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KNOW Havana: Tracing the university as a key urban actor

The public vocation of Cuban universities is unquestionable. As public institutions, historically they have had a mandate to address social issues at the national level. As the political, economic and social context of Cuba have changed over the last few decades, the forms in which that public role manifests have also been transformed. These changes raise important questions for urban equality issues: What are the key moments that have positioned the university as a key urban actor? What kind of knowledge have universities used to impact urban trajectories? What kind of collaborations and institutional arrangements have emerged to address urban issues? Which strategies have been used by universities to influence policies and practices, and under which conditions they have been effective?

Keeping these questions in mind, and in the context of the visit of Research Fellow Camila Cociña to Cuba, the KNOW Havana team spent a week mapping and tracing the different moments and experiences that have allowed universities to become drivers of urban change, exploring how knowledge has been co-produced and used to influence policies and practices at different scales. These activities took place as part of the collaboration between KNOW Work Package 4 and the Havana team based in CUJAE University. Such collaboration seeks to collectively research the processes of ‘knowledge translation’ that are taking place as part of the KNOW programme, and to support activities to strength the impact of the project. Particularly, we are working together on understanding and strengthening the role of university as a broker between neighbourhoods, communities and the state at different levels.

Top image: CUJAE Campus

Above image: Meeting CUJAE with DGT-H in Havana


With a rich agenda in our hands, we spent the week of the 14th October 2019 in a series of meetings, workshops and visits as a first step to document experiences of collaboration between university and public institutions, as well as the instruments and tactics utilised to translate knowledge and strength impact. The agenda included meetings with various faculties and initiatives both within CUJAE as in other universities of the city, such as the Universidad de La Habana. In our discussions and exchanges, it became clear that issues of transdisciplinary work, international and national collaborations, and the adaptability of institutional governance are key to engage with wider geopolitical and national challenges.

In order to understand the ways in which research and knowledge have been used over time by public institutions, the team held meetings with representatives of several public entities, such as the General Direction of Transport for Havana (DGT-H). Since its creation 5 years ago, the DGT-H has promoted the collaboration with universities, including CUJAE due to its technological approach. Through several working groups, CUJAE and the DGT-H have developed action research projects related to public transport in the city, embracing issues of ‘sustainable mobility’ for Havana. We also visited the Oficina del Historiador, body that has been in charge of the governance and recovery of the historical district of Havana, and the multiplicity of challenges and actors that such a task supposes. The KNOW team is directly collaborating with one unit within the Oficina del Historiador, known as ‘Plan Maestro’, which is in charge of the redevelopment of the Havana’s Bay, one of the case studies for the KNOW Havana programme. Additionally, we met part of the team of the National Design Office (ONDI), which is directly collaborating with KNOW through a project about inclusive, active and healthy ageing, working particularly on how this issue affects the district of Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, the most aging municipality in Cuba. The focus on ageing population is one of the multiple entry points that the university has taken to approach vulnerable groups, as part of its mandate to engage with wider social issues, including urban equality.

The activities included exchanges with students from the faculties of Architecture, Communication, Engineering and Design, with whom we discussed the role of students’ research, thesis and internship as key initiatives for the construction of bridges between academy and practice. The participation of students at different levels is crucial for the KNOW Havana programme. Their active participation is, on the one hand, a pedagogical opportunity for students to develop capacities and exchange knowledges with different stakeholders; and on the other, it provides refreshing ideas to the development of the research programme, as students are able to multiply views for the future, envisioning alternatives and urban trajectories. The collaboration with undergraduate and postgraduate students seeks to strengthen ideas of co-production and participation, which are at the core of the programme objectives.

The week also included visits to experiences outside Havana. An inspiring exchange took place in the town of San Juan de los Remedios (pictured below), where the Universidad Central de Las Villas (UCLV) is working in direct collaboration with municipal authorities and practitioners, in the context of the “Habitat Project”. The Habitat Project seeks to develop capacities of communities to participate in the development of their own built environment, transforming the municipal arena into an innovation and experimental field for co-production processes. Then, the visit included exchanges with UCLV academics, local teachers, municipal officers and representatives of local organisations who have taken part in the process, to understand the conditions, challenges and strategic decisions behind the success of the project. This project draws on previous experiences that sought to give answer to community problems in the region, building upon the results of earlier research and capacity building projects. From a KNOW Havana perspective, this experience represents one of the most significant exercises of co-production led by a university, illustrating how the commitment of universities to contribute to community development takes different shapes across the country.

Top image: Meeting with UCLV members in Remedios

Above image: Streetscape in Remedios

Below image: View to Las Terrazas


Additionally, we visited the Experimental Community “Las Terrazas”(pictured below), a protected eco-touristic settlement that is facing several challenges related to housing, sustainability and heritage, seeking ways to evolve and adapt without missing its community and environmental assets. Throughout its history, CUJAE has worked with Las Terrazas in several occasions. In the last two years, they have developed an ambitious research project that involve horizontal exchanges between researchers, community leaders and dwellers, seeking to contribute to the implementation of renewal energy standards and monitoring systems.

The multiplicity of experiences visited presented a variety of challenges and models of collaboration, which contribute to locate the work of KNOW Havana within a constellation of existing institutional arrangements and experiences. As unveiled by the exchanges during the week, Cuba has experienced a long and complex process, especially in the last 20 years, in which universities have found pathways to actively collaborate with public institutions, helping in the process of agenda setting, providing data, research, concepts and ideas able to shift the discussion and solve problems. These experiences are shaped by wider geopolitical processes taking place in the country, but also by the capacity of institutions to adapt and set different arrangements that recognise knowledges emerging in several spaces and forms. We hope that the KNOW programme, through its research and capacity building activities, the engagement with multiple stakeholders, the development of outputs, and through a robust impact strategy, can contribute to strength these spaces of knowledge translation and collaboration, building pathways to Urban Equality.

Above image: Meeting with Habitat Project in Remedios

All images by KNOW Team, 2019


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