15 June 2022

On June 14, the Intelligent Cities Challenge launched its 5th City Lab with a dedicated session open to the public looking at Cities’ response to Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine. During this first City Lab session, discussions were held by the ICC cities of Poznan (Poland), Aarhus (Denmark) and Leuven (Belgium) on the main challenges they faced, their responses and learnings.

Dana Eleftheriadou from European Commission moderated the session and presented the outcome of a survey launched within European cities related to their response to the crisis. A brief overview of the funding available for cities looking to support Ukrainian refugees from the European Commission was outlined by Witold Willak, Deputy Head of Unit, DG REGIO, European Commission.

The main challenges were presented by the cities’ representatives - Olga Dzieciatkowska, Digital Project Specialist & Leader of the Smart Community section of the Smart City Team shared Poznan’s experience, insights from Aarhus were given by Vibeke Jensen, Head of the Employment Department and Leuven’s lessons learnt were told by Hai-Chay Jiang, Head of diversity and equal opportunities.  A presentation by Patrick Anthonissen on the platform Social Care Network concluded the session.

A summary of the common challenges and experiences from cities:

  • Short-term vs long-term integration: Cities highlighted that they concentrated to short-term measures to welcome and integrate migrants upon their arrival. Yet, the duration of their stay is uncertain and they realise that more challenges will soon emerge, such as the long-term integration of migrants and the reunification of families. These necessitate stronger cities’ cooperation as well as more developed and specific instruments in the months ahead.
  • Welcoming refugees and communication: the first and main challenge is the communication with refugees with a view to properly inform and address their needs. Digital tools were used, notably to i) translate already existing cities’ webpages in Ukrainian; ii) to develop dedicated platforms gathering all information useful for refugees.
  • Housing refugees: To answer the huge demand for housing with uncertain duration, emergency shelters were set up and requests were made to local hotels. When this was not sufficient, cooperation amongst cities came in handy, for instance the ICC city of Poznan was able to reach out to its twin city of Hanover to ask for help. Other cities used social media to gather hosting availabilities. For instance, Leuven launched the #freespace hashtag on social media, which allowed people to quickly share the availability of accommodation online.
  • Employment challenges: Cities found that whilst most of the arriving refugees are highly skilled and keen on working immediately, they faced a language barrier. The city of Aarhus organised several job fairs to help refugees find jobs matching their skills and capacities.
  • Health requirement: The most pressing health challenge has been COVID-19, where cities offered vaccinations to all incoming refugees who were not yet vaccinated. Cities highlighted the important aspect of mental health and the trauma associated with being forced to leave your home, e.g. Leuven has arranged trauma sensitive workshops to support refugees.
  • Coordinating the volunteers: Many citizens and organisations offered their help, but it was challenging to match volunteering supply and demand, which is much slower to register. Cities develop digital systems (through platforms or social media) to gather this information and ease the process. The Social Care network was presented, a digital volunteering match-making platform as a tool to tackle this issue. The platform helps manage the very quick rise of immediate volunteer energy (which often lasts for a few hours) with the actual demand that follows later (usually takes weeks).

This session was a great way to show that cities faced the same challenges regarding the refugee crisis. It was also the perfect tool to identify how the cities worked differently and the best approaches.

The City Lab will run until June 23 and will cover the thematic of “Local Ecosystems mobilisation and Urban Innovation”. More information and registration are available here.