisation towards industrial digital transformation
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    Head Local Development Department, Lisbon City Council
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  • UIA Transfer Mechanism: five pilot projects ready to take off!

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    Urban Innovative Actions and URBACT come together to put into practices the lessons learnt from the Transfer Networks. 


    Last week, on the 9 March, URBACT's Monitoring Committee have approved five pilot networks to transfer innovative solutions. In 2020, the UIA first call projects came to a close and a proposal was made to test a new URBACT tool which aimed to support the transfer of innovation. The UIA Transfer Mechanism experiment will support a group of EU cities to understand, adapt and prepare to re-use the UIA practice through the co-creation of an investment plan. The 18-month journey of these networks builds on the success of the URBACT Transfer Networks model.


    Following a competitive call, 7 pilot projects were submitted for approval. When considering all the 28 potential city partners, 6 candidates were URBACT newcomer cities from 5 different countries, while 16 cities were also newcomers to UIA. This shows what a unique opportunity this networks represented for cities discovering the universe of EU cooperation! As foreseen by the Terms of Reference, eligible proposals have been assessed by a two assesors from URBACT and UIA. Scroll down to find out more about the five newly approved networks.  

    The URBACT Programme acknowledges and thanks every city that has submitted proposals and used the URBACT Marketplace for this call. URBACT also warmly welcomes the new UIA Transfer Mechanism partners, who will take their first steps in the kick-off meeting on 23 March.








    Smart specialisation in advanced services towards the digital transformation of industry

    Bilbao (ES)

    Bielsko Biala (PL)

    Tartu (EE)

    Timisoara (RO)



    The collaborative management of urban commons to counteract poverty and socio-spatial polarisation

    Torino (IT)

    Budapest (HU)

    Gdansk (PL)

    Cluj-Napoca (RO)



    Unlocking social and economic innovation together

    Birmingham (UK)

    Rotterdam (NL)

    Trapani (IT)

    Poznan (PL)



    Innovative local public-private-citizen partnership for energy governance

    Viladecans (ES)

    Eriges Seraing (BE)

    Nagykanizsa (HU)

    Trikala (EL)



    New skills for new jobs in peri-urban agriculture

    Milan (IT)

    Almere (NL)

    Stara Zagora (BG)

    Vila Nova de Gaia (PT)

    *Bold letters used for UIA cities who will act as Lead Partner



    Interested in the findings of the URBACT Transfer Networks?
    Check all related activities here!





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  • URBACT City Festival 2018 Breakout session: Exploring the role of culture & creativity

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    Fabio Sgaragli, URBACT Lead Expert at Fondazione G. Brodolini says communities can and should play a key role in cities’ creativity and takes a look at pioneering cities like Glasgow, Bilbao and Turin.

    Culture & Heritage

    Cities can stimulate economic growth and improve the quality of life for their citizens by implementing public policies aimed at creating local ecosystems that sustain creativity and innovation. In this respect, policymakers have invested relevant resources in the so-called creative (or culture) – led policies – i.e. public policies aimed at sustaining the creation of territorialized production complexes based on creative activities. This is the case of many European cities like, for instance, Glasgow (UK), Manchester (UK), Bilbao (ES), or Turin (IT), which have implemented effective creative-led policies that contributed to renewing their image and attractiveness limiting the negative consequences of a decline in the city’s industrial activities.

    Creative-led policies could be clustered along a continuum where, on the one side, we have a ‘top-down’ approach (which comprehends projects “developed as part of a conscious top-down planning strategy”) and, on the other hand a ‘bottom-up’ plan, which comprehends projects developed by spontaneous, creative communities. According to existant practice, this latter approach seems to be more effective, since it favours the development of a ‘collaborative atmosphere’, encouraging the spontaneous development of artistic and entrepreneurial activities. Very often, “bottom up” approaches are grounded in “third spaces”, i.e. new type of urban spaces that sometimes are the result of urban regenerations and that have the potential to be transformed into hubs of entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation and new lifestyles, as well as social and cultural integration. These reap the benefits offered by, for instance, emerging creative sectors, digital technologies, the sharing and 'maker' economy, artists and cultural practitioners, and social innovation.

