Tech city, sports city, festivals city, start-up city…these and many other terms could be used to define Cluj-Napoca, a fascinating place that is considered the historical capital of Transylvania. Mayor Emil Boc conveys the energy of a municipality that seeks to represent a new Romania driven by innovation and services, but also by a desire to leave nobody behind in the race towards a smarter future
Why should people come to Cluj-Napoca?
If you want to have a realistic image of Romania, of the Transylvania region and of Cluj-Napoca in particular, you have to shed your preconceived notions. After you take a look around you, talk to us and experience what we have to offer, I am sure your ideas will change. But it takes time to change existing stereotypes, and I know that this cannot be done overnight. There is a lot of talent in this country; a lot of innovation, creativity, and great potential for investment. In fact, this is one of the best places in central and eastern Europe for investment right now, and there is a great need for funding in infrastructure, tourism, agriculture and other important sectors of the economy.
As mayor, what have been the main challenges since you took up the job in 2012?
My aim from the beginning was to develop a strategy that would emphasize the competitive advantage of our region and our city. Our main advantage here is talent: we have a huge pool of talent, and a lot of it is going into research, development and IT. I try to convey the message that we are no longer living in the Communist era, when the city was heavily industrialized. These days, our advantage is in the universities: we have 10 public and private universities with thousands of students and this is our main asset. Instead of converting all the industrial land into shopping malls or apartment blocks, we developed high-class office buildings for innovation and research. And as local authorities we are offering incentives, such as a 50% tax reduction if you build a green building. Our aim was to brand Cluj as a hub of innovation for central and Eastern Europe, as well as a city of clusters, a research city and a start-up city. Services are also very important to us, including financial and medical. Our city is furthermore defined by four T’s: talent, technology, trust and tolerance.
Those are ambitious goals, but how do you make them happen?
We work as an ecosystem, not an ego-system. We work with all the stakeholders in society: universities, the private sector, the public administration, citizens and NGOs. We were the first place in Romania to create an advisory council of entrepreneurship, innovation and IT. All stakeholders meet every three months and we present the strategy for the city, and discuss how to emphasize this engine of development.
Many Romanians have moved abroad in search of opportunities. How will you persuade them to return, or not to leave in the first place?
We also want to create quality of life, first by offering a vision of economic development but also to retain talent and bring it back. At least 4 or 5 million Romanians are living abroad, many of them in Germany, Spain and Italy. How can we reverse this brain drain? We are analyzing the tools to do so, as this is an important goal for us. Human resources are the most important resource on earth, in my view. Providing a better education, better health services, better government services, a vibrant culture and a safe environment also attracts people, besides the economic aspects. We have over 2,000 cultural events a year and think of ourselves as the Festivals City. We are also the City of Sports, as we have the best sports infrastructure in all of Romania, and all kinds of competitions from basketball to soccer, table tennis, gymnastics and more.
And how do you keep attracting investors to the city?
After you succeed in reaching a certain level of investment, in order to keep attracting investors quality of life becomes an important factor, as well as personal safety, education, healthcare and a vibrant cultural life. Quality of life is becoming a fantastic asset for us, as it draws people to the city even before they have found a job. And everything connected with green is important as well: we have 41 electric buses, putting us in the top five cities in Europe if you consider the bus-to-population ratio. We have also aggressively pursued urban planning projects to pedestrianize many parts of the city, and we encourage bike-sharing and ride-sharing. We took space away from cars and gave it to the pedestrians, because we understand that quality of life also means quality of our public spaces. Only three or four years ago, our city center was congested with traffic, so it has been quite a significant change. And our building renovations also follow green policies. Many European cities like Munich or Amsterdam did the same earlier, and we have learned from their experience.
What is the role of technology in your vision for the city?
We are also trying to brand ourselves as a tech city, and are creating an ecosystem of innovation based on artificial intelligence, 5G, blockchain and other cutting-edge technologies. But we need all stakeholders to work together on this. Technology is not an aim in itself, it is a tool to improve the quality of life of people. We are working closely with local companies to develop apps that will do this, such as one app that locates free parking spaces. We are also the first in Romania to have introduced an online participatory process for city projects, and we did it in partnership with local companies. Citizens get to vote on projects, and participation is high. This is participatory democracy at work every day, not once every four years. Like the Queen said to Alice in Wonderland, you have to move very fast just to stay in the same place.
How far away are you from becoming a smart city?
We already have 70 apps and procedures to improve the quality of life of the people, from scheduling marriages online – and this is the most popular one – to paying taxes online, or buying bus tickets with your phone. And we are about to create Romania’s first virtual public servant, a project called Antonia; this virtual assistant will work 24/7 without leave and without any risk of corruption. The goal is to diminish face-to-face interaction except for necessary documents like passports. We are also in the process of creating a smart transportation system to synchronize traffic lights and avoid congestion. And because we don’t want to leave anyone behind, we are offering IT classes for senior citizens, because we believe everybody should have access to technology, and this is also why we have 53 free wifi hotspots in the city, which is good for students.
You said you want to leave nobody behind. What other measures has the city introduced to help the needy?
We offer free meals for the homeless and have 300 places at municipal shelters with beds, showers and TV. Pensioners also get advantageous conditions on public transit, as many of these people lost all their savings because of the devaluation, and we are trying to support them, to let them know that they are an important part of society. We have a volunteer program to keep seniors active and avoid the problem of loneliness that affects many of them, whose children have moved abroad. We are also working on an app to connect students who need a room and older people who need the company. You cannot have a strong democracy if you do not have a strong middle class, so we strive to emphasize solidarity and a sense of community so that people will take care of each other. We also encourage corporate responsibility.
How would you describe German investors in the city?
They are the main investors in Cluj and in Transylvania. They brought know-how, Western mentality, efficiency, quality and the ability for team work. We ourselves adopted the German model of dual education to ensure that all types of jobs are covered. We have worked with Siemens and Bosch, testing an autonomous car with the latter. There are 543 companies in the city right now, and they help us bring and keep good jobs. People here are much closer to the Western mentality than to the Eastern mentality, so cooperation is easy. And on the cultural side, every year we hold an Oktoberfest on a small scale.
What are the main tourist attractions here?
We have the most beautiful salt mine from the Roman era, which attracts tourists from all over the world, and we also have a beautiful mountainous landscape outside the city. This is additionally one of the few cities in Europe where you can see Gothic-style Roman Catholic churches and Orthodox churches together in one place, and several religions are represented, including Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Unitarians and Jewish.
What is your final message to potential visitors and investors?
Romania is back on track, but you must come and see it yourself and shed your stereotypes. You will find something different than you expected, and hopefully change your perceptions. You will find strong hospitality, and a place where you can spend time, start a business or a family, study in our universities, enjoy our vibrant sports and cultural life.