Panoramic of Cluj-Napoca. Credit: Municipality of Cluj-Napoca

Yes, it is a real place. And it is filled with people that embrace the importance of learning and collaboration in their journey. Cluj, is actually Cluj-Napoca. The city drags the ancient roman name Napoca along with the Germanic one Cluj, meaning narrow. The city’s name is a verbal display of the mix of cultures and backgrounds that we -the residents- think is relevant to help others figure us out from afar. It is the second-largest city in Romania but the only one growing in a country with one of the worst migrations in the world.

The Power of Learning

The reason Cluj is a magnet city might rely on the mission it assumes: to be the place one decides to live, learn and start a family, a place that tries to find local solutions, with the resources available, to the problems it encounters. And to ensure that, Cluj uses the power of learning. It transfers all good practices already working in similar places around the world, it encourages working together of the local ecosystem (from the universities, the companies, NGO sector, and the local administration), science-based decision making, and most important of all, encourages citizen engagement.

There are already tested local tools to do all this. One is the Cluj Innovation and Civic Imagination Center (CIIC) – where all interested people can be part of the imagining processes of future decisions, learning from experts from Europe, the United States, or any place that has already built some experience in the topics of our local concerns.

Kids taking over the city in Cluj Days. Credit: Municipality of Cluj-Napoca

Another, more technical and expert-based one is the innovation camp tool which is a civic lab in a sort, where we gather a group formed by people representing the quadruple helix (Universities, Business, NGO sector, and local government) and for two days, tackle a challenge to provide potential solutions on short medium and long term.

And then, there is the most powerful tool of them all: the failure. The importance of embracing failure to progress, readjust, and continue the journey. It has worked miracles on so many layers of the city, from boosting the energy of the community after facing together a collective fall down and turn it into an asset. This was the case with the major failure the city has faced when losing the European competition to achieve the title of Capital of Culture (for 2021, the application happened in 2016, n.r), that determined local coagulation of energies to regroup and ended up in a process that proved to be more beneficial to the city that any award-winning. The lesson learned for Cluj is the power of togetherness – and we multiply it ever since in choosing to approach projects in an ecosystemic way. The Mayor of the city, Emil Boc is known to be the one that promotes the logo “ECOnotEGO,” and in the last years, the shining light that seems to beam over Cluj proves that he is right.

The problems we try to tackle with these tools are pretty similar to the ones other cities that grow fast have: traffic, and the need to work with mindset change of the locals to adopt the walkable city policy, housing – and the risk of gentrification – which pushes on the top of local authorities priorities the need to start developing a strategy that sustainably can solve it. Jobs and skills for the future and addressing the brain drain are no less urgent to be addressed and part of the daily “package of challenges” for the city.

CIIC public debates in Covid times – Cluj-Napoca. Credit: Municipality of Cluj-Napoca

The Newest Challenge

Tackling the rural-urban divide is one of the most challenging new tasks that the city, together with the villages around and the community, assumed to address for the near future. The city is geographically narrowed in a valley along the riverside, which forces any attempt to grow toward the edges – where there historically there were rural and agricultural areas. 

In the last 30 years of unstructured urbanization, the first layer of villages suffered a hybrid transformation, where it is so common to find urban houses close to chicken factories – with all the problems you can imagine coming out of the situation. This is why, with this massive failure on the table, the local community started to look at things differently. 

While being one of the most complex problems to solve, it also offers the potential to be the most long-term sustainable response for the needs of the people that call Cluj home. The energies of the collective task force that tackles this matter are concentrated around the Metropolitan Area Association and the Cluster of Education – both entities representing formal institutions from the local and regional administration to the six universities that Cluj hosts, most engaging companies, big employers, and investment bodies. The methods used are collaboration and co-design of solutions, citizen involvement, and piloting proposals. It is a long-term journey that will hopefully identify the best local solutions that can be implemented while respecting the identity of the place.

International event gathering startups 2019 Cluj-Napoca. Credit: Municipality of Cluj-Napoca

The Cluj Education Cluster offers the cradle to test potential projects that will ensure access to data, solution simulation, and testing, all while embracing this new approach as a collective learning opportunity. The keywords are all along the way inclusion, sustainability, respect for local identity, and testing, measuring, and scaling up. Universities and experts—from the local and European levels—are documenting the process, and hopefully, in a short time (comparing with the place’s history:), we will have the answer if here, in the heart of Transylvania, we have a happy future, together and home for all. 

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