    This breakout session has explored this topics from an open innovation angle, reflecting on the role that creatives, artists and cultural institutions and organisations can play in improving cities, and how local administrations can best engage with these creative communities and support their work. The session has presented concrete case histories and methodologies on how local administrations can perform this role.

    Creative cities

    Milan (IT) is a very good example on how a city can facilitate the emergence of creative communities of actors through social innovation processes, designing urban regeneration strategies that take into account the role of locally-based, spontaneous coalitions of “unusual” actors. The city can already count on many existing cultural mainstream assets (like for instance Fashion Week or Design Week), but has managed in the last few years to engage a variety of new, actors, encouraging bottom up innovations through a mix of policy tools: financial support, regeneration of unused public buildings, stakeholders’ consultations, contamination labs, etc. The city’s administration has been particularly good at attracting private investments in the regeneration of unused public buildings, converting them into hubs for collaboration and innovation, in many different areas of work (from social entrepreneurship to urban food, passing through culture and creativity). This approach has proven successful, as those new types of hubs aggregate creative communities and accelerate their work. Two good examples for social innovation hubs include MareMilano  and Fabriq.

    Lisbon (PT) is enacting the concept of creative bureaucracy by supporting the creation of new enterprises in the cultural and creative industries through a mix of intermediary and support actions. As a support set of actions, the city administration has managed over the years to build an entire supply chain, creating its own incubators and accelerators, labs with a variety of machineries all available for use by young creatives (artists, craftsmen). As a set of support actions, the city enacts the role of intermediary by assisting young creatives in going to market through both online and offline marketplaces and by facilitating the matches between young talents from Lisbon with international opportunities in other innovative contexts.

    Cluj – Napoca (RO) has invested heavily in the development of cultural and creative industries. Indeed, the municipal budget for cultural, youth & social projects rose tenfold over the past years. Funding from the municipality has been oriented to subsidise the independent cultural & youth sector (local NGOs) and sometimes to finance specific projects of major cultural institutions in the city. Besides the direct investment allocated to the cultural operators and institutions, in the past 5 years the City Hall invested almost EUR 40 million into developing the cultural and touristic capacity of Cluj-Napoca. Other creative industries (besides IT), like film, design, media and music have had a few rising star projects in recent years. These are potential key advantages and assets for the city that need solid and long-term support to flourish. Beside this, the City also provides a good example of how to leverage culture and creativity for social inclusion and citizens’ empowerment and wellbeing, through the involvement of stakeholders in neighbourhood- based experiments, where arts and creativity are used as tools to involve citizens of all ages in the improvement of public spaces.

    Below are some conclusions from the breakout session.

    Culture should be understood in its diversity
    There are many forms and layers of “culture” in a city: from the values belonging to the mainstream community of citizens, to the new emerging clusters of creative initiatives driven by informal groups working at the periphery of mainstream culture (from the variety of artistic expressions taking life in different places around a city to the work performed by new type of intermediaries bridging the gap between art and craftsmanship). Cities cannot apply a “one size fits all” approach, but need to take into account this diversity in the design of their policies. In this sense, URBACT Local Support groups can help bring together different stakeholders representing the diversity of cultures in the city to co-design urban policies that favour differentiation and integration, rather than homologation and monopolies.

    Culture boosts innovation
    Culture represents an intangible asset for the city, and can be leveraged to create drivers for innovation and new entrepreneurship. For instance, cities can use their cultural assets (such as historical centres) to foster the connection between culture, creativity and tourism, therefore creating a positive cycle of economic development by attracting external resources.

