I am standing on a podium in Baku, Azerbaijan, in front of 46 city Mayors, gathered together from all corners of the country. There is a sense of optimism and drive in the air – a desire for novelty and moving beyond business as usual. At the same time, on the other side of the Eastern Partnership, a meaningless war rages on in Ukraine – it’s second month in. It is within this context, with much sadness and optimism, that we begin our journey, a journey that seeks to expand options for local decision makers in a highly uncertain world. It is an invitation to changein a rapidly changing world.
The EU & UNDP initiative, Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG), explores new trajectories of growth and reimagining cities across the Eastern Partnership. With a network of more than 300 towns and cities in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the initiative will onboard a cohort of more than 30 members in 2022 to start a mentoring and seed-fund journey to explore what ‘revitalization’ could imply within their contexts.
Human settlements are unruly things. Organic and non-linear. There is a growing realization that there are no clear-cut solutions for planning and delivering economic prosperity, and attracting people and investment. The cities and towns in the EaP are no exception. Many struggle with dilapidated and antiquated industries, lack financial resources, and the need to re-thinking economic development.
For example, the city team in Rustavi, Georgia, which joined the M4EG network and is now part of the programme called Urban Imaginaries – reimagining life in the city, stressed that real societal change calls for a shift in attitude and skills, with a need to mobilize the entire municipality. But before the skills comes the mindset, of moving beyond a controlling approach of knowing what might happen to creating a space that allows ideas to emerge. It is a brave statement, and one that we are curious to see how we can learn from. Urban Imaginaries issupported by our partner Centre for Public Impact and inspired in part by the City Expert Gabriella Gomez-Mont.
International development is riddled with ‘technical solutions’, and to some extent, even today, it continues to use a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to crafting ‘solutions’. But transformational change calls for embracing a novel underlying philosophy or narrative that the human world and experience is made up of various interacting systems. To intervene successfully in solving unemployment, for example, we will get better results if we understand systems behavior so as to know how, where and when to intervene. (OECD System Thinking Report, 2020)
Charentsavan, a small city in Armenia, struggles, as most communities, with ‘chronic’ issues. It’s an urban space with close to 20,000 inhabitants and was founded in the 1940s by the Soviet Government to accommodate workers at a nearby hydroelectric power plant. Since then, its economy has largely been defined by heavy industries, and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union many of its industrial plants are now no longer viable. In a M4EG workshop, a Charentsavan representative shared that one key challenge they face is the aesthetics of the city and its attractiveness. With the rise of private construction around the town, the new environment is expanding unaligned to any particular design or vision for the city. There are technical regulations in place, but that can only do so much without a shared vision and plan for the wider community.
In 2021, 117 members applied to take part in the M4EG learning journey – each place with its unique enabling environment and bottlenecks for positive change. The M4EG applies its specifically designed Urban Makeover concept, where both the tangible elements such as economic sectors and livelihood opportunities are combined with the softer or intangible aspects, taking into account the need for belonging, people’s hopes and dreams of a better future, and the relationships between people and place. Every community, town and city have their own identity and underlying narrative that can help build momentum for change.
As I write, the city of Mykolaiv is at the frontlines of the battle in Ukraine. A few weeks before the war, the M4EG team, together with our partner Chora Foundation, facilitated a sensemakingsession with the city government as part of the first phase in designing the city’s portfolio for change. Mykolaiv is a port city with a strong identity as a transport and shipbuilding hub on the Black Sea. In the context of the green and digital shift, “brown” industries will have to change including to better protect the strained natural environment around the city, yet the sense of pride in being a ‘marine hub’ and related historical and cultural heritage will have to be part of that ‘solution’, if peace can prevail.
In Khirdalan, a bordering city near the capital, Baku, we sit down with the Mayor, a young and dynamic man, who eagerly shares many ideas on how to create alternative revenue sources for the city, including petitioning the government for collecting a percentage from advertisement costs on billboards in the city. The Mayor wishes to use the M4EG platform to share and collect such ideas from other Mayors and to better position the city to attract additional investment and revenue. As we brainstorm with the Mayor, the idea of creating informal breakfast gatherings among the city leaders in the country materializes – a space for the Mayors to share lessons and help create a stronger narrative that local authorities are indeed closest to citizens and residents’ needs and concerns and can have a larger role to play in supporting the central government’s responsibilities.
With a high number of refugees coming into Moldova from Ukraine, many of the 45 members of the M4EG network in the country are at the forefront of the refugee response. Moldova’s host communities have quickly and commendably responded to the refugees’ needs, but their capacities and resources are stretched. They will have to adapt to find smart ways to respond to the emerging challenges and linking them to the daily goings-on in their cities and towns, not to mention plans and visions for the future.
It’s a 2,500 km stretch to get from the western part of the Eastern Partnership to its most eastern part, and the interest and demand for re-inventing cities of tomorrow is found all over this route.
Going forward, the M4EG will have to continue building its adaptive muscle to best support the different challenges and realities faced by its members in the Eastern Partnership.
Stay tuned for future intel coming from the Mayors for Economic Growth network and reach out to us if you want to hear more or partner with us (firstname.lastname@example.org).