UNESCO’s board discusses ECOPER’s report on Creative Cities

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) was established in 2004 to foster international cooperation and knowledge exchange among cities that use culture and creativity as a driver for sustainable urban development. Since then, the Network has progressively increased its membership and currently covers 350 cities in more than 100 countries across the five UNESCO regions. The first comprehensive evaluation of the Network assigned to ECOPER in 2023 shows that “Knowledge and good practices are effectively shared amongst Creative Cities worldwide, but such exchanges are not geographically balanced.

Example of connections between cities in the design sub-network

This and other key findings emerging from the evaluation of UCCN were presented to the  219th Session of the UNESCO’s Executive Board held in Paris on 9 February 2024. The following is an overview of the evaluation conducted by ECOPER, its key findings, conlusions and recommendations.

The UCCN evaluation

This evaluation was requested by the Culture Sector to provide systematic evidence about what has worked, what has not worked and why, and to identify areas of improvement for the UCCN. More specifically, the primary objectives of the evaluation were to i) assess the relevance, coherence, efficiency, effectiveness, sustainability, and impact of the UCCN; ii) assess governance, coordination, management, monitoring, reporting, and evaluation mechanisms to identify potential areas of improvement; iii) provide forward-looking recommendations for the UCCN’s future strategic direction and positioning.

The evaluation covered the period 2016-2022 and was based on a network analysis approach. It followed UNEG evaluation quality standards and benefitted from the active engagement of an Evaluation Reference Group during the evaluation process.

The evaluation methodology included: (i) the reconstruction of a Theory of Change (ToC) to understand the various levels of results expected from UCCN’s work and the underlying assumptions, (ii) a stakeholder mapping to identify critical stakeholders at city level resulting in 880+ identified partners, (iii) an analysis of big data using computerised content analysis (CCA) of 214 membership monitoring reports (MMRs), 81 city internet websites and 23,000+ tweets, (iv) a document review, (v) 161 semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions, (vi) three online surveys for Creative City focal points, partners and National Commissions, and (vii) three case studies of cities in Latin America, Asia and Europe that allowed for an in-depth understanding of success stories cases and the revision of the UCCN ToC at city level.

Key findings

Relevance

The UCCN mission has evolved to align with UNESCO goals and priorities. The Network underwent a standardization process in 2015-2016, leading to a redefined strategic framework in 2017 that emphasized culture’s transversal contribution to the SDGs.

The design of the UCCN responds to cities’ knowledge needs and enhances the alignment of culture with the SDGs. However, the UCCN strategic framework is very broad and leaves the most important strategic decisions entirely on cities. The breadth of the 2030 Agenda and lack of specific guidance from UCCN results in cities’ differing definitions of development impact. Moreover, for many Creative Cities their endorsement of the SDG agenda is sometimes more of an ex-post or theoretical exercise, rather than a strategic reflection that is likely to influence city policies and programmes.

The UCCN strategic framework has formally integrated UNESCO’s global priorities and the Culture sector’s specific priorities. The UCCN has a high potential to contribute to issues such as youth empowerment, inclusion of vulnerable and minority groups, minorities, and gender equality. However, its potential to address global challenges such as climate change, conflicts, natural disasters, and sustainable development in Africa or Small Island Developing States (SIDS) is not perceived to be as strong.

Cities acknowledge the added value of the UCCN in its role as a laboratory, as defined by UNESCO. They emphasize the significance of the UNESCO brand and reputation. The primary added value of UCCN is related to its network which encourages cities to directly connect with other cities, participate in collaborative initiatives, and exchange experiences. The Creative City designation brings global visibility and prestige and, in many cases, an improved recognition of the concerned creative sector vis-à-vis local authorities and key stakeholders.

Coherence

While some linkages between UNESCO networks are established e.g. through the UNESCO Cities Platform [1] (UCP), there is demand from Creative Cities for the Secretariat to further facilitate collaboration between cities and UNESCO field offices. The evaluation identified a great potential for city-level synergies with other UNESCO networks, Chairs, Biosphere reserves, World Heritage Sites, and Learning Cities. This could include sharing experiences on network governance issues such as the inactivity of some members, resource mobilisation, network management, geographic and linguistic limitations, etc. Regarding complementarity with other international programmes, at the global level the evaluation found limited evidence of collaboration between UCCN and other partners in the same context.

Effectiveness

The most important results of the UCCN include the exchange of knowledge and the increased mobility of creators and professionals across various sectors. Such movements are often framed under events that are typical of each creative field, such as film festivals, craft fairs, design weeks, or gastronomy events. The UCCN designation also adds value to city level communication and awareness raising efforts. Examples include the set-up of dedicated webpages, the observation of Sustainable Gastronomy Day or World Poetry Day, the appointment of creativity ambassadors or the use of the Creative City logo in publications.

