The City Science Initiative: strengthening science and research for urban policies Tech and the City – Reggio Emilia

Launched in February 2019 by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) in collaboration with DG RTD (now DG R&I), DG REGIO and the City of Amsterdam, the City Science Initiative (CSI) is a pilot project as part of the Community of Practice on Cities. It aims at strengthening the ways in which research and science can be used to address urban challenges, thus developing a structured approach to evidence-informed policymaking at the city level. Because most societal challenges in Europe are intrinsically urban and can be addressed better thanks to science and innovation, the CSI precisely tackles the need to consolidate the science and policy interface at the urban level. Simultaneously, the initiative provides an opportunity for municipalities, city networks, experts, DGs and services of the European Commission to build a stronger cooperation. Indeed, it brings these professionals together to work and explore ways through which research, science, technology and innovation can inform city policies. This cooperation enables to explore the needs and priorities of cities in terms of evidence-based policy making, and in particular the potential of the European Commission to support this effort. The creation of the CSI attracted much interest from major European cities from the start. Thus, the initiative now promotes and facilitates a European network of City Science Offices (CSO) sharing their experience and good practices on the front of science and innovation for urban policy.

Since the CSI has started, several meetings have been organized, in Amsterdam or Brussels, to set up the initiative, and then to reflect on the next steps. Under the leadership of five European cities, the CSI is currently addressing five thematic urban areas from the perspective of science-based innovation and policies. The city of Paris tackles the issue of air quality and the city of Hamburg focuses on circular economy. Mental health issues are addressed by the city of Thessaloniki and the city of Cluj-Napoca’s working topic is sustainable mobility. The city of Reggio of Emilia addresses Tech and the City through new forms of collaborative management and co-governance of digital urban infrastructure with the support of LabGov.City as City Science Office.

Since 2015, the city of Reggio Emilia has initiated a policy strategy aimed at developing an inclusive, collaborative, creative city by relying on the enabling features of digital tools and infrastructures, which are key assets for sustainable urban development. This approach, which has later been called the Tech and the City approach as part of the CSI, builds on advanced theories of urban co-governance, the city as a commons or “co-cities” theory. It is based on the cooperation of public, private, knowledge, social and civic actors (the so-called quintuple helix), established and regulated through public-community and public-private-community partnerships agreements enabling sustainable innovations and scientific experimentations in the city. The approach entails a strong focus on the valorization of local know-how and the recognition of community stewardship rights (rights of use, co-management, co-ownership) over urban critical assets and infrastructure, the so-called urban commons. In 2015, the city of Reggio Emilia implemented the “neighbourhoood as a commons” program, a policy tool which inaugurated neighbourhood labs as co-design moments in social centres to define urban innovation projects with the actors of the neighbourhood. The labs result in the signature of citizenships pacts that sets terms, conditions, investments to implement sustainable innovation projects. The scientific methodology used in this program to put in place a wide variety of community-based urban innovation and experimentation projects finds a particular resonance within the CSI now. The most successful project developed as part of the neighbourhood labs is the Coviolo Wireless initiative which has successfully developed a broadband infrastructures in an underserved neighbourhood, extending broadband access to city inhabitants. The CSI enabled to scale up this approach and methodology in cooperation with LabGov.City as CSO, in particular through the “Collaboratorio Reggio Emilia” process, a city-wide innovation hub. It has the ambitious plan of setting up a collaborative urban innovation program aimed at experimenting a model of community-based sustainable urban development to address the challenges of digital transition and climate change in the city.

In the unusual context of the COVID19 crisis, the city of Reggio Emilia has even further strengthened the commons-based approach and started to elaborate a strategic direction post COVID19, based on a large online survey called “Reggio Emilia, come va?”, (“Reggio Emilia, how are you doing?”). Answered by more than 5,000 city inhabitants between the 17th of April 2020 and the 12th of May 2020, this questionnaire has helped the municipality to understand how citizens have experienced the crisis, and what are their priorities the future. The municipality of Reggio Emilia made this instrument available to any local administration interested in using it, free of charge and according to the international criteria of the Creative Commons. The English version will soon be able for download here. The analysis of the results of the survey enabled the municipality to rethink access to digital tools and infrastructure and redesign services to help the production of social and economic value by adapting the scale of public policy intervention to the new needs that emerged during the health emergency.

Cities being in the front line in responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic, the CSI took a key role to bring together information on the policies and measures designed in this period, showcasing the relation between science and policy. Virtual workshops were organized by each of the leading cities on the thematic issues already mentioned. On June 22nd, 2020, the city of Reggio Emilia hosted the Tech and the City workshop to present its approach and discuss with cities and key stakeholders how to integrate science-based evidences and results, as well as R&I best practices to provide a better policy framework for cities willing to invest on public-community partnerships to tackle digital challenges through science and innovation. The event was structured in three panels, the first one offering science-based evidence from cities, the second one from European urban initiatives, and the last one took the form of a roundtable discussion between European stakeholders on the potential for a policy uptake on the evidence presented. The discussion highlighted the importance of urban innovation brokers such as co-laboratories or urban living labs for the development of public-community partnerships. European stakeholders from various DGs of the European Commission also emphasized the key role of the involvement of community for good governance at the European level. Finally, a crucial point that emerged from the workshop is the need to break down silos and build bridges between European urban initiatives to grasp the opportunities offered by the CSI in terms of experimenting innovative policy solutions for urban sustainable development.