How to Monitor Territorial Dynamics

By Gunnar Lindberg & Alexandre Dubois

Monitoring territorial development and outlining territorial cohesion are currently fashionable. Academic exercises and institutional endeavours are undertaken to determine the best ways to construct tools for these purposes. In essence, a territorial monitoring system is much more than just a statistical database. A key parameter of a territorial monitoring system is its ability to provide relevant information to inform the policy process by providing territorial evidence and analyses for policymakers responsible for cohesion across levels of government.

Monitoring systems have flourished in recent years, especially because of the increased need for efficient implementation of public policies in a drive to "do more with less". Such systems may be conceived in many ways depending on the territorial and policy settings with which they are associated. Hence, monitoring may be conceived:

  • as a way of following and analysing the development path of territories according to specific policy story-lines;
  • as a bank of comparable data that can be used for multiple thematic or geographical analyses;
  • as a warning system, used for systematically monitoring key trends;
  • as an evaluation tool with the capacity to monitor policies and programmes, assessing their impact in various places;
  • as a common basis for sharing comparative information and as a basis for a benchmarking tool supporting transnational or cross-border decision-making and negotiation.

The development of a monitoring system entails collecting a set of statistical indicators deemed most appropriate for revealing territorial trends and ensuring that the information for these indicators is well documented and traceable. It concerns ensuring the reproducibility and consistency of the statistical and analytical work over a period of years, and this process requires ensuring the comparability of data across space and time. In practical terms, it is the craft of offering this statistical information in a comprehensive and rigorous way.

The choice of indicators is arguably the critical moment in developing a territorial monitoring system, because the capacity of the system to support evidence-based policymaking effectively is related to its ability to illustrate meaningful trends that support future policy interventions. Furthermore, a monitoring system must be continuously relevant in both data and the inclusion of new indicators to adapt to future shifts of European and national policy debates.

A review of monitoring territorial cohesion across Europe

In the Barca Report, the idea of 'place-based' development strategies was brought to the fore of the territorial policy debate. At the same time, the notion of territorial cohesion has gained momentum as a key objective for the EU as a whole. The explicit inclusion of territorial cohesion in the recent Treaty of Lisbon and the subsequent EU2020 Strategy has even consolidated the central place that the notion holds for the design and implementation of European regional policy. In addition, the debate on geographic specificity has reinforced the understanding that territorial development is strongly influenced by geographical characteristics. Because diverse regions, cities and territories will have different development trajectories as a result of variations in challenges, assets and opportunities, the difficulty of building a coherent pan-European territorial monitoring system is obvious. How can such a system be sufficiently comprehensive to monitor territorial cohesion on various geographical scales and at the same time be adaptive to specific territorial development trajectories?

In 2010, ESPON launched the INTERCO project, dedicated to the elaboration of an indicator-based system for measuring territorial cohesion. Moreover, in 2011 in relation to this project, ESPON organized a workshop entitled: 'Assessing Indicators of Territorial Cohesion'. This began the recent development of the monitoring systems in the realm of the ESPON programme. Previously, there had been some scoping projects, and obviously many projects focused on indicators for specific topics in the domain of territorial development/cohesion. In the INTERCO project, a team of European researchers emphasized the need to understand territorial cohesion as a set of intertwining, and often overlapping story-lines that may each be monitored using sets of indicators. Such a focus would give policymakers the choice of monitoring territorial cohesion according to their own understanding of it, and especially the ways in which it fits the specific geographical and institutional context they represent. This was a major step in bringing together the universal nature and territorially specific aspects of territorial cohesion.

In a direct continuation of this work, the ongoing ESPON project, the European Territorial Monitoring System (ETMS), is intended to create a coherent monitoring platform that helps policymakers at various levels of government to identify important development trends across the continent, and interpret and contextualize these trends by integrating them into the wider context of territorial cohesion. Their objective is for such a monitoring system to assist decision-makers in defining new policy objectives, prioritize potential future policy interventions and generally anchor an evidence-based approach to policymaking.

Monitoring: from concept to practice

A monitoring system should on the one hand provide statistical evidence on past and current territorial dynamics and trends, and on the other hand, address the specific and strategic important themes addressed by the relevant political ambitions. Unless it achieves the latter, it will not be really useful except as an academic exercise.

Simple messages are easier to understand and communicate to decision-makers than complex messages. Hence, a critical factor for a monitoring system is to limit the number of indicators by focusing on those that have the most explanatory power. Furthermore, it is important both to identify indicators that measure the most appropriate policy objectives and issues, and to connect these with more specific types of territories, whether these are cities, sparsely populated areas, mountainous regions or rural regions. In that respect, the territorial nature of such a monitoring system relates to the measurement of policy objectives and issues critical to territorial cohesion, and to the operationalization of the notion of territorial diversity acknowledging the necessity to assess a territory's development path in relation to its specific geographical preconditions.

