Are the curtains finally opening on Edinburgh’s festivals and the city?

By Pratima Sambajee, Kendra Briken, Donagh Horgan and Tom Baum, University of Strathclyde

Edinburgh is a festival city constantly scrutinised and criticised by mutiple stakeholders in matters of city-planning, social exclusion, community ownership and overtourism. Residents, city officials, workers of all industries associated with festivals as well as the general tourism and hospitality industries, have experienced the city differently. The stage was set for a showdown concerning the value of the tourism economy, between city officials and disgruntled residents. A mounting debate around what is perceived by some as overtourism had reached fever pitch, following growing public opposition to entrepreneurial urban governance prioritising place commodification over citizen ownership. In recent years, a neoliberal backdrop had been revealed, exposing dark labour practices, workplace precarity and displacement in which the citizens of Edinburgh play only supporting roles. Once home to a thriving working class community, the festival city has been hollowed out as a skeleton for spectacle – a meeting point for numerous transient populations and impermanent urban dwellers. Relationships and bonds between stakeholders have weakened, meaning that suspicion often limits the spread of social capital and prosperity. Persistent and polarising poverty in Edinburgh is evidence of spatial and economic planning. The pandemic brought with it a unique opportunity to rebalance the economy of the festival city – an interval from the thundering hooves, and a recognition of the importance of shared space. However this is proving difficult due to the lack of granular data on tourism in Edinburgh.

The need for small cities like Edinburgh to remain competitive on the world stage, come in immediate conflict with more sustainable agendas focused on resilient place-based partnerships. Community ownership is important for placemaking-  and in planning for recovery and resilience – and can be difficult to cultivate in contexts where neoliberal urban governance necessitates a more reticent state. In fact the spatial development in Edinburgh would point to policy-making which cleared the city’s core of undesirable elements – and which continues to present a dramatis personae that masks forms of social exclusion and exploitation. The fallout from Brexit is slowly revealed on labour shortages in logistics and hospitality – the true extent masked by social distancing measures. Even before the formalities of Britain’s exit from the European Union were agreed, tourism bodies and sectoral associations warned of the particular risk to Scotland, whose hospitality industry relies heavily on migration from new accession states.  For those small businesses that have been able to weather the pandemic, resilience is built from the bottom up, and necessitates a wholesale engagement with the wider sector around Edinburgh’s hospitality workers – alongside other low-skilled employees.

For policymakers the picture is fuzzy, given the lack of granular data available on Edinburgh’s tourism workforce, and an absence of any real data on tourism’s impact at the neighbourhood level. Even if it were available, in informing the present circumstances, lots of big data has passed its expiry date – and cannot help us to predict an unknown future, only a complicated present. The period of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crisis, saw a rush to smart strategies to urban governance, many of which rely on the promise of big data to reduce city budgets and expenditure – and other top down approaches to small government. Not confined to the back office, technological innovation has also driven a Fordist reorganisation of the service industry reducing accountability and rights for workers. Previous crises have been the midwife of data-led transformation across all areas of society – the gig economy; the dark web and has set up multiple  barriers to transparent and open dialogue between and among stakeholders in a host of arenas. A reliance on data to guide policy, has reduced the capacity for agile responses to change, and increased the propensity for polarisation and paralysis. Within a constantly shifting context for recovery, some stakeholders are calling for less restrictions around opening up, while unions caution against risk to frontline staff. New questions are being asked around the quality of work, remuneration and on the sustainability of atypical and precarious work practices. Irrespective of a hostile immigration environment, Scotland’s tourism economy stands at a crossroads, where Edinburgh battles for its soul and identity  as a festival city.

Is smart tourism something tourist destinations only talk about, or also really implement?

By Dejan Križaj, Miha Bratec, Peter Kopić and Tadej Rogelja, University of Primorska

The focus of the research is on the adoption and implementation of technological innovations to analyse the Smart Tourism projects implemented in Europe according to the stringent technological criteria of contemporary Smart Tourism definitions.

Smart Tourism followed in the footsteps of the earlier concept of sustainable tourism and quickly established itself as the reference adjective when discussing tourism in politics, economics, and academia. In the latter, the debate has been lively, and although there are many different conceptualizations, academics seem to agree that Smart Tourism is based on the use of novel technologies that improve the quality of visitor and local experiences, while enabling destinations to take steps towards achieving their sustainability goals. However, as it happened in the past with the term “sustainable”, the adjective “smart” seems to be heavily misused when describing the various transformations that tourist destinations and cities are currently facing. Mostly, it dominates the marketing discourse, with many destinations trying to use this “smart” concept because it gives them a competitive advantage over other tourist destinations based on uniqueness and differentiation.

