Creating the Best Cities to Live, Work and Visit in South-Eastern Europe

Tim Taylor
Thriving Communities
6 min readJun 16, 2020


Thriving Communities is supporting the cities of Skopje (North Macedonia), Križevci (Croatia), Maribor (Slovenia), Niš (Serbia) and Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina) towards an ambitious mission:

To make these cities into some of the best possible places in Europe to live, work and visit by 2025 — and climate-neutral by 2030.

These five cities share similar cultural references, language and geographic context. Their region is one of tremendous natural and human assets, with each city having treasured mountains, forests and rivers, significant renewable energy resources and people’s strong sense of local community connections.

However, the range of ethnic and religious groups living together also led to fragmentation of a once common country, Yugoslavia, in the 1990s and unfortunate armed conflicts in the region. This marked a period of destruction, economic decline, and international isolation that impacted significantly, if unevenly, on the region’s progress. In the aftermath ‘quick and cheap’ basic infrastructure recovery came as a priority. Modernisation of industry; development of efficient buildings, energy, waste and water systems; and deployment of green modes of transport have been widely delayed and stalled. Being young democracies, significant trust and transparency issues also remain in the public domain. Identified as a generally ‘lagging region’ by the World Bank, communities in south-eastern Europe are faced with three major social and environmental challenges:

  • Pollution - with cities like Sarajevo and Skopje consistently on European and global ‘most polluted’ lists.
  • Emigration - with cities and regions being depopulated, especially of young people, even though the capital cities may be growing.
  • Building new levels of prosperity - while adapting to accelerating impacts of climate change.

These challenges are structural and require a radical and systemic response to tackle them on multiple fronts at the same time. The impacts of the current coronavirus pandemic mean that this is now a make-or-break moment to change tracks and deliver a better future.

So, we are helping the communities of Skopje, Križevci, Maribor, Niš and Sarajevo to rise to these challenges and lead a transformation process in response. The vision is for a leap in prosperity, quality of life and climate resilience in the coming years - made possible by harnessing their natural and human assets with the right mix of ambition, innovation and resources.

The starting point for our work is a radical and holistic mission. This forces us to focus on what needs to be done in our communities, rather than limiting to presumptions about what can be done.

The agreed collective mission is to make these cities into some of the best possible places in Europe to live, work and visit by 2025. Within this, we have set ourselves these radical goals:

  1. Bring air quality in our cities to within World Health Organisation recommended limits by 2023.
  2. Achieve circular and net-zero greenhouse gas emission economies by 2030.
  3. Ensure that by 2025 all members of our community have equitable access to the fundamentals of wellbeing: decent housing, healthcare, education, mobility, food, water, green and vibrant public spaces, security and productive work opportunities.
  4. Reduce year on year the impacts of heat and flooding on our communities.

These goals capture how cities need to be radically transforming in multiple areas all at once, as illustrated below:

Such a broad mission-led approach requires a massive reframing in mindset and ways of working. While we recognise the need, our experience tells us little about how to make such change possible. Therefore, ‘a process not a project’ - was the mantra through which we established this work. This helps us to push beyond ingrained but unhelpful siloed ways of working - fragmentation that is reinforced by funding models pushing for discrete short-term project work and deliverables that don’t leave space for systemic change, innovation and learning. Getting beyond such incremental work also means committing to a longer timeframe. 2–3 years won’t do, which is why we are setting in motion an intensive change process that must last at least a decade. Together we are brokering the funding and resources to make this possible. This process approach aligns with EIT Climate-KIC’s demonstration methodology, which includes iterative cycles of: establishing mission intent, systems analysis and framing, developing action portfolios and constant learning.

Our mission and goals give us a clear sense of what we are aiming for. Breaking current silos and ways of working is then necessary but not sufficient to bring about radical change. We also focus on key ‘Enablers of Change’ needed for any community to be successful in undertaking transformational change. These sit across four key areas: collaborative communities, enabling economies, smarter systems and municipal momentum — as illustrated below:

The Enablers of Change structure focuses us on how we will bring about change, not just what we will do.

To bring together this huge breadth and depth of work, we are initially focusing on catalysing action in neighbourhoods in each city. This is a proven strategy for ensuring that actions are deeply rooted in communities, while simplifying implementation against whole-city challenges. To help guide the process of taking integrated neighbourhood-scale action in cities, we are utilising the world-leading EcoDistricts Protocol and certification standard.

So, our transformation-space is framed by our mission, goals, enablers, action at a neighbourhood-scale, and a commitment to managing a transformation process over any specific project. As we accelerate our work, we know that holding this space and process is a massive task. In each city community we are developing collaboration and acceleration teams to catalyse this work. We have called these ‘Yes Teams’ - because their job is to get the community to ‘yes we can and will’ where our existing systems often default to ‘no’.

Yes Teams bring together entrepreneurial and passionate local individuals and organisations with the energy, capabilities and skillsets to inspire and hold the work needed. The Yes Teams are a critical incubator for systemic change and action in each city community. They are designed with three-cross-community layers: a core team, governance and allies & advisors.

The need for this sort of approach to transformational change has been recently reinforced by the recommendations of the Mission Board on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities. We look forward to expanding our work with cities committed to such an ambitious mission.

The Thriving Communities orchestration team supports the Yes Teams in each city — with experts joining together from Korimako, EIT Climate-KIC, Bankers without Boundaries, Material Economics, Democratic Society and Dark Matter Labs.

Please get in touch if you are excited about our mission and could help us with experience, connections, ideas, time or funding:

Thanks Tena Petrović for co-creation of this work and article.

This work is supported by seed-investment from EIT Climate-KIC aligned with the Healthy, Clean Cities initiative.



Tim Taylor
Thriving Communities

I specialise in supporting communities to develop and deliver transformational social, economic and environmental change initiatives.