Collaboration with communities is key for urban transformation

The role of university research and education in the reconstruction of cities was the theme of this year’s anniversary conference of the Magna Charta Universitatum. The University of Lodz, Poland, hosted the conference in a city in which the energy and creativity that is fuelling its post-industrial renaissance is everywhere on display.

The University of Lodz is itself an active contributor to that urban transformation, both through its education of young people and through its engaged research.

Like the other universities that are members of the European University of Post-Industrial Cities (UNIC), Lodz understands that last term to mean research that “aims to improve, understand or to investigate issues of public interest where societal partners are active collaborative participants in the research process”.

In addressing themselves to urban renewal, most conference delegates seemed implicitly or explicitly to endorse this model of research – not surprisingly perhaps, since the 2020 revised Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU 2020) begins with an acknowledgement that universities are responsible for the needs of the world and of their communities in particular, while also pointing to an understanding of collaboration that goes beyond “collegial [that is to say exclusively academic] networks of scientific enquiry” to include those communities themselves.

A gratifying case study focused on such collaboration was provided by Gian Luca Morini from the University of Bologna, who described the role played by his school of engineering in reconstruction efforts after serious flooding in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy last spring.

University research teams, working in partnership with community leaders, were able to facilitate restoration of vital infrastructure and thereby recovery of the social and economic fabric of the region.

Partners in the co-creation of knowledge

Notwithstanding such encouraging examples, as more than one speaker noted, community partnerships have not always been understood in universities to be a proper and sufficient basis for research.

Until quite recently even institutions with a strong sense of civic obligation were shaped by an essentially paternalistic spirit, “raining down wisdom” on communities, as Ed Brinksma, chair of the UNIC leadership board, put it, rather than seeking to collaborate.

The model of the City Lab, employed by UNIC but increasingly common around the world – as in Vancouver’s CityStudio, where the city partners with five post-secondary institutions to address urban challenges – requires a very different orientation on the part of universities.

They must be willing to be partners in the co-creation of knowledge and to collaborate with community groups in identifying and then overcoming obstacles to societal well-being.

Brinksma made the additional point that this change in perspective forces universities to think and to reorganise themselves in multidisciplinary ways, and it may also require them to embrace potentially profound changes in scientific methodology.

The importance of multidisciplinarity was underlined by John Austin from the Brookings Institution, who reminded delegates of the key role universities have played in urban renewal in the Rust Belt of the United States.

There, the contribution of universities in research and education has not been exclusively technical but has been informed by a broader liberal arts perspective, the latter contributing significantly to economic growth and development.

Austin reminded delegates that communities damaged by industrial decline are not unlike those disrupted by violence and war: the impact on people is no less important than the impact on infrastructure, and both must be addressed by universities’ engaged research and teaching.

This point enabled delegates to draw an immediate connection between case studies of the US Rust Belt and Emilia-Romagna, on the one hand, and university cities in Ukraine on the other.

The spirit of free inquiry

The conference had opened with a focus on the higher education landscape in Poland and in Ukraine, where free enquiry – critical to both democracy and to the rejuvenation of cities – is under threat because of the Russian invasion.

Several speakers drew attention to the way in which the spirit of free inquiry is both a defining attribute of universities and a practical requirement if those institutions are to be a positive influence in society and in urban reconstruction more specifically.

MCU 2020, the new Magna Charta Universitatum which affirms the fundamental principles upon which the mission of universities should be based, put it this way: “Intellectual and moral autonomy is the hallmark of any university and a precondition for the fulfilment of its responsibilities to society.”

The other precondition for success is, as stated, a capacity to collaborate, not only with other universities but with communities and this is even more important in light of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Elfithri Rahmah’s presentation on the “Role of Research and Education in Addressing Water Security” was focused on Sustainable Development Goal 6 (Clean water and sanitation), but like almost every other contribution to the conference it presupposed the primacy of Sustainable Development Goal 17 (Partnerships for the goals).

UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme aims to foster education and capacity development with regard to water. But to accomplish its goals it must work through various networks, including water-related UNESCO chairs in universities worldwide and UniTWIN – University Twinning and Networking Programme – clusters. National committees provide input from communities around the world.

The conference in Lodz concluded with a ceremonial signing of MCU 2020 by more than 30 institutions. That act powerfully reinforced the commitment to collective action and openness to diverse partnerships and co-creation that had been heard repeatedly in the preceding days.

It was invigorating to witness the united resolve of institutions from so many parts of the world, but also, in the Polish city around us, to witness university-driven reconstruction underway.

Patrick Deane is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University in Canada, president of the governing council of the Magna Charta Observatory, and vice-president of the International Association of Universities.