Turku Urban Research Program: Providing Research-Based Policy Advice to Municipality

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In the World Happiness Report 2019, Finland has topped the ranking as the happiest country in the world for the second time in a row. Among various reasons presented in the report, government clearly holds the key to their citizens’ wellbeing. The city of Turku recognizes its responsibility, and, in its current city strategy, Turku 2029, identifies sustainable promotion of its residents’ wellbeing and competitiveness as its primary goal. To achieve the goal, a joint effort of academia representatives and city officials in supporting the Turku Urban Research Program stands out as an effective mechanism to back up the city strategy. The Research Program positions itself as a knowledge brokerage partnership seeking to facilitate research-based policy advice.

What’s it all about?

The Turku Urban Research Program is a flexible network of city officials and universities, i.e. University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University, guided by a steering committee and managed by a jointly-appointed research director (a ‘knowledge broker’). The Research Program was launched to tackle urban challenges, make good use of emerging opportunities as well as support the City of Turku in implementing but also constantly critically reviewing its strategy. The City of Turku believes that the city’s growth should be based on an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable foundation.

The Research Program supports the City’s developmental attempts in the following areas:

  1. competitiveness (conditions and factors of economic success, increasing attractiveness, collaboration with other cities and institutions, etc.);
  2. welfare & wellbeing (living conditions, social inclusion, integration of immigrants, etc.);
  3. sustainable development (land use & planning, housing, transport, climate change, etc.);
  4. good governance (public services, local democracy enhancement, etc.).

All in all, research co-operation supports knowledge-based management of the municipality’s development initiatives in all strategic fields.

What is actually being done?

The Research Programme provides grants to research projects that meet both the city’s and the universities’ needs. Projects are either initiated through funding competitions or assigned directly.

In the open funding competitions, applicants have to pass two rounds. During the first round, their projects are reviewed by a panel of representatives from the universities, the city administration and other potential funders. The projects are assessed against scientific merit, applicability, originality of their contributions, etc. In the second round, the applicants are expected to present their final research plan having incorporated the feedback received from the reviewers. For each winning project, the City of Turku nominates a steering group that gets supported by the research director with fostering information exchange.

In 2018, the programme distributed €600.000 research funding through a funding competition. The topics of the granted projects were housing choices, intergenerational social exclusion, transnational networks of Turku as a university town (1640–1828), temporary uses supporting innovation in science park setting, novel urban services enabled by 5G networks, and urban climate policy.

In case of a direct assignment, the knowledge broker helps practitioners to define a reasonable assignment and negotiate the details with the researchers. When an individual/team has an initiative to share, applicants are welcome to approach the research director with their proposal that gets evaluated on its fit for the needs of the city.

In addition, the Research Program holds annual competitions with 10 grants for Master theses in Urban Research, available for students studying at the University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University.

What are the interim results?

The Research Program has been in place since 2009, and it has been renewed for the third cycle (2019-2023). The impact, generated by the Research Program, primarily concerns research and policy advice. By 2019, more than 100 research projects – all done in co-operation with the municipality – have been funded or co-funded by the Research Program. City administration applies the research results to improve their decision-making and strengthen the impact of their development initiatives. The Research Program has considerably strengthened co-operation between the city administration and universities.

The Research Program has had an effect on education as well. It has served as a trigger to create Urban Studies Minor (seminars and courses of 25-35 ECTS) offered to students at the University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University. The seminars and courses are expected to stimulate students to specialize in urban research within their majors.

Photo credits: Jarkko Mänty via Pixabay

This blog article is written with reference to a good practice case study report prepared as part of the Erasmus+ University City Action Lab (UCITYLAB) Project.