    Culture engages citizens
    Lastly, culture and arts are very good tools to engage citizens and should therefore be made more accessible. It’s very important to create new types of spaces for collaboration, such as social innovation centres focussed on cultural and creative industries, that can be placed in former abandoned landmark buildings in historical centres. Those new type of spaces, usually governed by public-private partnerships, can be seen as platforms for the match between demand and supply of innovations in the cultural and creative sectors. By creating opportunities for bringing together talent, technologies and creatives, hubs can spark and support the emergence of new projects and ventures, and attract investment to sustain them, resulting in job creation, economic growth, urban regeneration, and new forms of cultural heritage preservation as well as improve citizens’ wellbeing, which means local sustainable urban development.

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  • Cluster development and smart specialisation at city level

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    The cluster approach is acknowledged as the most influential one in modern industrial policy worldwide, and the arrival of smart specialisation has emphasized its influence. But, why? How might local authorities take advantage of this momentum to enhance their role as facilitators of cluster initiatives? What new drivers are now working in the field of cluster development? This article gives us the opportunity to introduce some concepts associated to smart specialisation illustrated by examples from the In Focus network cities.

    Clusters and priority domains

    Carbon neutrality

    The so called domains of smart specialisation are often different from clusters and cluster initiatives.

    Strategies for Smart Specialisation (S3) priority domains are broader than clusters, more challenge-based (e.g. advanced manufacturing, low-carbon economy, health and wellbeing…) while clusters are mostly configured as value chains or a set of product/markets which are linked along specific value chains. They are more oriented to structural change and the cluster´s agenda more centred on business growth.

    "The full potential of clusters and cluster policies will be reached if the smart specialisation strategies integrate cluster policies into a broader transformation agenda for the entire regional economy” (European Commission, 2013).

    IT clusters are called to play a primary role in digital transformation, but it is cluster policy makers and cluster facilitators who should unlock this potential if necessary. That is why Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3) is working (or should work) as a booster for cluster policies in Europe.

    For instance, the Moravian-Silesian region (which de facto works as Ostrava city-region) priorities are the following: advanced materials, industrial automation, mechatronic applications, regenerative medicine, genomics, bioinformatics, waste processing technologies, intelligent energy solutions, integrated safety systems and supercomputing methods. There is nothing about the automotive sector, which is one of the most significant industries in the city-region in terms of turnover and employment. However, the Moravian-Silesian automotive cluster will have much to do in moving some of those priority research domains forward. As triple helix type of collaboration platforms, clusters should have more capability to mobilize actors into relevant agendas leading to innovation and growth.

    Clusters are usually acknowledged as key RIS3 actors, since - in addition - they provide a real capacity to embed this new strategy across sectors.

    In the case of the Basque Country, a number of strategic initiatives are being promoted in order to stimulate cross-cluster dynamics for a number of S3 priority domains and challenges such as advanced manufacturing, digital transformation, circular economy or sustainable mobility.

    That´s the case of AS-FABRIK, “Bilbao Alliance for Smart Specialisation in Advanced Services towards the Digital Transformation of the industry”, which has been awarded Urban Innovative Action. Its purpose is to accelerate the digital transformation of the wider urban economy, in particular manufacturing, through a number of experimental initiatives on new higher education programmes, prototyping and incubation of new business models, and dedicated workspaces. This alliance is promoted by the City of Bilbao, and two Bilbao-based cluster organizations are playing a key role in it: the IT cluster GAIA and the audio-visual cluster EIKEN. This is a good example of URBACT acting as a catalyst: AS-Fabrik was born inside the URBACT Local Group established to run the In Focus project in Bilbao.

    From sector prioritization to specialized diversification

    This capacity of clusters as “bridge builders” has to be exploited as much as possible. Priority sectors and technological domains should be seen as a starting point in the context of smart specialisation not an end in themselves. What RIS3 strategies provide is a roadmap to a sort of “specialized diversification”, which is the real key concept, since S3 is just a long term guide for growth, shaped in a way to avoid path dependency.

    Concepts like cross-innovation and intercluster (cluster-cluster cooperation) were already being used before smart specialisation came up. Nevertheless, what smart specialisation brings for the first time is a single structuring guidance to envision as a whole all the key productive components of a spatial economy (call them clusters, domains…).