A further example of this necessity to adjust the actual content of a territorial monitoring tool to a political and geographical context was provided by the ESPON BSR-TeMo project. To develop a monitoring system that was relevant to the stakeholders, a participatory approach was taken. There are many ways in which monitoring as a concept can be put into practice and be relevant for pursuing territorial cohesion, for example, by:

  • adding to the informed discussion between actors concerned with place-based development activities;
  • improving policies by providing evidence about local circumstances and conditions;
  • improving the integrated delivery of policies;
  • improving the use of territorial assets/capital in the implementation of EU2020 priorities, and facilitating implementation of the priorities of the Territorial Agenda 2020;
  • strengthening the decision-making process at the macro-regional level, resulting in more accurate formulation of macro-regional strategies (priorities and projects).

To meet these expectations, it becomes especially important to ensure that the policy dimensions and story-lines investigated are strongly connected to the territorial development trends that are central to the respective territory. In the example of the Baltic Sea Region, the challenges are identified by the EU BSR Strategy and the VASAB Long-term Perspective (LTP). These are expressed by the three overarching territorial divides (north–south, east–west and urban–rural). Of course, these policy orientations should be seen from the perspective of important policies and strategies developed in documents such as the Europe 2020 Strategy and the Territorial Agenda 2020, as well as the Fifth Cohesion Report, which are important for monitoring systems at the EU level.

Clearly, an important benefit of a territorial monitoring system lies beyond the mere compilation of comprehensive statistical datasets, but rather in its role as a one-stop shop platform that enables the policy community from various government levels to ground their regional development strategies and local action plans on the same set of coherent information and connect them to the wider objectives of EU strategies.

Visualizing territorial dynamics

Another benefit of such a tool is its power to provide visualization. Visualization is believed to be a key feature supporting spatial visioning and the co-production of a shared transnational understanding of spatial planning in Europe, not least when this process engages both researchers and policymakers (e.g. Dühr, 2007). In our understanding, the recent vogue in developing territorial monitoring systems can be seen as a natural evolution of this need.

Visualization gives life to the comprehensive datasets that lie behind such tools. Hence, a factor in the success of a monitoring system is how the information is visually presented (online) and how interactive the interface is. Presentation and visualization can include displaying static maps, trend analyses based on maps, charts and stop-sign like displays. Recently (using the time dimension rather ambiguously), the fashion has been to create user-driven interactive map tools. This substitutes the visualization only of the results chosen by administrators, and allows the user to decide what and where to compare, and how to visualize (in the framework of the design of the tool).

Many such tools are being developed for territorial development monitoring, and there are many well-established ones for economic data, environmental data and many other fields. Most large institutions, such as the OECD, EU, Eurostat and the World Bank, have tools for visualizing data online or for creating one's own maps. However, one reflection is that this comprehensiveness tends to put more pressure on the user in interpreting the data. It is not clear whether this improves the usefulness of the results of monitoring compared with ready-made material. In the TeMo project, a middle way was developed whereby the material from the system was placed online and is easy to access, but it has been prepared (and often analysed) for the user.

Looking ahead: what is the future for territorial monitoring systems?

As we suggested above, developing territorial monitoring systems only makes sense if it is a durable, long-term effort by scientific contributors and the policy actors that initiate and commission them. The main benefit of a territorial monitoring system is its presentation of statistical evidence in a more or less long-term temporal perspective.

Our experience tells us that the key challenge for the long-run sustainability of a monitoring system is to turn it into a meaningful policy indicator system that responds to current policy needs and appeals to the minds of policymakers. This means that the system should address many analytical questions, in line with key policy needs, based on a limited set of routinely collected information. This is an essential condition for the success of any territorial monitoring system. The ambition to sustain a monitoring system can obviously be adjusted using a range of parameters, and data updates are only one aspect to consider. Other parameters include functions, types of analyses, and dissemination and stakeholder involvement.

It is important that those in the institutional structure around a monitoring system understand that the framing and construction of the system are only a first step in providing appropriate policy support. The relevance of the system depends on many factors; the most important may be:

(a) the understanding among policymakers of the role and opportunities provided by the monitoring system and their ability to use them;

(b) the permanent updating of the information at the core of the monitoring system;

(c) a critical examination of the system's ability to meet the needs of policy-making.

Finally, it would be interesting to observe and follow the evolution of the current trend in monitoring and evaluation and how (or if) it will be integrated into statistically informed policy-making processes and the evaluation of policy programmes. So far, efforts to monitor territorial cohesion across Europe have been undertaken in a relatively ad hoc manner, that is, as one-off project activities. In current developments in research programmes such as ESPON, it is clear that monitoring is about to develop into more institutionalized tool-boxes. This obviously poses new questions about the overall sustainability of territorial monitoring systems, such as their maintenance and integration into the policy-making system.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 2, 2014