The Danish isle of Fyn lies on two key trade routes for the Baltic states and Scandinavia. It is dominated by the city of Odense. In the 2008 economic crisis, the Odense City Council was caught off guard. Since then, it has had to make some big choices to turn the city's fortunes around.
The Steel Shipyard of Odense, established by Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, was forced to close after some 90 years of service due to stiff global competition and the crisis. The entire city suffered as a result and the outlying shipyard and internal harbour area were purchased with the aim to repurpose the industrial land toward the goals of the City Council.
Over the past decade, a new wave of optimism and energy has swept over Odense. Its dependence on shipping ran deeper than jobs and businesses, meaning any effective change had to go beyond industrial replacement.
On this, everyone in the multi-partisan Council agreed. The Council Plan for 2016-2028 covers everything from infrastructure and environment to culture and business.
A knowledge industry
The necessary shift from a shipbuilding industry was a huge step. However, the decision was perhaps not so hard to make.
The other key employer in the city was from the knowledge industry, fed predominantly by the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) and their working partners Odense University Hospital (OUH) and Lillebaelt University College (UCL).
SDU houses the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute, one of Denmark’s foremost robotics research facilities with a recent refocusing on drone technology.
OUH employs over 11,000 staff, serving over a million patients a year and hosts some of Denmark’s most specialised medical research and patient care facilities. Multi-purpose, state of the art facilities will make the new site highly efficient, future-proof and adaptable. Once finished, it will be a short walk from SDU's main entrance to the rear of OUH.
UCL is the technical college. Highly attractive to both international students and Danes, many students will move straight into work or SDU. Like SDU it is an amalgamation of multiple, previously separate institutes and two years ago it moved into an attractive new campus next to the Harbour.
Converting research and knowledge into business, and ensuring city policy and infrastructure supports this, have been central to the Council plan.
From knowledge to wealth
In attempting to capitalise on these pre-existing success stories, the City Council heavily supports technology-based businesses and startups through grants, tax breaks and available workspace.
Examples are the Science Park, Videnbyen and Cortex Lab. All with a focus on health and welfare technologies. Fablab and various other start-up incubators are housed in the city centre and newly renovated harbour district.
Between them, they offer a variety of support for growth and collaboration. Workshops and events across the city are coordinated through both public and private funding, enabling startups and established companies to thrive and most importantly, survive.
The belief is that drones will play a major role in the future. Odense believes this too. It has transformed its small, underused airport into a European hub for drone testing.
Pro-drone airspace regulations mean drones take priority over planes. Favourable landscape and a dedicated drone centre mean Odense is at the heart of Danish and European drone research and development.
The city's central role
Aside from economic progress, Odense City Council sees the importance of city development alongside industrial and business growth. Urban development and cultural pursuits all play a role in raising the profile of the city and increasing the living standards of its citizens.
Perhaps one key advantage Odense has over its rival Danish cities is the unification of culture and urban development under one administrative body. Head of this department and Deputy Mayor, Jane Jegind remarked how “Businesses saw that investing in culture was a way of raising the profile of the city”.
The city boasts a host of national and international festivals. The annual HC Andersen Festival was a business initiative, and the use of drones both showcases the industry and gives festivals a futuristic buzz. “I want it to be a little bit cool to say I am from Odense”, Jegind said.
Citizens make a city
In 2016, the Guardian described Odense as “Europe’s most liveable city”. The ex-mayor Anker Boyes was quoted as saying “The investors are coming because they know people want to live in Odense”. These words were echoed by Jegind. “Growth in wanting to come here is enormous”, she remarked.
“I do remember the days where we had to almost crawl on our knees", Jegind recalled, "asking them could you please come and invest in our city. Now they call me"..."asking me where can we invest”.
To connect the city together, they are building an ambitious 14.7km light-rail system which will cost 3.4 billion DKK. The central station is being integrated into the redevelopment of the city centre. It will connect all the areas of the city to one another.
Jegind expressed her views on the plans to extend the light-rail. “Let’s just take it easy”, she said. “Can any of us foresee the technological development of 2030? Maybe light railways will be old-fashioned."
She predicted a few other potential futures of transportation, such as self-driving cars being more prominent. She also envisioned a melding together of public and private transportation. "We will use our roads much more optimally than today"..."I don't think, in ten years, I will own my own car."
This gives a great insight into the kind of mentality required to turn a city around. In a world run by ageing white males with short-term electoral or financial objectives, it is not too hard to identify some of the distinguishing features of Odense’s continuing success story. Jegind summed up her vision for Odense as “a big, modern city without the failures that other big cities have made”.
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