    In this context, clusters that are organized around a unique competence or key technology, which can be expanded across many different sectors and value chains are highly appreciated.

    The Bordeaux-based cluster on photonics is a paradigmatic case. Branded as Route des Lasers, it comprises of 170 members, of which 120 are companies, that offer advanced solutions on innovative optics, lasers and photonics to a variety of industrial sectors such as aerospace, healthcare, energy, chemistry, electronics and even the food industry.

    City making clusters

    Cluster-based readings of the urban economy often have a sort of revitalizing effect. They are a precious opportunity to unveil new emerging activities or simply highlight those activities with a special link to the city. These are a kind of “city making clusters”.

    For instance, in San Sebastian, the Surfcity Donostia cluster represents a unique linkage between economic activity and the city; and Bilbao Urban Solutions is a cross-sector business network aims to capitalize the brand Bilbao as a world-class reference in urban transformation.

    Some activities have a special impact on central urban spaces, from the creative economy to advanced tertiary. Concerning the latter, according to the European Cluster Observatory, regions and cities with a strong Knowledge Intensive Business Services (KIBS) sector exhibit higher prosperity and it positively affects innovation performance. It is a cluster with a strong “urban character”, and some cities perform better than others.

    That´s the case of the emerging FinTech scene, which is quite vibrant in Frankfurt and fuelled by several cluster-type networks together with local and metropolitan authorities.

    KIBS is one of the six priority clusters in Bilbao, and Bordeaux is making a big bet for its advanced tertiary sector (70,000 jobs, 200 head offices and the 4th services and financial marketplace in France with a specialisation in trading and risk) that includes a new central business district as part of Bordeaux Euratlantique, which is the largest urban regeneration project now in France.

    The progressive digitalization of both urban management and the urban experience is creating continuous business opportunities. New clusters around the smart city concept are emerging in many cities, closely linked to their corresponding smart city projects.

    In Bucharest, IT cluster Different Angle´s mission is to “promote and support research, innovation and education in order to develop and implement solutions meant to transform Bucharest into a smart city”. It brings together 14 members, mostly software solutions.

    Also in Bucharest, Go Electric cluster - recently founded by the Polytechnic University of Bucharest – concentrates on developing and implementing the concept of electric mobility in the capital of Romania.

    Cities as cluster facilitators

    City authorities should become promoters and facilitators of cluster initiatives in a multi-level governance environment.

    Like Sebastian Schäfer, promoter of Frankfurt Tech Quartier and a serial entrepreneur himself, many businesses do emphasize the expected role from local governments as key animators.

    We (the City of Porto) are an actor in a multi-actor process”, said Ana Teresa Lehman, at that time head of Invest Porto and now appointed as State Secretary of Industry in Portugal during a policy maker dialogue organised during one of the In Focus workshop.

    While regions and central governments are mostly focused on financing, expanding and networking, the role of the city/metropolitan level on cluster policy might be more oriented to impulsion and local stakeholder coordination animation, according to Gabriel Voisin-Fradin, who was formerly strongly involved in Grenoble´s cluster policy and now works for the metropolitan authority, Grenoble-Alpes Métropole.

    Grenoble metropolitan authority is full member of some cluster platforms, even member of their steering committees, and co-financer of cluster structures and some cluster-focused infrastructures.

    Provision of cluster-focused work and innovation spaces is much appreciated. For instance, Bordeaux´s metropolitan authority pays a special attention to the “physical dimension” of cluster development, resulting in business facilities and tech parks oriented to the different cluster´s needs, e.g. Bordeaux Aéroparc (aerospace), Bioparc Bordeaux Métropole (health cluster), Ecoparc (cleantech), Cité de la Photonique (lasers & photonics) and the Cité Numérique (the Digital City), the latter still a work in progress.

