Photo: Istockphoto
The need for coordinated action
VREF – the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations – strives to contribute to the development of sustainable urban transportation systems that are accessible to the entire populations of tomorrow’s cities. Getting there requires knowledge about which decisions need to be made and who needs to work together to implement them.
By international standards, VREF is a relatively small research financer. But with relatively limited resources we can still make a difference, by initiating a process of change in the right direction”

Arne Wittlöv
VREF's Former Chairman
Globally, urbanization is taking place at a staggering pace. Today, approximately three billion people globally live in cities. In 2020, that number is expected to have increased to five billion. For individuals, urbanization often means a different and better way of life, with greater opportunities for work, education, healthcare, etc. But urbanization and increased living standards also result in greater transportation needs to and within cities, increased motorization, and, with that, growing environmental problems such as air pollution, carbon-dioxide emissions, and higher noise levels, as well as crowding that limits accessibility.

The goal
This is the type of development that VREF hopes to influence and move in another direction. The goal is to find solutions that contribute to sustainable transportation systems that serve the entire populations of cities and that at the same time radically reduce transportation’s negative impacts on cities and the global environment. “Future Urban Transport (FUT), which we finance, is a relatively small research programme, and it is a large and important issue that we have taken on. But we are convinced that the research we support can make a difference by introducing fresh ideas and breaking old traditional patterns of thinking,” says Arne Wittlöv, former Chairman of the Board.

New thinking makes a difference
VREF’s most important task is to identify how research can make a difference and contribute to sustainable solutions. “We understood early on that it is not technology per se that determines the shape of transportation systems. That makes the FUT programme special in a research context. It is more about integrating policy with technological development; bringing together decision makers, city planners, etc. at different levels and in different areas of a city so that the transportation system is developed in the interest of, and can be used by, the majority,” says Wittlöv.

Complex issues
These kinds of complex issues require interdisciplinary research efforts, but also that practitioners – such as public servants, decision makers and system operators – participate in the research projects. “We have to find solutions that take land use, city planning and housing construction into account as well as technical and economic solutions that contribute to transportation systems that make it possible to avoid chaos from a long-term perspective. We are not only interested in seeing solutions to various problems, but also how one can achieve change,” says Anders Brännström, the Chairman of the Board for VREF.

Required mechanisms
Some of the issues regard how one can succeed in ensuring that all of the stakeholders in a city or county are pulling in the same direction when it comes to infrastructure projects. Even with the right knowledge about how to design an optimal future transportation system, one must know how to make it happen. Which mechanisms are required to implement the design solutions? “We have seen so many examples of the fact that it is insuffi cient to know what should be done. One must also know how it should be done. It is fi rst then that a process of change can begin,” says Brännström.

Becoming an agent of change
The FUT research programme has existed for more than ten years. From the start, the expectation has been that the research results should be used and should contribute to sustainable transportation systems in cities. Now the task has become even clearer. “We feel that we have disseminated the results such that they get used. But now we want to take it one step further, where we ask ourselves, “Which areas are we interested in investing in? Where can we make a difference?” says Anders Brännström.

Continue to support
Therefore, in the future VREF will not only be about funding research. VREF will continue to support research centres and their development, but in the future each centre can have multiple funders from the start. Thus far, the centres have not needed to seek co-funding until after the first five years of their original research grant from VREF. “As a result of an external evaluation of the VREF, performed by Technopolis, we have recognized the potential for VREF to become an agent of change even more clearly. By requiring in the future that centres identify co-funders right from the start and engender the support of decision makers, we believe that we can stimulate a discussion regarding which solutions are required for achieving sustainable transportation systems,” says Anders Brännström.

Targeted requests
Some of the change involves going from open calls for proposals to targeted requests for proposals where VREF defines a topic that is in need of research and where FUT can contribute to finding solutions. Another part of the development toward becoming a more effective agent of change involves emphasizing collaboration between researchers and practitioners to an even greater extent. “In the request for proposals that is currently underway regarding freight transportation in urban environments, we require that the researchers already have the support of a city or county when they apply. We are clear that we want the solutions that are developed within FUT to lead to change,” says Brännström.

No ongoing call.

The earlier call dated 131221, Financing Urban Access, Research Director, is now closed for application and the review process is ongoing. 

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2014