More than 70% of Europeans live in cities, making the European Union one of the most urbanized areas in the world. A s much as the cities are considered to be the engines of European economy with extensive job opportunities, and the educated population they attract, they are also places where the social and environmental challenges are concentrated, including mobility, sustainable land and energy use, inclusion of migrants, digital transformation and poverty. In recent weeks, we have also felt the impact of dense population on public health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Undoubtedly, universities hold great potential to act as key actors in fostering dialogue between regional and urban stakeholders, to initiate and support joint action towards creation of sustainable, green and “smart” cities that are resilient and able to respond quickly to current and future challenges.
Despite various initiatives, such urban engagement has not yet become a self-evident part of higher education study programs, as academic institutions often do not have the appropriate strategies, sufficient resources or knowledge for permanent and systematic involvement in urban initiatives. Universities are often located in cities and are an important part of them, so they represent the future precisely because of the students and the knowledge they hand over and create. However, they need access to technologies, a space to experiment and test theoretical knowledge, through which they can find their organic niche in the urban ecosystem. Therefore, partnerships with NGOs, research and innovation laboratories, public and private companies, and municipalities and city administrations are crucial.
In the UniverCity Action Lab (UCITYLAB) project, co-funded by the EU Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships program, we aim to provide partner organizations with the tools, knowledge and skills with which higher education organizations will strengthen their societal role and contribute more intensively to finding solutions to urban challenges. At the same time, they will develop their social and environmental responsibility and encourage innovation among students and strengthen their skills to actively address those societal challenges. Four European universities engage various urban partners in the study process: municipalities, NGOs, regional development centres and companies that provide support to student groups in researching and finding new approaches to urban challenges. In implementing the Urban Challenge program, IRI UL cooperates with the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, and the participating students test anthropological research methods on two topics important for urban environments: mobility and waste management.
The issue of sustainability and resilience of cities intertwines environmental, economic and social factors, making it increasingly clear that an interdisciplinary approach is needed to build flexible and inclusive cities. The Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030 states that: “Planning cities sustainably means creating professional and business opportunities, safe and affordable housing, and building flexible societies and economies. It includes investing in public transport, creating green public spaces, and improving urban planning and management in participatory and inclusive ways.” The precise meaning of the concept of “sustainability ”needs to be critically considered, especially in the current global pandemic situation. It is almost certain that the assumptions about economic growth “with a green touch” will change radically in the future. One of the possible approaches is to strengthen the principle of circularity in various economic areas (for example in the renovation of buildings, which is our topic in focus in the Drive 0 project).
As part of the UCITYLAB project, European students from various fields strengthen their research skills, connect with experts in the fields of city administration and specific urban issues, and experience working in interdisciplinary teams. The project contributes to strengthening the urban network and the cooperation of universities with urban actors, which will be crucial in the future for finding new, more equal, ways of living in urban jungles.