    The role of Bordeaux Métropole there is first to make land available, in order to meet the specific industry requirements with regard to location and urbanization works; and second to set up the relevant independent body for real estate management and animation of the cluster-based innovation ecosystem, involving the own cluster organizations as much as possible.

    In the last years, Bordeaux has devoted around 1.5 million Euros annually to cluster development, and 4 member staff from the economic development department were dedicated to liaisons between organisations and stakeholders. This way has led to a more autonomous and consolidated role of cluster organisations, while Bordeaux Métropole staff now focuses more on cluster-cluster cooperation and cross-sector innovation in challenge-based domains like smart mobility, digital transformation, big data and IT for health.

    All these examples show that In Focus has provided a useful platform for cities to learn from each other different ways to support smart specialisation, and creating a bridge between different actors and governance levels.

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  • Can nature make your city climate-resilient?

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    Among the headlines of summer 2017: disastrous floods in the South of England, Istanbul and Berlin, extreme water scarcity in Rome, wild fires damaging homes on the Croatian coast, the Côte d'Azur and elsewhere… The magnitude and frequency of these and other events indicate that climate change is already a reality, and the impacts will be even bigger in the future. Yes, we need to reduce greenhouse gases to limit climate change, but equally urgent: we need to adapt to the remaining impacts. All cities, depending on their geographical position, are likely to experience prolonged and more intensive heatwaves or droughts, more frequent wild fires, coastal flooding, or an increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall with the associated threat of urban flooding, river flooding or landslides. How can cities cope with these huge predicted impacts of climate change in the future, even when they are faced with tight budgets? Can nature be a solution?

    Malmö enjoys its green infrastructure solutions

    Climate adaptation

    Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, has a long tradition of coping with excessive rainwater, going back long before climate change adaptation came on the agenda. The solutions have become even more important now with the projected increase in the number and intensity of extreme rainfall events. Just across the Øresund, Copenhagen was heavily flooded by an immense cloudburst in 2011. Damage costs mounted up to 800 million EUR. Such an extreme event could also hit Malmö. On a smaller scale, the neighbourhood of Augustenborg in Malmö already experienced frequent flooding from an overflowing drainage system in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of extending the sewage system, the city experimented with green and blue infrastructure: vegetation and water. This solution comprises several kilometres of water channels and retention ponds, green roofs on new and retrofitted buildings, and green areas redesigned to better store and drain rain water or delay its discharge. Only excess water is led into the sewage system. As a result, problems with flooding have ceased. At the same time, the area has become much more attractive to its residents.

    The city has used this approach again in Western Harbour, a new residential area built on a former brownfield. It copes with rainwater mostly with the support of the many green roofs, green areas, water channels and retention basins. Water has become a playful feature in the urban design of the area, which was co-created with the future residents right from the planning phase. The design also helps mitigate climate change thanks to low-energy housing and the integrated generation of renewable energy. All of this has made the area extremely popular not just to its residents, but also to lots of other citizens and tourists who enjoy the nice seaside area. This long-term valuable experience and knowledge is an asset that Malmö shares with other cities as a member of the URBACT network Resilient Europe.

    Indeed, nature-based solutions can be a key tool for climate change adaptation. They comprise green infrastructure of all kinds but also solutions that allow natural processes, like floods, to happen without harm, e.g. by building floating or elevated houses. While Malmö is already enjoying the many benefits of green infrastructures in boosting quality of life, Hamburg and Copenhagen have recently calculated that they urgently need nature-based solutions to cope with climate change. They simply cannot extend the technical infrastructure – their sewage system – to the extent that it can cope with the amount of water expected under heavy cloudbursts. Costs for such a solution would be astronomically high, if feasible at all. Instead, green areas, green roofs, storage areas or streets as temporary waterways will take their share of water, storing, draining or delaying the discharge, thus relieving the sewage system. Calculations show that today’s solutions as we know them won’t do the job in Europe’s climate of the future, but a combination with nature-based solutions can work.

