EU Offers Millions to Cities Willing to Innovate

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award. Park 20 / 20, A Cradle to Cradle Inspired Master Plan by William McDonough + Partners / DPI Animation House
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award. Park 20 / 20, A Cradle to Cradle Inspired Master Plan by William McDonough + Partners / DPI Animation House

More than 70 percent of Europe’s population lives in cities, and that number is expected to grow to 80 percent by 2050. As European cities further densify, they must find new solutions to ever-worsening problems, like congestion, pollution, and poverty. To stay ahead of these challenges, cities must remain the nexus of innovation. This is the goal of the European Commission (EC)’s Urban Innovative Actions program, which seeks bold projects that can push forward innovation in urban planning and design throughout the Union. Projects, which must be submitted by an urban government with a population of at least 50,000 people, can receive up to €5 million over three years. From now through 2020, the EC will be offering €372 million for these urban experiments.

In the program’s inaugural year, the Commission seeks projects that focus on renewable energy, the integration of migrants and refugees into European society, jobs and skills development, and urban poverty.

To be considered, projects must “not be part of your normal activities,” the EC tells city governments. In fact, the projects must be something experimental, never before implemented in Europe. Innovation accounts for 40 percent of scoring. Projects must also show that they have real multi-stakeholder partnerships; a clear plan for measuring results; a scalable and replicable approach; and a solid strategy for implementation, with a realistic budget.

A general lack of urban experimentation is why the EC created the program. As the EC explains, “many urban planners and authorities have proposed new and innovative ideas, but these solutions are not always put into practice. One of the reasons is that urban authorities are reluctant to use their own financial resources to fund ideas that are new, unproven, and hence risky. Budget constraints therefore limit the capacities of urban authorities for experimentation.”

The Commission hopes to identify those city governments with the “imagination to design, prototype, test and eventually scale-up novelties that citizens and users would perceive as having an added value, therefore providing a wider, if not completely new, market for them.”

While there will surely be some failed experiments, it’s an exciting chance to test new approaches that can have lasting impact and spread far beyond Europe’s borders. The rest of the world’s cities can only benefit from the EC’s ambitious investment in the future.

Urban governments should submit proposals by March 31.

Another convention-buster is the annual Buckminister Fuller Challenge, “socially-responsible design’s highest award,” which seeks original submissions from multi-disciplinary teams of designers, planners, artists, and scientists. In 2014, SCAPE landscape architecture won the $100,000 prize for their innovative Living Breakwaters, an oyster reef restoration project. This year, for the first time, the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) will also offer a separate student award. Submissions are due March 1.

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