Cluj-Napoca aerial view, Source: Depositphotos

Cluj-Napoca: Lessons on dealing with brain drain, Part I

Cluj-Napoca: Lessons on dealing with brain drain, Part I

A talk with Calin Hintea, Professor at the Babes Bolyai University and one very important piece of the city’s anti-brain drain development strategy

In Part I of this article, Calin Hintea, (Professor at Babes Bolyai University and one of the driving forces behind Cluj-Napoca's successful anti-brain drain strategy) explains the steps and changes the city went through to tackle the issue.

Stay tuned for Part II, where we talk about exporting and replicating that know-how to other communities with different characteristics. 

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of the brain drain. It touches every country with rural and ex-industrial regions that now bear the rusty marks of past prosperity.  Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the former Eastern Bloc countries, now part of the European Union – especially Bulgaria and Romania, the EU’s poorest member states.

This story has happened multiple times. When Eastern European countries were exposed to free market forces, factories failed and regions were left behind jobless and grey, with little competitive advantages and little perspective for the future.

This pushed the young, smart and entrepreneurial people to look for other options elsewhere, leaving the regions with an ageing population and even fewer opportunities, feeding a vicious and negative cycle.

calin hintea

Calin Hintea

Yet, one city stands out with a policy that has stopped and even started to reverse the brain drain – Cluj-Napoca. And no small part of that success has to do with Professor Calin Hintea, the Dean of the College for Political Administrative and Communication Sciences (FSPAC), who was heavily involved in developing the local strategy to tackle the issue – a process that started 15 years ago.  

During his interview with TheMayor.EU taken in December 2022, he explained that the city hasn’t solved the issue quite yet. “But we are not doing badly.” According to the latest demographic data, it is one of the very few Romanian cities to actually see an increase in population, considering that Romania is in demographic decline.

This phenomenon can be attributed to Cluj-Napoca’s development strategy, a product of collaboration between the city and a working group of experts, like Professor Hintea. Here, he will try to explain the changes the city made and the process of shifting Cluj-Napoca from an industrial economy to a more competitive knowledge-based economy.

Moving away from the grey

First of all, it’s very important to point out that tackling systemic issues and the huge gaps that the de-industrialisation process leaves behind takes a long time. Professor Hintea explained that the development of the strategy started back in 2007, the year Romania joined the EU when Cluj-Napoca was a very different city.

As he put it, it was a depressing city, going through a typical phase for post-communist countries. The main economic drivers for the locality were six big factories dealing in heavy industry. After 1989, they started to collapse, some faster, others – slower. “The city was in quite a bad situation, economically. We were in a kind of grey environment, the city didn’t have colour, opportunities, or ideas.

Professor Hintea explained that Mayor Emil Boc sought out advice and partnership with universities, based in Cluj-Napoca. “He told us the city needs some strategic analysis and maybe public policy analysis to see what we are going to do because we need some big choices. And what we came up with was - let’s move from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, we have a huge competitive advantage – universities. I’m not only talking about my university – there are six state universities in Cluj-Napoca and if there is a competitive advantage - that’s it.”

Transitioning to a knowledge-based economy

The team that worked on developing the strategy came up with three main strategic priorities – focus on universities, transitioning to a knowledge-based economy and civic participation. However, the team did not want to promote a sort of perfunctory participation.

Instead, according to Mr Hintea, the team wanted to build City Hall and the Mayor as a strategic facilitator of big community ideas. The point was to amplify community initiatives, instead of the mayor coming up with one idea everybody has to follow.

In the case of civic participation, however, Hintea explained that the process was as important as the final results. For example, City Hall launched a participatory budget, where citizens could vote on projects for the municipality. Although novel at the time, the practice has spread and is a staple of Romanian municipalities today.

In Cluj-Napoca, it started as physical meetings in the neighbourhoods, but now it has moved to a digital platform. The process and the projects, he explained, got more and more sophisticated as time went on. 

“So somehow, and that is an interesting scientific conclusion for us, that if you use participation at some point it takes on a life of its own. The lowest level of that practice is not to interfere with the ideas, the most sophisticated level is to support them, build a kind of environment.

Improving the quality of life indicators

The big story for Cluj-Napoca is not about participation, however. It is about attracting foreign investment. In the past 15 years, the mid-sized city in Romania’s North-West has managed to attract companies and high-paying, high-skilled jobs. They managed to offer opportunities.

Professor Hintea explained that the team tried to tackle the issue with a two-fold approach. As mentioned above, Cluj-Napoca’s main advantage is the universities, meaning that it has highly skilled human capital available locally. The second line of action was to increase the quality of life indicators.

In this regard, he said that both the city and researchers looked at the indicators really closely and tried to improve them very consciously. As he put it- this would be the only way to actually attract foreign high-skill labour - offering them something to stay in Cluj-Napoca for. He gave an example with public transportation – the working group’s first analyses showed that satisfaction was around 20% - “So, it was very bad.” The city then started investing in public transport with initiatives like free public transport on Fridays or a ticket machine that gives out tickets if you squat 20 times.

Now, Professor Hintea explained that satisfaction with public transport has risen to about 68-70%. And this was far from the only area authorities and researchers focused on. “We told them – we see very bad data on access to sports facilities. They build two big open sports facilities and this also shows in the data.”

This is when, as he put it, there was a sort of shift in society. As an example, he explained that there was a big debate in the city about a seemingly non-significant strategic issue – whether dogs should be allowed on public transport.

They were not allowed at the time and the decision to let them on the buses was approved in the end. But, as he explained, the debate was not necessarily about dogs. “It was the idea of a more sophisticated community that cares about animals too.”

He continued by saying that there is definitely more work to be done. One important point for the future development of Cluj-Napoca is trying to spread foreign investment and good practices to the whole metropolitan region, with villages and smaller cities.

Professor Hintea explained that treating those as second-hand neighbourhoods would be a big mistake. Instead, local authorities want to make them more resilient, so they can make Cluj-Napoca more attractive and build on – creating a positive feedback loop instead of the negative one the region had started out with.



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