Based on our study, the reality of developing smart solutions within these destinations is mostly still in its infancy. More specifically, we, in detail, analyse:

  1. What is the real content of the Smart Tourism projects currently implemented within Europe and supported by substantial EU (European Union) funding?
  2. What are the characteristics of the Smart Projects and what kind of technology solutions are used in them?
  3. Can we really see the rapid technological progress in tourism services that the marketers of Smart Destinations promise?
  4. What do the currently implemented projects tell us about the future of Smart Tourism and Smart Destinations?

Summary of key findings:

Our work differed from most methods used in other studies that rely on the construction of conceptual models, frameworks, or indicator systems based on the evaluation of Smart City or

Smart Tourism goals, statements, strategies, and initiatives. The presented study goes a step further and tries to understand which technological innovations exactly were adopted and how they contribute to projects’ smartness. In order to better distinguish between conventional and advanced, interconnected technology, we have placed a special focus on Smart Actionable attributes of the projects analyzed. From what we could perceive in the selected projects, four smart technology trends can be identified: 1) Connectivity and Big Data, 2) Connectivity and Intelligent Algorithms, 3) Big Data and 4) “smart” projects with mainly well-represented technology that does not exploit the Smart Actionable possibilities.

In our initial online resource search, we encountered the vast majority of projects that were touted as “smart” but did not address any of the newer aspects of ICT infrastructure, such as interconnectivity and interoperability of integrated technologies. They were therefore excluded from our study, leaving only 35 projects, which we analysed in detail and assigned to the four groups mentioned above. This confirms our preliminary findings that there is a lot of hype and little substance (e.g., smart washing) regarding Smart Tourism projects. This problem stems in part from the fact that there are different, everchanging definitions and meanings of the term Smart Tourism. Subsequently, different stakeholders and entities adopt different meanings and set different priorities based on their viewpoints and schools of thought.

See full paper:

Workshop | DISTFest – Friday, October 22nd 2021

Cities and Universities
Socio-spatial dynamics of a complex relations and their implications for urban policies

Organized by:
Loris Servillo and Samantha Cenere (DIST, Politecnico di Torino)

Jean-Paul Addie (Georgia State University)
Louise Kempton (Newcastle University)
Daniel Malet Calvo (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa)
Silvia Mugnano (University of Milano Bicocca)
Nick Revington (Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Montreal)
Antonio Paolo Russo (Universitat Rovira i Virgili)

The phrase “town and gown” once used to describe the relationship between universities and the urban context in which they are located implies an understanding of the two as separate spheres. However, it is increasingly evident that complex, indirect, and hidden entanglements characterised the city-university nexus within the global paradigm of the knowledge economy. Universities may be seen as urban developers whose action impacts substantially on the built environment. Their capacity to implement an attractive and competitive educational offer and research environment triggers the arrival of students and academics from other regions and countries, thus transforming the demographic profile of a city. Through the attraction of highly mobile, cosmopolitan, and skilled populations, universities indirectly contribute to activate new urban economies that span from a new retail offer to the transformation of the housing market. These and other examples of how universities have become one of the most powerful actors of urban transformations will be discussed at the workshop Cities and universities. Socio-spatial dynamics of a complex relationship and their implications for urban policies.
Through the contribution of various international experts, the workshop will offer a wide range of perspectives on the complex university-city nexus, showing how the urban effects of universities activity are not limited to their capacity to function as providers of skilled workforces and as research centres contributing to regional economic development. The massification and commodification of university education, the mantra of global competitiveness, and the imperative for cities of being attractive lay at the core of heterogeneous urban processes that Higher Education institutions participate in activating. These processes encompass the transformation of the housing market, urban renewal interventions at the neighborhood scale, changes in the retailscape of a specific area, and the opening of private student residences.
However, these processes may reveal another side of the coin, constituted by spatial, socio-economic and cultural inequalities, both on an urban scale and within those areas particularly affected by these transformations. These could emerge in multiple forms, such as conflicts over the use of public space between students and residents; the replacement of services of general interest aimed at the resident population with others designed for a highly mobile population; difficult access to affordable accommodation; displacement, etc. To what extent the production of urban spaces linked to the increasing relevance of universities within global knowledge capitalism and interurban competition may be balanced by the pursuit of inclusive, sustainable, and just cities?
These questions and issues resonate with the Sustainable Development Goal 11 and build a bridge between the workshop and a research project on the urban effects and exclusionary dynamics related to university student mobilities, conducted by the DIST team of the Horizon2020 project “SMARTDEST. Cities as mobility hubs. Tackling social exclusion through smart citizen engagement”

