Transnational Co-Production of Territorial Knowledge: The ESPON Experience

By Peter Schmitt & Lukas Smas

The European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion, ESPON, will soon embark on its third programme period. From its start in 2002, ESPON has been conceived of as a knowledge base to support transnational spatial policy-making. The ESPON programme has produced an extensive evidence base of scientific reports, targeted analyses, thematic maps and spatial indicators. More importantly, the ESPON experience has been about the transnational co-production of territorial knowledge.

The need for a Europe-wide network of territorial knowledge was mentioned during the preparation of the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) in the 1990s. ESPON was carefully prepared through a Study Programme on European Spatial Planning (SPESP) between 1998 and 1999 to identify some of the main gaps in knowledge and to form collaborative networks with the aim of doing policy-relevant research on spatial planning and territorial development at the transnational scale.

An interesting feature of ESPON is the pursuit to cover what is called 'the ESPON space' in any territorial analysis. The ESPON space includes the entire European Union (EU-15, or more recently, EU-27 or even EU-28) plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. In some studies, even candidate countries or regions neighbouring the European Union have been analysed.

ESPON 2006

The first ESPON programme ran from 2002 to 2006. It was funded through the EU INTERREG programme and was therefore subject to the regulations of the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) and to its specific control and management structure. As Duehr et al. (2010, 247) put it, ESPON 2006 "aimed at providing detailed spatial information for the EU territory and to set up a decentralised network of spatial research institutes across Europe". Within the ESPON 2006 programme, 35 major studies were completed involving more than 600 researchers and 130 institutions focusing on various ways to analyse spatial dynamics across Europe. Researchers focused on quantitative methods and GIS platforms to conduct their studies (see map) (ibid). The content areas of the ESPON 2006 projects were closely aligned with the thematic scope stipulated by the ESDP, including topics such as the role of cities in regional development, urban-rural relations, polycentricity and accessibility, about which the ESPON 2006 programme has provided some robust findings.

A general ambition of the ESPON programme is, as far as possible, to use and produce Europe-wide data to assess various territorial dynamics in cities and regions. The ensuing critique voiced by the ESPON community was that advanced territorial and related analyses of European space are limited because much of the available data are for relatively large territorial units. Consequently, calls for the collection of data to enable the analysis of small territorial units (e.g., at the neighbourhood level) have been made at various opportunities.

ESPON 2013

The second phase of ESPON, the so-called ESPON 2013 programme, was aligned to the Structural Fund period and covered seven years (2007 to 2013). The budget comprised €47 million, 75 per cent of which was financed by the European Regional Development Fund under Objective 3 (European Territorial Cooperation). The rest was financed by the 31 participating countries, which comprise the 27 EU Member States plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

The ESPON 2013 Programme mission was to:

"Support policy development in relation to the aim of territorial cohesion and a harmonious development of the European territory by (1) providing comparable information, evidence, analyses and scenarios on territorial dynamics and (2) revealing territorial capital and potentials for development of regions and larger territories contributing to European competitiveness, territorial cooperation and a sustainable and balanced development".

The overall framework of the ESPON 2013 programme was restructured from its forerunner. Five so-called priority areas were defined to contribute in various ways, including data, indicators, typologies, models and maps, to the European knowledge base on territorial development and cohesion.

The five priority areas comprise Applied Research Projects, Targeted Analysis Projects, Scientific Platform Projects, Transnational Networking Activities and Technical Assistance, and Analytical Support and Communication Plan. In this article, we will take a closer look at the three first areas.

Applied Research Projects

Twenty-five applied research projects on a variety of issues relevant to territorial development from a pan-European perspective of territorial dynamics have been (or soon will be) completed. Nordregio has been involved in ten of these, twice as the lead partner. These projects respond to a number of predefined policy and research questions on issues such as 'the territorial dimension of poverty and social exclusion in Europe' (TIPSE), the 'Regional Potential for a Greener Economy' (GREECO), 'Regions at Risk of Energy Poverty' (ReRisk), the analysis of 'European Land Use Patterns' (EU-LUPA) and the development of 'Territorial Scenarios and Visions for Europe' (ET2050). In applied research projects, the drivers, impacts and potential of territorial development are analysed, often with quantitative data, and then visualized in a number of advanced thematic maps. One underlying question concerns the extent to which the emerging pictures correspond to the normative concept of territorial cohesion, which, at least rhetorically, underpins a number of strategies and policies that have emerged in the EU in recent years.

As mentioned previously, the European dimension is at the centre of the ESPON programme, which allows comparisons of various types of territories across Europe. Efforts have also been made to emphasize more strongly than did ESPON 2006 that ostensibly 'sectoral issues', such as the green economy, transport, climate change and demography, are interconnected in ways that have significant territorial impacts. Consequently, as has been argued in many ESPON projects, such sectoral issues must be addressed from a cross-sectoral perspective, and any related policies should be assessed with respect to their territorial impacts.