    Rotterdam opts for multi-functionality in its dense urban setting

    Rotterdam also has to cope increasingly with water – from a rising sea level, more torrential rain, and river flooding. There are not many places the water can go, as much of the area is low-lying and water needs to be pumped away. That makes the city very vulnerable and dependent on a functioning technical infrastructure. The city needs storing capacity to delay the discharge of water during heavy rainfall, but space is scarce in the Netherlands, where almost every square meter is used either for houses or for agri- and horticulture. In addition, as a dense city, Rotterdam aims to be both energy and transport efficient, and liveable and attractive. In its search for innovative solutions, Rotterdam came up with a range of ideas that are being explored further in the context of the Resilient Europe network. Some are swimming structures like the solar-powered floating pavilion in the Rijnhaven that copes with different water levels, others are roof-top farms or the famous water squares. Their special design offers multiple uses and benefits: Normally, these squares are dry and include playgrounds, sports facilities, nice places to meet or take a break, but under heavy rainfall they fill up with water and protect the surrounding from flooding, and are attractive in a different way.

    Nevertheless, such innovative ways to deal with climate challenges are not always easy to establish. While planners were enthusiastic, citizens were concerned: For example, would the area still be safe for their children? The planners had to find ways to overcome these barriers, build trust and convince. Meanwhile, the first water squares have been established, and they are highly appreciated.

    Combinations of green, grey and soft measures to make Vejle climate-resilient

    Water forms part of the identity of Vejle in Denmark too. It comes from all sides: the rising level of the Baltic Sea, combined with storm surges, elevates the risk of coastal flooding. And the rising number and intensity of heavy rainfall events brings more water from the sky and the streams. Important assets of the city, like the harbour, the city centre and some infrastructure are vulnerable, and the sewage system is not prepared for extremely high water loads. Current measures alone, like the soft measure of today’s well-functioning emergency responses, won’t suffice in the future.

    The city already uses green infrastructure in several areas. However, as great and effective as it is, green infrastructure alone cannot deal completely with future impacts in Vejle, in particular in the event of storm surges. Hence, the city is actively searching for new and innovative solutions combining green, grey and soft measures. Its district project ‘Fjordbyen’ will serve as a laboratory for climate change adaptation and flood control and explore how water can also be an asset for the quality of the area, not just a risk. Innovative solutions where water can be embraced can improve knowledge, economic growth and welfare for local people.

    A common factor for these, and similar examples of climate-resilient solutions in cities across the EU, is that they see climate change adaptation as part of a bigger concept. As well as collaborating in the Resilient Europe URBACT network, Rotterdam, Vejle, Glasgow, Bristol and Thessaloniki are also part of the global 100 Resilient Cities initiative. The concept comprises social cohesion, environment, health and wellbeing, economic prosperity, heritage and participation, and will enhance quality of life.

    Thessaloniki builds resilience on broad participation and collaboration

    In Thessaloniki, more than 40 organisations and 2,000 citizens from across the city have participated in the resilience strategy development. This ongoing co-creation process unleashes the potential for bottom up innovative solutions by residents and communities. Like Rotterdam, urban density is an issue for Thessaloniki with just 2.6m2 of green space per resident compared to the European average of 8-10m2. Nevertheless, the city sees green infrastructure as an important part of the solution. Hence, the city aims to increase the quality, effectiveness and number of benefits by redesigning the limited open space. This creates spaces for social interaction at the same time. It plans solutions such as permeable surfaces, rain gardens, green walls, but also supports urban agriculture in inner courtyards and pocket community gardens that, on top, come at low costs which is very important in times of austerity. These solutions not only involve residents in the design of their area, but encourage them to learn about agriculture and nutrition and may also help to integrate migrants and refugees with diverse agricultural traditions.

    For its valuable pieces of green infrastructure, the city developed the Adopt your Green Spot programme. It facilitates the active engagement of citizens in the maintenance of urban green by taking co-ownership of public green space while keeping public expenditures low. At the same time, this activity educates people, contributes to the local economy, and creates or fosters local communities and social cohesion. Participation, education, community, connectedness, integration and more; these are the important soft factors for building up long-term and effective resilience that technical measures alone cannot do. They are relevant for resilience towards any type of shock and change.

