These questions are posed in the First Synthesis Report of the ESPON 2013 programme that is to be launched in Brussels at the end of October. ESPON is the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion. Its work covers the EU plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and also takes in analysis of the Western Balkans and Turkey.

The Report covers findings from the first round of research studies. These include projects on cities, rural development, climate change, energy risk and demography. The picture that emerges is that:

  • Europe’s position in the world is changing: there is not only the economic challenge from Asia and the Americas; other challenges with a global dimension include an aging labour force and demographic change, energy supply and demand, and the possible impacts of climate change.
  • For the EU’s recovery strategy, Europe 2020, to realise its full potential it needs to be translated into action at national scale and carried through by regions and cities.
  • Europe’s competitiveness depends greatly on its global cities and metropolitan regions, where enterprises can benefit from agglomeration economies and networks linking global market places.
  • Accessibility of regions and cities is increasing through infrastructure investments which benefit the economic competitiveness of these places. Europe’s high-speed rail network could play a greater role in the development of a polycentric Europe: still too often national networks do not look beyond borders.
  • Vulnerability to climate change impacts is a concern especially in regions where adaptation and mitigation strategies are not sufficiently in place or effectively enforced.
  • Good governance and territorial co-operation are vital at every geographical scale, including partnerships at the level of city-regions and larger macro-regions, as well as across policy sectors.  

Connections matter

Two themes in the Report will be of particular interest to members of the Innovation Circle network. One is the importance of “Connectivity”, in other words of being on networks, whether physical networks such as road or broadband, or virtual networks such as those that link businesses together and to their customers.  The Report argues that “Liveable and smart places have good connections and an attractive environment. Metropolitan regions need good accessibility to each other and to global markets. The number and quality of connections to hubs and urban centres are important preconditions for efficient functional integration.”

The Trans-in-Form INTERREG project that some IC members are involved in picks up the theme of attractive environment. It will deliver a number of urban design interventions to make spaces and buildings in towns in the project look better. However, connections and flows are not so easy to measure or manipulate. It is notable that despite over a decade of advocacy of polycentric development and new urban rural relations by the leading territorial development institutions across Europe, we still have little information about functional connections between places (other than maps of transport networks and measures of time-distance relations between places). There are some new findings in the ESPON Synthesis Report about business networks, for example, but in general regional policy makers are often operating on hunches rather than real evidence about the internal and external links that matter in their region. 

Rural Futures
The report demonstrates that “Europe has many smart rural regions that are well connected to the global economy, accessible to urban centres and have turned local assets into development opportunities.” Some innovative rural regions are able to profit from their global connectivity. Innovative and high-tech companies with worldwide trading and links can be found in rural areas in Finland, Norway, southern Germany and other parts of Europe. Also the natural resource base of rural areas allows them to be players in global markets, linking directly to clients around the world. The report particularly emphasises the successes of regions in the Nordic countries, which have overcome their peripheral location by capitalising on strengths in relation to ICT, research, educational and environmental opportunities. It argues that “The diversity and economic potential of rural Europe can however be even best utilised in an overarching rural development approach embracing the strengths of all sectors present. This means moving beyond the traditional view of the countryside as a place mainly defined by agriculture.”

One area used as an example of the new countryside is Jönköping County in the South of Sweden. It is accessible to three major cities, though parts of the region are not so easy to reach. This is a common picture – accessibility varies within a region as well as between regions. The regional level of government is seeking to tackle rural depopulation by developing a hierarchy of service centres at different scale, and by improving links to urban centres. Thus the path forward is partly through more commuting but also more flexible patterns of employment for rural residents. There are many small entrepreneurial businesses. The primary sector only employs around 4% of the people.

A rural area’s success is more and more dependent on its ability to participate in the more profitable elements of globalised economic activities, and to avoid the exploitation associated with secondary labour markets, in other words the casual work and low paid jobs.. This means implanting the knowledge economy and building a “new rural economy”, which is nowadays the dominant source of rural employment and incomes across much of northern Europe. However, the Baltic States and others who joined the EU in 2004 or later still have some way to go in this transition.

Rural business clusters are important to forging the new rural economy. They provide a new model of economic development for rural areas in which development is a collaborative process involving government at multiple levels, companies, teaching and research institutions and institutions for collaboration. As such, competitiveness is a bottom-up process in which individuals, firms, and institutions take and share responsibility to address the specific barriers faced by their region and companies in a given market and not just the general challenges. The ESPON Report argues that “in delivering the Europe 2020 strategy, local and regional governments and development agencies across rural Europe will need to look at their own specific situations and see how they might work with other partners to develop rural business clusters.”

Outward-looking local know-how is needed

Local know-how, sense of ownership and buy-in are fundamentally important to the implementation of policy made at higher levels. EU Cohesion Policy as well as the work with the Territorial Agenda put a strong emphasis on local development potentials and place based approaches. However, the implementation ultimately depends on local politicians, officials, businesses and communities. The need for evidence-based and effective policy-making is emphasised throughout the ESPON report. As the Report says: “Regional development and cohesion has an economic dimension and a social dimension as well as an important environmental dimension. It involves a careful weighing and trade-off between what may at times be conflicting demands. While all territorial strategies and policies have boundaries in space, it is necessary to look beyond boundaries and to appreciate the importance of other places and the connectedness to other nodes and networks.”

Cliff Hague is the Team Leader for the UK ESPON Contact Point, and is co-author (with Kai Böhme) of the First Synthesis Report of the ESPON 2013 Programme. For more detail about ESPON visit