Other ESPON projects such as 'European Territorial Cooperation as a Factor of Growth, Jobs and Quality of Life' (TERCO) and 'Territorial Approaches to New Governance' (TANGO) examine how particular policies, programmes and even specific initiatives and projects related to territorial development issues unfold at various scales. To that end, the organization and (cross-sectoral) cooperation of various actors and their formal (or informal) relations and interests are analysed to distil drivers and determinants of collaboration as well as promoters of 'good practices'.

Targeted Analysis Projects

The second priority area has allowed policymakers to call for specific thematic and territorial analyses. In contrast to the former priority area in which applied research is conducted solely by transnational groups of researchers and experts, this priority area seeks to integrate different kinds of stakeholders (policymakers and practitioners working at local, regional and national scales) in the projects. The stakeholders define the thematic scope of projects provided by the transnational group of researchers, and they monitor the (interim) findings with respect to their applicability to their daily work. Twenty-three targeted analysis projects have been initiated.

Nordregio has been involved in three targeted analysis projects, one on 'Regional Integrated Strategies in Europe' (RISE), one on 'Territorial Diversity in Europe' (TeDi), discussed in Lindblad's article, and in the BEST METROPOLISES project. The goal of the latter project was to identify trends in metropolitan development and their consequences and to assess metropolitan development policies and governance.

Scientific Platform Projects

This priority area contributes to the accessibility and use of ESPON knowledge by providing new tools and evidence for other European programmes as well as for regional and urban actors. Twelve projects have been carried out in this priority area, and Nordregio has been involved in three of them, twice as the lead partner.

The ESPON Database project is an example of one of the larger projects in this priority area. In the open database, hundreds of different territorial indicators from the various ESPON projects have been collected and organized. It is now possible to search for indicators based on themes such as economy, finance and trade; population and living conditions; labour markets; governance; territorial structure and so on, but also to access data. See ESPON Tools and Maps.

A challenge in the dissemination of ESPON knowledge is the scalar level of the projects and statistics, which are mainly at an aggregated geographical level, which is rather abstract for many regional stakeholders (e.g., NUTS 2). However, some scientific platform projects, such as 'Detecting Territorial Potentials and Challenges' (DeTeC), strive to meet the demand for analytical methods and approaches and to support local and regional practitioners and policymakers who are searching for ways to find territorial potential that has a European perspective. The objective of DeTeC is to provide practical guidance on how to utilize ESPON knowledge to identify territorial potentials and to provide concrete and illustrative examples of good practices.

Another scientific platform project that attempts to bridge the gap between research and policy-making and promote territorial cohesion is the 'Territorial Monitoring for the Baltic Sea Region' (BSR-TeMo) project. This project is developing an indicator-based tool for monitoring territorial development in the Baltic Sea Region, which will allow comparisons and benchmarking with other European regions.

ESPON post 2013

The ESPON 2013 programme is coming to an end, and the future operational programme is currently being discussed. It is likely that the ESPON 2020 programme will continue with applied research on territorial cohesion and provide policy makers with targeted analysis. It is difficult to balance on the tightrope between applied research and policy consultancy, but this is the strength of ESPON, namely to collaborate on policy-making and research to create unique analyses, concepts and inspiration.

ESPON was set up to bridge knowledge gaps in European territorial development by bringing together the research and the policy communities; or, in even plainer words, ESPON is deemed to underpin what is called evidence-based policy-making. This claim, however, can be contested, especially because empirical evidence drawn from the social sciences (as it inevitably is in ESPON) is typically open to various interpretations and policy options and thus it cannot be considered an unambiguous guide to policy-making.

Another concern is the strong focus within ESPON on quantitative analysis based on available territorial statistics, presented as maps, graphs and tables. We argue that this type of positivistic analysis is (only) a first step. To understand why cities and regions develop in different ways, in-depth knowledge is often necessary, and requires in its turn qualitative analysis. When qualitative methods are applied to support evidence-based policy-making, it is often in the form of case studies of cities and regions. This partly contradicts the aim to derive universal conclusions for the entire ESPON space. Nonetheless, to make the next step in terms of understanding the territorial dynamics and mechanisms in Europe, there should be more room for qualitative research.

The co-production of knowledge, as exemplified primarily by the targeted analysis projects in ESPON, could be strengthened through better communication between policymakers and researchers before the start of projects, or even prior to the definition of themes. This could help to increase the probability of doable research analysis, and clarify the expectations on both sides.

We also want to emphasize that increasingly, ESPON is trying to widen the target group for the results from various projects, in particular among policymakers from the local to the transnational level (e.g., within the EU Commission), and in some projects even decision-makers or other kinds of practitioners (e.g., regional analysts). This is a desirable goal, because evidence-based territorial knowledge matters at various scales (and thus policy levels), but it challenges researchers to provide tailor-made results for what is often a rather vaguely defined target group.

In the same vein, results from ESPON projects have often been criticized for not providing concrete recommendations and support for policy-making. Here again, the collaboration between researchers and policy-makers is not defined clearly enough, as the production of regional evidence might allow for various interpretations that can be easily coloured by the political perspectives of the person(s) involved. In other words, for the future of ESPON, it might be helpful to define more clearly the mandates of the various actors involved, because the line between informing policies with territorial evidence and the formulation of policy-relevant conclusions can be very thin.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 4, 2013