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June 6, 2016

Refugees and New Economy Top Agenda

Refugees and New Economy Top Agenda

Social workers, entrepreneurs and urbanists of various stripes closed out the SEiSMiC Project’s series of international forums by taking on two of the hottest issues in contemporary Europe: the sharing economy and the refugee crisis. 

From May 31 to June 1 in Brussels, participants in SEiSMiC Forum No.3 discussed and debated issues under the general heading “New Urban Economy”. The theme was understood in different ways, but a common thread was economic activity with a social conscience that helps meet urban challenges in creative and lucrative ways. Several social issues were addressed, but refugee and migrant integration took centre stage. Participants at the event included social entrepreneurs, policy makers, architects, representatives of EU institutions, volunteers and social innovators.

The forum opened with a reflection on the SEiSMiC project process and how the project’s work will continue beyond its conclusion this October. Keynote speaker Nicolaas Beets, Urban Envoy for the EU Urban Agenda, kicked off the forum by sharing the news that the Pact of Amsterdam had been adopted just one day previous, thus establishing the EU Urban Agenda. For the first time, cities as well as Member States and EU Institutions will work as equal partners in developing the policies that affect European urban areas. The Urban Agenda will cover 12 themes, the first four being housing, air quality, integration of migrants and refugees, and urban poverty.  The Netherlands will lead the work on these four themes to establish a working framework.

Diving into the sharing economy, Pieter van de Glind, co-founder of Share NL, took the first stab at defining the new urban economy that is booming in the Netherlands. He described it as having two main elements: the collaborative economy (a decentralised network or marketplace that matches demand and supply without traditional middlemen) and the sharing economy (a system of sharing or renting underutilised assets directly for monetary or non-monetary gain).

In this new economy, trust is an essential currency. Trust in the platform and trust in individual participants are just as important as money. These aspects of the collaborative economy are subjects of emerging research, yet such studies rarely reach the desks of the policymakers who need it, van de Glind said. Share NL has partnered with the University of Oxford to create a platform to provide easy access to policymakers with the best available research to inform decisions to manage and encourage the best aspects of the new urban sharing economy.

After keynotes, each of SEiSMiC’s partner countries provided a national update and then the forum split into six creative dialogues concerning different aspects of the new urban economy. The discussions dealt with how the new economy and social innovators might solve urban issues, such as refugee reception and integration, food waste and hunger, and vacant but viable city spaces. The dialogues also dealt with policy and institutional-level issues, incubation of social innovation, and opportunities and challenges of the sharing economy. Within each session, discussions teased out best practices, emerging research questions and policy recommendations 

Day Two began with an engaging artistic performance by the New Vic Theatre. Based on creative feedback on ‘utopia’ collected throughout Day One, the artists beautifully and wordlessly relayed the forum’s collective theoretical vision, and how the work towards that vision may be under threat.

Moving from the broad theory of Day One, Day Two highlighted concrete new economy initiatives that were underway in cities across Europe. These initiatives were presented as eight case studies, with each organisation describing their stakeholders and best practices. Presenters gathered feedback from the network on helpful resources, and barriers to avoid or confront.

One case involved two groups working on refugee employment. Refugees Work is an Austrian social enterprise that provides an online platform for both refugees seeking work and employers with job openings. Beyond matching employment needs, the platform also provides training for refugees to prepare them for the Austrian job search and workforce. In addition, it gives employers insights on the unique and transitioning needs of a valuable new labour pool. Refugees Work provides the service free of charge to refugees, and is financially supported through fees charged to the more than 200 companies that subscribe.

Meanwhile, Refugee Company focuses on using the skills of incoming refugees to assist their own integration. With opportunities to use and develop their skills, they contribute to Dutch society by building their own businesses. In both cases, the groups face challenges of limited capacity and community resistance, but they succeed by learning through doing, and maintaining a ‘pitbull’ attitude.

Going beyond the labour market, Place/Making, a team of designers and urbanists, showcased their digital multi-lingual platform, Info-Compass, which connects refugees in Berlin to local job-search resources to housing to language exchanges. Representatives from No Doc were on hand to present their association, which uses the highly international legal framework of Belgium to establish a legal entity for undocumented volunteers. Haarlemese Seinwzen, the Dutch sustainable heritage building, highlighted social enterprise as a physical space for community.

The Turkish time-bank, Zumbara, meanwhile, mixes skill sharing with social media, and is seeking a sustainable social enterprise model while having great success with over 40,000 members in their community. The Community-Led Local Development project focused on using the new CLLD tool for empowering urban communities in the Czech Republic and other member states.  After the case studies, an interview-style gallery highlighted not only the common challenges and needs of social enterprises across Europe, but the unique strategies to overcome them.

New Vic rounded out the afternoon of Day 2 with an interactive theatrical game that got the whole forum moving, and bringing out thoughtful discussions on resource inequalities and community actions and reactions.