ESPON - Supporting policy-making with territorial evidence - 15 years and beyond

Without the evidence provided by a programme like ESPON, we could make the mistake of choosing the wrong priorities and jeopardising Europe's future.

 With these words, the President of the Committee of the Regions Karl-Heinz Lambertz opened the ESPON conference that marked 15 years of efforts to support policy making with territorial evidence.

Stakeholders are witnessing about how ESPON Evidence supports policy-making

These efforts have paid off: ESPON insights supported a range of policy processes and are traceable in a number of documents such as Operational Programmes of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), national, regional and local development strategies. Delegates from EU level, Member States and regions reported that ESPON brought about impactful changes, and this culture of evidence-based territorial policymaking needed continuity. This recurring message tied in with the opening of President Lambertz, who stressed that today, more than ever, Europe needed territorial evidence to prove the usefulness of its "traditional" policies”. He said: "Today, thanks to ESPON, we have more robust empirical evidence at our disposal to consolidate the argument that focusing more systematically on the territorial dimension is a win-win approach for the European Union and the Europeans, by promoting overall EU prosperity and by bringing Europe closer to its people."

The importance of trustful territorial information in a world of alternative realities

Secretary of State (Ministry of Sustainable Development and Infrastructure, Luxembourg) and Head of the ESPON Managing Authority Camille Gira reciprocated these sentiments, warning of the threat posed by alternative realities. He stressed that

... in times, when alternative realities are emerging, it is even more important to think about how we can ensure a common perception and understanding of the one and only reality and territory we are living in. This is of utmost importance for the cohesion of our society.

 Hosted by the Committee of the Regions (CoR) in Brussels, ESPON's anniversary gathered delegates from regions, cities, national governments, EU institutions and programmes, research facilities and associations promoting territorial interests, inviting them to look back and draw conclusion for future works.  

Identifying unintended territorial impacts of policies for improve policy-making

By the example of two of its specific features - Territorial Impact Assessment and analytical support for cross-border areas, the event sought to immerse the audience in ESPON’s impactful history. Czech Councillor Petr Osvald, chairing the CoR commission for Territorial Cohesion Policy and EU Budget, said ESPON had succeeded to establish a quick-reaction service for various territorial needs with its Territorial Impact Assessment methodologies. For Secretary General Martin Guillermo Ramirez of the Association of European Border Regions, ESPON had filled the void between policymakers and researchers, paving the way for more comprehensive cross-border spatial development planning processes. Yet, ESPON's efforts were not a breeze. As Secretary of State Camille Gira explained, ensuring a comprehensible dialogue between policymakers and researchers was and remains a challenging endeavour. This is a challenge that ESPON had been continuously addressing over the last 15 years in order to maintain the "marvellous bridge between academia and policymakers" -  a phrase coined by Priidu Ristkok, Director General for Territorial Cohesion of the Estonian EU Presidency.

Directions for ESPON’s future: Strengthening the user orientation  

What shape this bridge shall assume in future was the subject of a panel debate about the future emphasis of ESPON’s activities, revolving around three key-issues: synergies in European territorial research, reaching out into policy processes and ownership by policy-makers. The panel stressed that information and data are increasingly available, but filtering, synthetizing and bringing evidence to the policy level and  policy processes in a way that it can be absorbed by policy-making is the main challenge where ESPON could further increase its added value. And this, in fact, is one of the integral parts of ESPON's DNA aside of territorial evidence production. In practice, deepening the ownership requires a deeper stakeholder involvement, including outreach to sectoral policies as well as synergies with EU institutions and data owners. Director General for Regional and Urban Policy Marc Lemâitre underlined synergies of ESPON with the Joint Research Centre, being "a very useful mine for ESPON's work". Patrick Galès, Professor at Science Po in Paris, reminded of the importance of the research-policy dialogue and said that regrettably this type of activities were not rewarded by the evaluation system in science. Therefore, discussions revolving around ESPON’s attractiveness to research shall address both evidence production and dialogue.      

ESPON’s contribution to the future of Europe’s citizens

Secretary of State Camille Gira closed the debate, by summarizing the concrete ways forward and expressing his gratitude to all participants for the first round of discussions about the next generation of ESPON. With an encouraging impetus for ESPON's future role, he concluded:

I personally believe that the key for our future is with the European Union. To develop the territory in a sustainable way means managing best our common resources.  This can only be successful if we develop a common picture of, and common perspectives for our territory. The citizens of Europe want to know where they live, how they will live in the future, and what perspectives they can expect for themselves and for their children. In that sense, our common effort should create the best value added ESPON.

“How to get involved - countries regions and cities benefit from ESPON activities”

In an afternoon workshop, the ESPON EGTC gathered stakeholders to prepare their potential future involvement in Targeted Analyses. With this demand‐driven and tailor‐made research activity, ESPON provides a rapid-response service for policy needs at different administrative and functional scales. Since 2007, a wide range of stakeholders have been endowed with analytical insights to shape their policies for cities, regions, cross-border areas, national governments and EU-funded programmes. The Director of ESPON EGTC Ilona Raugze introduced examples as to how the analytical support translates into strategic territorial development. The project POLYCE has been investigating characteristics of the polycentric system on metropolitan level in Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, Prague and Vienna in an effort to identify competitive and cooperative aspects among these metropolises. The results of the research work had contributed to Bratislava’s new spatial plan, the Smart City Wien Framework Strategy, the Smart Twin Strategy Bratislava-Vienna, the new strategic plan of Prague as well as the Operational Programme Prague 2014-2020.


Testimonies about the many ways policy-making is benefitting from ESPON evidence

In a panel session, stakeholders currently involved in ESPON Targeted Analyses explained the policy rationale behind their demand for analytical support. The Coventry City Council seeks advice as to how to align institutional configuration with emerging challenges of regional planning. With ESPON support, the Swiss Federal Office for Spatial Development examines new forms of soft governance spaces with flexible boundaries that span across administrative borders and link urban with rural development policies. The Brussels Capital Region looks for answers as to how the traditional urban planning practices shall respond to ongoing urbanization trends that go beyond the jurisdictions of a single administrative authority. These challenges might be different in nature but the discussions about the added value of a Targeted Analysis boiled down to ESPON's most unique and prominent features - direct exchange among researchers and policy-makers and rapid response to current policy needs.

It’s not difficult to get involved and become a user ! 

David Hope of the Coventry City Council explained that the ESPON findings were a valuable decision support tool for the Coventry & Warwickshire Strategic Economic Plan helping policymakers to make the best out of a scarce public funding for policy implementation. Alfredo Corbalan of the Brussels Capital Region and Silvia Jost of the Swiss Federal Office for Spatial Development have reaffirmed ESPON's ability to swiftly respond to policy needs, praising  the "smooth" application, evaluation and procurement processes, which allows for a very quick project start. Calling it a "truly demand-driven process", Mr Corbalan also acknowledged that ESPON relieves stakeholders of any administrative burden and financial responsibility. With these benefits, ESPON was growing in popularity across Europe as the Director of the ESPON EGTC Ilona Raugze summarised. She said:

Having 84 stakeholders already involved in Targeted Analyses within the second active year of our programme, we are grateful about the high level of trust you place in ESPON to serve your policy interests and needs.

The documentation of the event is available here

Picture credit: Magdalena Zagrzejewska