Knowledge and good practices are effectively shared amongst Creative Cities worldwide, but such exchanges are not geographically balanced. Big data analysis reveals that connections between cities show a bias towards the Global North, a Eurocentric focus, and limited engagement with Africa and subregions in Asia. While there are some connections across thematic sectors, most connections occur within specific subnetworks. There are significant variations in the number of connections within each thematic cluster, and these differences don’t correlate with the size of the subnetwork. Per-capita income emerges as a key underlying cause for geographic imbalances in networking.

The most important enabling factors for achieving Creative City plans are political commitment, local ownership, available resources and subnetwork activities. In some cities political and administrative turnover affect these factors.

Impact

While SDGs are increasingly noticeable in Creative Cities’ reporting, social and environmental goals appear less frequent than economic goals. Economic impact is the most recurring example of long-term result reported by cities across all areas. Urban revitalization is a long-term outcome often reported in cities of design, media arts, gastronomy, and crafts and folk art. Cities of gastronomy frequently connect efforts in promoting their local gastronomy with the safeguarding of cultural intangible heritage. Other examples of long-term results include enhanced international cooperation with other cities, expanded opportunities for creators and culture sector professionals, the boosting of cultural activities and services and strengthened multi-stakeholder partnerships.

The evaluation found examples of potential unintended effects such as inconsistencies in aligning SDGs on economic growth, environment protection and reduced inequality. There are also concerns about cities using the UNESCO brand without actively participating in the Network, as this may lead to negative reputational effects for UCCN.

Efficiency

While the membership standards have been effectively applied, the Network’s design does not integrate sufficient incentives for applicants from underrepresented regions, and lacks transparency in admissions and an exit strategy. Evaluation respondents highlighted the need for UCCN to consolidate and improve quality rather than grow in numbers and to introduce rules for changing the membership status of inactive cities.

Global events such as the Annual Conference display visible signs of saturation as thematic subnetworks consolidate. There are concerns about managing subnetwork growth. Meanwhile, new networking solutions are emerging at national and regional levels that potentially allow for more meaningful exchange and collaboration.

The UCCN has effectively standardized its reporting and peer review processes. The processes could be adjusted to better align with UNESCO’s strategic priorities, in particular Global Priority Gender Equality and Global Priority Africa. There is also room for improving monitoring reports to ensure cities’ compliance with UCCN commitments and to allow for effective collection of reported success stories.

The Secretariat’s resources are not commensurate with the growth in membership of UCCN and its potential. According to UCCN focal points, the highest priority for additional resources is in subnetwork coordination. This is followed by collaborative flagship projects involving multiple cities and improvements to the UCCN webpage and communication tools.

Sustainability

UCCN reports rarely address global sustainability issues such as climate change or conflicts and disasters. An exception are challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic where the Network adapted its information system to facilitate knowledge-sharing on adaptation and recovery. These experiences feature in two UNESCO publications. Creative Cities have used the UNESCO designation to strengthen local institutions through promoting ownership and sustainability. Partners from both the public sector, CSOs and the private sector play an important role in designing and implementing city level action plans.

UCCN membership entails financial commitment and financial resources at city level, an important enabling factor for activities in the respective creative field and participation in international events. Financial constraints notably in lower-income cities, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and political/ administrative changes at the city level hinder their effective participation in the Network. Although the reporting process requires financial data, it is not critically assessed, and the information does not prompt any corrective measures.

Gender

UCCN has not systematically tapped into its potential to contribute to gender equality. While there is gender balance amongst Creative City focal points and staff in local partner institutions, there is limited reporting on gender and SDG 5 in Creative City action plans and in monitoring reports. The UNESCO/ UN system gender equality markers have not been applied to the UCCN information system.

Conclusions

On UCCN outreach and results:

  • UCCN serves as an effective exchange platform, facilitating artistic and professional mobility while sharing successful practices among cities. The UCCN designation and UNESCO branding enhance internal and external recognition and many cities leverage this momentum to reinforce institutional and financial capacities. However, political and administrative turnover may undermine local ownership, and cities with lower per capita income face challenges in networking, attending international gatherings, and building connections with peer cities.
  • While there are examples of Creative Cities’ interactions at global level the connections are geographically unbalanced with a bias towards the Global North, accentuating membership disparities. While a cooperation framework assists candidate cities during application, there is no such mechanism for post-application inter-regional cooperation.
  • The UCCN’s growth has led to less intensive and substantive exchanges at a global level, impacting in particular Annual Conferences. Thematic and geographic subnetworks emerge as key drivers for effective networking between cities, with most connections occurring within the same creative field, region, or country. City focal points view subnetwork activities as the primary enabler of knowledge-sharing, with working groups serving as think tanks.

On SDG alignment and impact:

  • The UCCN mission aims for creativity to impact SDGs and this concept is gradually permeating cities’ action plans and MMRs. However, these reports often miss a comprehensive vision on local development impact and include vague claims about contributions to SDGs. They frequently prioritize economic over social or environmental goals which raises questions about alignment with UNESCO priorities.
  • UNESCO’s strategic direction for the Network has been flexible. While Annual Conferences reaffirm the 2030 Agenda and UNESCO priorities, specific guidance for creative fields is not available. When it comes to substantive work, cities are encouraged to take initiatives according to local priorities and left to navigate on their own at cluster level.