For live streaming please register to:

Click here for the full program

Hindrances to Access to Housing in a Tourist City, pre- and post-COVID19: evidence from Barcelona

By Antonio Paolo Russo and Riccardo Valente, University Rovira i Virgili

This piece illustrates some of the early results from the study of Barcelona as an exemplary ‘overtouristed’ city in which access to affordable housing and its relationship with employment is at stake. Our insights seek to influence the debate about policy options for an inclusive port-pandemic recovery.

The SMARTDEST project (H2020 ref. 870753) focuses on forms of social exclusion emerging in the context of urban areas that are the hub of global mobilities, such as tourism.

Barcelona is one of the most celebrated examples of invention of a successful tourist city through urban planning, place marketing, cultural valorisation and innovative governance since the early 1990s; but also one that came to be subject to the highest level of tourism pressure, feeding a wide societal and political debate on social justice in the ‘overtouristed’ city. Besides, as a place increasingly dependent on tourism jobs and businesses (and especially so after the economic downturn of the 2008 financial crisis), Barcelona has been severely exposed to the next systemic crisis, that of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The key focus of the SMARTDEST case study in Barcelona is on housing affordability and its enmeshment with labour conditions in the tourist sector. The key assumption is that tourism growth produces benefits that are unevenly distributed across society and spatial scales, but it also entails social costs that affect long-term residents, for whom access to housing is becoming increasingly difficult, or tourism sector workers, that are more than others subject to precarious employment conditions and a high degree of ‘invisibility’ or informality.

Figure 1. Residential stability in the 73 neighbourhoods of Barcelona (2016-2019)

Our early results from a pre-pandemic analysis show how the progressive penetration of short-term rentals promoted via platforms like Airbnb is subtracting a sizable share of the housing stock from the long-term residential market. In our analysis, the spread of Airbnb accommodations during 2014-2019 period, as well as the levitation of housing prices and rental fees, were found to be associated with a reduction in the share of long-term residents (those who were living in the same neighbourhood for more than 5 years), an effect that is not significant in relation to the spread of the conventional accommodation supply. Discounting for other factors which may explain population change, we observe a high degree of residential instability in tourism-intensive neighbourhoods, with residents displaced to another neighbourhood or out of the city altogether (See Fig. 1).

We also looked at patterns of residential mobility among tourism workers between 2013 and 2019. Our analysis reveals that being employed in tourism-related sectors is associated with lower incomes and higher rates of precariousness compared to employments in non-tourism sectors. Such unfavourable labour conditions have a particular impact on female workers, that are more likely to be displaced out of Barcelona, while maintaining their main occupation in the city.

To conclude, affordable housing is a critical asset to ‘remain citizen’ in a tourist city like Barcelona, as is for many other cities that are studied in SMARTDEST. This seems to be increasingly a hindrance for vulnerable sectors of the population, and it is remarkable that the very model that feeds tourism growth also produces an engrossing share of precarious workers, those more likely to be affected by rising housing costs.

In the light of the above, pursuing the objective of reaching pre-COVID19 levels of tourism activity is likely to reproduce past exclusionary trends. If the global pressure on the housing market has only temporarily subsided (at the end of the summer season of 2021 evidence seems to point at a sharp reprise of the activity of short-term rentals), the situation of tourism workers and other vulnerable sectors has worsened substantially, because of high rates of unemployment. The post-pandemic future of Barcelona thus may a bleak one, in which social gaps are heightened and the very sense of social cohesion is at risk. In this sense, recovery efforts need to be based on a different approach to the planning and regulation of tourism mobilities and their local impacts, aligning with Sustainable Development Objectives like the reduction of social inequalities, which may imply steering away from a growth model which has shown all its limitations both in the pre-pandemic period and in its current developments.