Memo February 2018


A memo sent to correspondents, friends and acquaintances of the Budapest Observatory (BO) in February 2018


Until Monday, 5 March, can you advise on the activities of the EU about culture through an online survey. It is worth the pain.

An advocacy plea

For the next interaction you have a bit more time. Alpha and omega: culture is the fundament and also the ultimate aim of the European project. All efforts, economic and other, should aim at improving conditions for the essence of human existence on our soils. Investing EU resources into culture is a small but highly effective contribution to this cause. Add your signature if you also believe so.  

Sorting cities

Cities are ranked, labelled and classified like nearly everything on earth. They can win temporary titles:

  • Best known is the title of European Capital of Culture, one of the most successful products of the EU. Competition to win the title generates interest and excitement. Some of BO friends are offering help in this quest at a workshop in April in Wroclaw.
  • Established in 2001, Unesco’s World Book Capital has gathered less fame. At present, Conakry is bearing the title, until 23 April, World Copyright Day, to pass it on to Athens. Former book capitals include Ljubljana (2010), Yerevan (2012) and Wroclaw (2016).
  • Mexico City is World Design Capital. An international body awards the title every second year. The next design capital, Lille, enters in 2020. From Europe, Turin (2008) and Helsinki (2012) bore the title.
  • The European Green Capital was first awarded in 2010. Ljubljana, alone from east-central Europe had the title in 2012. The actual green capital is Nijmegen; browsing its calendar you can judge how far the green issue absorbs culture or the other way round. 

Cities can also receive titles or labels to constitute lasting networks or classes:

  • The programme of Intercultural Cities is run by the Council of Europe but the 123 cities entitled to bear the name include some from four other continents. East Europe is represented by 12 cities, which is less than in any single Latin country (ES, FR, IT, PT). 
  • Next would be the title of European Region of Gastronomy, was it for cities and not for regions. Anyhow, we find there Sibiu and Riga from the east.
  • A full-fledged urban programme is Unesco’s Creative Cities Network, comprising 180 members in seven creative fields: crafts & folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, music and media arts. With twelve creative cities, east-central Europe has a robust presence, sustaining hopefully the monitoring scheme of the programme.
  • Next come Smart Cities which deserve a new entry.

Smart but...

No matter how frequent the expression is, there is no official delineation or awarding about smart cities. Related EU actions are brought together in a smart cities info-system. The homepage features 130 cities collected here without official labelling or designation. Also, there is a portal that acts as a virtual headquarter of a loose network. One of its pages seeks answer to what a smart city is:

“Smart Cities combine diverse technologies to reduce their environmental impact and offer citizens better lives. This is not, however, simply a technical challenge. Organisational change in governments - and indeed society at large - is just as essential.”

BO is looking for culture in the concept and cannot find much. Google offers dozens of word clouds on smart cities with minimum or no traces of culture.


Smart cities are strong at brain but weak at heart. One would expect more after a quarter-century of bruderschaft with the creative industries.

Mention should be made of a few more smart-city-related items. A Vienna-based undertaking ranks cities along smartness. Among the 81 indicators 3 cover “cultural facilities”, taken from the Urban Audit of Eurostat, which defines the state of culture with the following:

  • number of cinema seats in the city
  • annual cinema attendance
  • annual museum visitors
  • number of theatres
  • number of public library distribution points,

with up-to-date data from only a minority of cities. The Vienna rank list of 77 members contains a few from east-central Europe with only Ljubljana in the first half of the listing. (This project is somewhat similar to the city monitor of the EU which does not use the term of smart city.)    

An American initiative runs conferences for smart cities and offers 50 awards each year: the latest list includes a winner from Warsaw and one from Tartu.

Finally, an event will be dedicated to smart cities in east-central Europe in April in Cluj.

Climate change

The main focus of the winter survey of the Cultural Climate Barometer was the Eastern Partnership area. 184 of the 244 responses came from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Therefore at comparing the tops of the lists of the most problematic factors to culture as perceived in 2017 and in 2015 the differences in the compositions of the respondents matter more than the time shift. A desire for modernity can be felt behind all five issues that were stressed more in 2017 than two years earlier. At the other end the government budget ceased to occupy the centre of attention (and blame) that it did two years earlier.

report about the survey tells more, and a separate account focusing on the six eastern countries is available as the fourth monthly brief of the Eastern Partnership Cultural Observatory.

Icy medals

Connecting to an earlier exercise, BO checked the proportion of east-central Europe at the eminent occasion of a peripheral cultural area – winter sports. The share of medals at this year’s Winter Olympics was 7%, not the best and not the worst in the century.