    Transforming cities with nature and innovation into thriving places – Bilbao inspires

    Bilbao, which recently became an URBACT Good Practice city, takes the holistic approach to adaptation a step further. Some decades ago, the city learned painfully that the business-as-usual way wouldn’t lead them out of their deep economic crisis. The city started the process towards a broadly integrated urban development strategy to cope with the complexity of its urban challenges. That continuous process is still ongoing. Over the last 30 years, Bilbao has undertaken a massive transformation. Interventions like the iconic Guggenheim museum, the clean-up of the river, new infrastructures, internationalisation, a focus on excellent design, nice parks and other urban greens, as well as the restoration of the historic centre, reinvented the city that is thriving very well now. In this tradition, the city has recently started adaptation activities that shall contribute to creating a flourishing, climate-resilient city that offers a high quality of life. One example is the regeneration of the Zorrotzaure district, a currently degraded, flood-prone industrial peninsula. A combination of grey and green measures of building and urban design will make it flood-proof and highly attractive as well, thus adding to Bilbao’s overall appearance of a modern, liveable and strong city.

    The cities here present feasible approaches that turned the need for making their city climate-resilient into an opportunity to boost quality of life and transform them into enjoyable and thriving places. The process to get there includes many of the ingredients already used in other urban regeneration and development processes, among them broad participation, good governance, and collaboration across sectors and stakeholders. The examples show that having a great, broadly accepted vision of the future, dedication and commitment to the task, as well as plenty of stamina, are important for a successful transformation process. Nature-based solutions have proved to be a key tool: attractive and multi-functional at reasonable costs, they are a valuable asset that every city can use.

    Birgit Georgi


    Photo 2: Rotterdam ©Rick Ligthelm
    Photo 3: Vejle Fjorbyen ©Finn Byrum
    Photo 4: Thessaloniki ©Municipality of Thessaloniki
    Photo 5: Bilbao ©Municipality of Bilbao

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  • Urban evolution towards resilience


    The successful story of a city's transformation strategy

    Asier Abaunza Robles
    Deputy Councellor of the Urban Planning Area
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    In 80 years, Bilbao has transformed itself from an obsolete industrial city into a knowledge-based economic centre. Investments in infrastructure have successfully rejuvenated the city and resulted in better social cohesion. A wide range of single interventions in the fields of the environment (the clean-up of the Nervion river), mobility (the underground's construction) and culture (the building of the Guggenheim Museum) have been integrated into a coherent vision. The implementation of these projects was possible thanks to a combination of different mechanisms: a perspective on urban development that goes beyond the city's limits, a multisector governance involving both the public and private actors, and an inclusive public participation. 

    The solutions offered by the good practice

    Bilbao's urban evolution is the result of a wide range of single interventions integrated into a common, agreed and coherent city vision. Some interventions stand out for being not only emblematic, but for acting as catalysts in the development process. a) Environmental restoration of the heavily polluted waters of the Nervion river and estuary. b) Elimination of railway barriers and obsolete associated infrastructures, releasing public space for multiple uses c) Improvement of mobility and accessibility by means of the construction of the underground, the tram and new bridges. d) Massive regeneration of urban public space and social housing development in the river banks in Abando- Ibarra, with the construction of the Guggenheim museum as an outstanding landmark. The implementation of those projects was possible thanks to the combination of different mechanisms: a) A supra-municipal perspective of urban development, i.e. consideration of the interventions in the context of Bilbao's metropolitan functional area b) Multisector (horizontal) and multilevel (vertical) governance approach with different formulas and ad hoc public-public and public-private partnerships in place. c) Public administrations at all levels participating and contributing with a land property, resulting from abandoned infrastructures and industrial uses. d) Truly inclusive and open public participation, facilitated by external professionals in the context of the Plan for Urban Zoning.

    Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

    Bilbao's urban evolution has built upon the principles of sustainability, resilience, inclusive urban development and regeneration. Bilbao has used a holistic and integrated approach in order to cope with its social challenges (poverty reduction, social exclusion), its environmental problems and the loss of competitiveness in the context of a deep economic decline. The transformation strategy relies on one hand on the horizontal integration of interventions that combine physical, economic, social, environmental and climate resilience dimensions, and on the other hand vertical integration with a multi-stakeholder cooperation at all levels of government and local players (local administration, civil society, private sector, etc.), between different levels of governance (local, regional national, EU), and finally territorial integration of interventions in the functional urban area represented in the Bilbao Metropolitan Area. The city strategy aims at contributing to the objectives of the EU Operative Program of Sustainable Growth: OT2: Smart City approach in the field of mobility and lighting. OT4: Boosting the transition to a low carbon economy OT6: Rehabilitation of urban areas, and greening of urban spaces towards flood risk reduction OT9: Development of cultural, social and entrepreneur activities in old and disused industrial facilities OT11: Developing institutional capacity, and promoting efficiency in public administration.

    Based on a participatory approach

    Since the post-industrial transformation governance, the lessons learned materialised in a mature, robust, transparent and truly social participatory and inclusive planning process. Open public participation facilitated by external professionals has been incorporated by the municipality in the context of the Plan for Urban Zoning, as a key component of the continuous urban regeneration and transformation process. The progress of the new General Plan of Urban Zoning is open to participation, allowing a redefinition of the city model for the next years. Many participation processes have been carried out, and were nourished with contributions and suggestions concerning the articulation of the city transformation strategy. Bilbao offers a multisector and multilevel governance approach with different formulas in place, depending on the needs of each project and intervention.

    A) Public-public partnership: in the early 1990s, Bilbao Ria 2000, an ad hoc public company, was created for the land management and urban regeneration operations in metropolitan Bilbao. It represented an effective framework to align government, business and the community towards a shared vision for the city.

    B) Public-private partnership. For a project such as the Zorrotzaurre Peninsula, an alternative model was created, namely the Commission Management.

    What difference has it made?

    The experience of Bilbao as a comprehensive city project, incrementally executed through more than 25 urban projects over 30 years and still ongoing, has achieved a profound transformation of the city. Bilbao has significantly improved its environment and quality of life, strengthened its social cohesiveness and cultural vibrancy and also increased its economic competitiveness. Strong GDP growth: from € 6 695m in 1980 to € 66.208m in 2009. Industrial strength: Creation and/or consolidation of Advanced Technology Centres such as Tecnalia and IK4. Investment in R+D: 2.1% of the GDP, exceeding the EU average Good Governance: zero debt. Tourist evolution: from 24.302 visitors in 1994 to 734.215 in 2012. More than a 50% increase in visitor numbers between 1997-2012, linked to the city's cultural services and attractiveness.

    Why should other European cities use it?

    The good practice offered by Bilbao provides evidence of the effective performance of single interventions implemented over the years, which interrelate among them towards the construction of a common and agreed vision of the city. Bilbao has faced, and faces today, the urban challenges common in other cities across Europe (i.e. improving environmental quality and climate resilience, social cohesion and inclusion, economic prosperity and quality of life in general terms). However, the most interesting aspect of Bilbao's good practice is that it also offers an urban development pathway with key elements that have been proved successful towards sustainable, territorially coherent, socially accepted, resilient, long-term and still ongoing transformation. Those key elements are: • An integrated and holistic approach to achieve economic, social and physical transformations; • A multi-stakeholder management approach: considering ad hoc formulas attending different needs at different moments in the process; • A feasible financial operation: public landowners releasing land in central areas of the city, investing in construction and/or housing. Capital gains obtained are invested in regeneration of former industrial areas; • A robust, truly participative and sustainable public policy framework. In this context, the Plan for Urban Zoning assures, consolidates and allows a common, long-term and coherent vision for the future in the city.

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