On UCCN management:

  • The current UCCN structure and regulations have been adequate for facilitating its role as a laboratory for learning. However, concerns from active cities about the management of a rapidly growing network, uneven participation, and efficiency issues highlight the need for updated and expanded management standards and internal regulations. There is unease amongst active cities with the current membership process, particularly in terms of city designations and consequences for non-compliance with UCCN commitments. The current focus of monitoring reports on activities could be improved through tracking compliance with UCCN commitments and a more result-oriented approach.
  • At the subnetwork level, coordinators and the rotation mechanism are highly appreciated, but there may be issues about the increasing coordination burden due to network growth and a lack of assistance for coordination tasks.
  • The evaluation proposes six recommendations which are detailed below together with the Management Response from the Culture Sector.

Recommendations

For the balance and consolidation of UCCN outreach

Recommendation 1: Enhancement of UCCN structure

The UCCN structure should strengthen subnetworks by providing them with more visibility and recognition, as well as assistance for coordination tasks. To better manage the Network’s growth, the Coordination Group needs to expand by including more coordinators for the most numerous thematic subnetworks and by adding geographic coordination mechanisms.

Recommendation 2: Geographic balance and development cooperation

While the promotion of geographic coordination mechanisms in underrepresented areas and their integration in the formal structure of UCCN will favour the Network geographic balance, this should be further enhanced with a UCCN development cooperation strategy. Such a strategy should include an indication of priority projects (e.g. capacity building and joint projects in target cities) and foresee the provision of city-to-city technical assistance, as well as financial assistance from donor countries. While the Secretariat could play a facilitator role, Field Offices could also add to its effort by further designing and managing ODA-funded projects.

For a strengthened alignment with the SDGs

Recommendation 3: Setting standards by highlighting good practices

UNESCO should strengthen its standard-setting role by tapping into cities’ reported practices and highlighting good practices. With support from the Coordination Group and fellow cities, the Secretariat should select a reduced number of good practices (e.g. one per cluster and year), and later disseminate them through a UNESCO publication. The selection criteria should reflect UNESCO’s normative and strategic priorities, as well as a certain degree of maturity of the good practice. According to the UCCN laboratory logic, maturity may be interpreted as replication of the practice from one Creative City to another.

Recommendation 4: Enhancement of UCCN’s strategic direction, including on Gender Equality and Africa

It is recommended to enhance the narrative on the role of culture for sustainable development by creating a detailed strategic framework. This framework should establish priorities and stronger links between UCCN creative fields and a reduced set of specific SDGs and targets, which should be prioritised in accordance with UNESCO Global Priorities, Gender Equality and Africa, and the Mondiacult thematic areas.

In addition to Annual Conferences, the revised framework should reflect in the thematic choices of subnetwork meetings and working groups, in the collection of good practices, and in the structure of key membership documents such as applications, action plans, monitoring reports and peer reviews. To monitor gender mainstreaming at city levels, the application of UNESCO Gender Equality Markers (GEM) should be considered in monitoring reports and peer reviews.

For an efficient network management

Recommendation 5: Timebound membership with clearer participation requirements

Membership rules should be clarified and enforced by enhancing transparency in the designation process. This could be done by setting minimum participation requirements at Network and subnetwork level and establishing timebound memberships. Additionally, membership renewals should be contingent on quadrennial reports and peer reviews. Depending on the case, reviews of MMRs should lead to either membership termination or the implementation of follow-up and support mechanisms (i.e. mentoring or technical assistance provided by the most performant cities). Another option for informing the decision on membership renewal includes the establishment of an evaluation mechanism.

Recommendation 6: Result-oriented reports and reviews involving UNESCO-appointed experts

UCCN should revise the reporting process to ensure that: (1) cities’ participation and compliance with UCCN commitments can be tracked, (2) action plans and reports are result-oriented, and (3) the structure of such plans and reports allow for follow-up on cities’ alignment with priorities. The collection of cities’ participation data should be automated to track performance indicators at various levels, such as region, cluster, network, etc. The reports should also include a narrative for systematic collection of good practices from successful Creative Cities. Additionally, the peer review of reports should be reinforced with the guidance of UNESCO-appointed experts. Such experts should be knowledgeable about UNESCO normative and strategic frameworks and assess the alignment of Creative Cities’ reports with UNESCO priorities.

Depending on the case, reviews of MMRs should lead to either membership termination or the implementation of follow-up and support mechanisms (i.e. mentoring or technical assistance provided by the most performant cities).All the above recommendations were accepted by the UNESCO management. For a full management response including comments and action plans see item 12 of the 219th session of the UNESCO Executive Board.


[1]        The UNESCO Cities Platform gathers eight city related networks and programmes across the Organization’s fields of expertise: education, culture, sciences, communication and information. The Platform reflects the transversal approach of UNESCO’s work on and for cities towards the local implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.