- Brief recap on the Municipality of Cuenca and its UIA project
The Urban Forest Innovation Lab (UFIL) is implemented in Cuenca, a small-sized (about 55.000 inhabitants) city in the Autonomous Community of Castilla-La Mancha, in central Spain. Because of its very low population density (11.7 persons/km2 in 2019 - in the same year the EU27 average was 109 persons/km2), the province of Cuenca is part of the so-called ‘Southern Lapland’ of Spain. Mountainous areas and pine forests characterise its territory and it is always a pleasure to admire an impressive natural landscape from the height of Cuenca’s World Heritage historical centre.
the city of Cuenca
The core of the UFIL project is the running of a forest innovation lab. The lab is hosted in some large rooms of the campus of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, located in the modern part of the City of Cuenca. Over the project’s timeline, the lab was structured into three residential courses. Each course was expected to be attended by a group of 35 students and to last 10 months. But changes to these settings occurred during implementation. For example, some of the students of the second course did not complete their journey due to personal reasons, and the third and last course (to be held in 2022) will be shorter than 10 months in order not to overlap with the closure of the project. Each course encompasses theoretical and innovative learning by participants as well as practical and prototyping work on innovations (products and/or services) which have to rely on the sustainable use of the forest resources of Cuenca. Lab’s activities are grounded on co-creation and challenge-based competitions. The latter are proposed by project’s partners and external companies. During the courses, participants develop solutions to the challenges but also identify and develop their own entrepreneurial ideas. It is on the basis of these ideas that they intend and are expected to become the future entrepreneurs of Cuenca and of its surroundings.
Since early 2020, the project's contextual conditions importantly changed. On one side, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down/cancelled some activities. On the other side, the policy environment at the European and national levels became very favourable for projects like UFIL which comply with the European priorities set in the Green Deal and its related strategies (Farm to Fork, Biodiversity, Circular Economy, Climate Neutrality). In Year 3, this ‘politically correct’ profile of UFIL was further acknowledged, to such an extent that the project got recognised by the Spanish government as one of the 50 most relevant initiatives across the country in the area of entrepreneurship development.
- Where does the project stand at the end of October 2021?
By considering the recent 1-year extension, UFIL is a four-year project started on 1 November 2018. The kick-off of the project was slow and fewer outputs than expected were harvested in Year 1. During Year 2, the project successfully built over the lengthy preparatory work of Year 1. Still, it was again less effective than planned in implementing its work packages (WPs). If the COVID-19 outbreak is one of the most important reasons behind delays in Year 2, there were areas where the project was structurally weak. For example, it faced difficulties in engaging the local business community and in embedding its activities in the city and in the surrounding rural areas. In Year 3, the core of the project’s work remained on implementation and in particular on WP4 ‘Knowledge and spatial framework design’ and WP5 ‘Urban Forest Job and skills’. These are the two WPs related to the functioning of the innovation lab. Instead, implementation of WP7 ‘Business model and raising awareness’ did not make good progress. In Year 3, other evident weaknesses relate to WP3 on communication activities.
In brief, some of the milestones achieved during Year 3 include:
- The procurement process of machinery at Cuenca Maderas SA was completed.
- Procurement mechanisms for the innovation lab’s equipment by the University of Castilla-La Mancha have been finetuned to serve the scope of the training.
- 17 entrepreneurial ideas/groups were developed during the first UFIL training course. About ten of these ideas are expected to become registered businesses in the near future. These ideas were presented at a ‘Demo Day’ on 5 February 2021. The best three ideas were announced at an award ceremony in late March 2021. An additional award was provided for the Best Business Project by Globalcaja Cuenca Foundation.
- The second training course took place as scheduled and started in February 2021. It engaged 35 trainees out of which seven left at some stage. A total of 18 entrepreneurial ideas/groups are expected to come out of this second training course that will end in December 2021.
- Challenges to the second UFIL training course were proposed by four businesses (VIA AGORA, Grupo SUEZ, IKEA and CIBICA). With three of these businesses, UFIL signed cooperation agreements.
- The call for the recruitment of participants in the third training course was launched in the third quarter of 2021. This last residential course of UFIL will start in January 2022. Its duration has been shortened from 10 to 6 months (up to July 2022).
- Incubation/acceleration of businesses designed by trainees kept on being implemented regularly.
- Communication activities kept on being performed, especially through the project’s blog and some business-related events.
- In October 2021, a brainstorming session on the future of the project was organised in Cuenca and attended by all project’s partners. It laid the foundations for the outline of the future model of UFIL.
On training activities, it is worth noting that the interactive approach pursued throughout the course finetuned into a satisfactory ‘COVID-19 modality’. Teaching activities during Year 3 kept on being implemented in presence and in remote mode. Remote teaching uses a web-based platform which was already envisaged in the project’s design and that got strengthened because of the pandemic. During Year 3, the second class of UFIL could use without restrictions the prototyping facilities of the innovation lab. More machinery and equipment were purchased and made available to trainees. Notably, students of the first training course continued being supported by the project, including in the use of the new machinery and equipment.
UFIL project lab where most of the equipment purchased by the project is stored