UIA has been developed ‘to identify and test new solutions which address issues related to sustainable urban development and are of relevance at Union level’. Can you tell us what are the reasons that such an initiative was put in place?
The challenges facing cities have become more and more complex and the need for new ideas and approaches is therefore stronger than ever, hence the need for increased innovation. This push towards innovation is not an easy process. The collective aversion to risk has led to a situation in which innovative ideas are blocked, filed away or simply forgotten before they are properly tested. Urban Innovative Actions were therefore created to address and overcome this aversion. The European Parliament and the Council, with the adoption of the legislative framework for the European Structural and Investment Funds 2014-2020, decided to ring-fence EU funds for innovative actions in the field of sustainable urban development. With this decision, a new opportunity to trigger innovation was introduced in addition to those offered to cities through the 2014-2020 programmes. This new initiative allows financing projects on topics selected by the Commission taking into account the most important issues for cities. The topics were chosen based on the 12 urban themes of the recently adopted Pact of Amsterdam, "Urban Agenda for the EU". But of course other new themes could also emerge.
UIA is managed by the Commission through indirect management with the Region Hauts-de-France, what were the reasons for this choice of management?
Management of an initiative like the Urban Innovative Actions is quite complex. The Commission needed to find a trustworthy partner with whom it could share these responsibilities. The Region Hauts-de-France has a long and sound experience with the management of INTERREG programmes. We are very glad that they have accepted to embark on this initiative with us. The Region is efficiently using its experience and knowledge on the ground in the organization of the calls, selection and monitoring of projects, and finally for capturing and disseminating knowledge.
UIA received 378 applications for the first call for proposals and supported 17. Now that you are seeing innovative ideas being translated into reality, what are your first impressions?
The number of applications is very impressive. We were able to support 17 cities, and we are aware that there were many more cities which also prepared good projects. The implementation of the 17 projects has just started. We see a lot of enthusiasm and engagement: all the selected projects bring very interesting new ideas and create new ways of working and I am confident that they will achieve the results they have set. They will not be alone. They will receive all possible support from the Region, the UIA Permanent Secretariat and also my services in their journey. We are looking forward to going and visiting these cities and seeing the impact of these projects, e.g. how unaccompanied young refugees are integrated in Antwerp, or how new start-ups and peri-urban areas develop in the context of the promotion of the agri-food sector in Milan.
And finally, now the Initiative is up and running, what are your expectations for it?
The second call for proposals, focusing on circular economy, integration of migrants and refugees and urban mobility, has just been closed. Soon, we will see the implementation of another group of innovative projects on the ground. The more of these projects we will have and the higher the variety of cities involved in the initiative, the more we will learn about the contribution of the local level to the challenges which are also global challenges for our societies, e.g. climate change, competitiveness, social integration and poverty. What we learn from them should then reach cities across the European Union facing similar challenges, and will also feed into the broader process of the Urban Agenda for the EU. Improving EU cities and citizens' living conditions is the final goal that the EU Institutions, Member States and cities can achieve together.