Syn­er­gies earn Athens ti­tle of in­no­va­tion cap­i­tal

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY NIKO EFSTATHIOU

A few min­utes af­ter the clock struck 12 noon on Tues­day, the crowd gath­ered at the re­cently ren­o­vated Ser­afeio com­plex in down­town Athens broke out in ap­plause and cheers. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­ity, lo­cal NGOs and civil so­ci­ety were cel­e­brat­ing an un­ex­pected vic­tory for the City of Athens – the cov­eted ti­tle of Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of In­no­va­tion for 2018, ac­com­pa­nied by a one mil­lion eu­ros cash prize funded by the Euro­pean Union’s Hori­zon 2020 pro­gram.

On a widescreen TV set up at the re­cre­ation cen­ter, they watched Athens Mayor Gior­gos Kami­nis re­ceive the prize on be­half of the city, in a live broad­cast of the cer­e­mony in Lis­bon. “This suc­cess is some­thing we all achieved to­gether,” said the mayor as he han­dled the enor­mous check.

The term in­no­va­tion can be mis­lead­ing as it usu­ally refers to tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs and the boom­ing of a startup ecosys­tem. In the case of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s prize the ap­proach is more con­cep­tual: here, the EU re­wards cities that find new and imag­i­na­tive so­lu­tions to ad­dress their so­cial, eco­nomic and ad­min­is­tra­tive chal­lenges.

What made Athens edge out the com­pe­ti­tion – Toulouse in France, Ham­burg in Ger­many, Leu­ven in Bel­gium, Umea in Swe­den and Aarhus in Den­mark – was a com­bi­na­tion of numer­ous greater chal­lenges along with the flour­ish­ing of new mod­els of ur­ban gov­er­nance and an un­prece­dented level of civic par­tic­i­pa­tion for Athe­nian stan­dards.

“Athens is proof that it’s not the dif­fi­cul­ties them­selves, but how you raise your­self above them that mat­ters,” said Car­los Moedas, EU com­mis­sioner for Re­search, Sci­ence and In­no­va­tion, an­nounc­ing the win­ning city at the Web Sum­mit in the Por­tuguese cap­i­tal.

In 2014, Barcelona was awarded for its smart use of gov­er­nance data and in 2017, Paris got the prize for the adop­tion of cit­i­zen-ini­ti­ated poli­cies. In the case of Athens, the dis­tinc­tion ap­plauded the forg­ing of gov­er­nance part­ner­ships between the mu­nic­i­pal­ity, the pri­vate sec­tor and civil so­ci­ety. Through pro­grams such as SynAthina, a plat­form that fa­cil­i­tates cit­i­zens’ groups seek­ing to im­prove the qual­ity of life in the city, and Cur­ing the Limbo, an in­te­gra­tion ini­tia­tive that con­nects the refugee pop­u­la­tion with ac­tive Athe­ni­ans, the Greek cap­i­tal is grad­u­ally see­ing the cre­ation of a boom­ing ur­ban ecosys­tem, where new ideas and pro­pos­als are con­stantly be­ing tested.

One of the stand­out ex­am­ples of a suc­cess­ful pri­vate-pub­lic part­ner­ship is the con­tri­bu­tion of the Stavros Niar­chos Foun­da­tion, with its gen­er­ous do­na­tion of 10 mil­lion eu­ros for the de­vel­op­ment of numer­ous pi­o­neer­ing ur­ban projects. Among these are the thriv­ing Open School pro­gram, which pro­vides free cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties for cit­i­zens in 25 school build­ings scat­tered across the city. There’s also Athens Trigono, a pi­lot ur­ban plan­ning ini­tia­tive that aims to re­vi­tal­ize the his­toric and com­mer­cial cen­ter of the Greek cap­i­tal.

A re­ward usu­ally has a far greater im­pact, not when it is awarded ret­ro­spec­tively af­ter a project’s com­ple­tion, but when it is used as lever­age for fur­ther trans­for­ma­tion. While Athens con­tin­ues to face dozens of chal­lenges, its pi­o­neer­ing mod­els of gov­er­nance and ur­ban part­ner­ships are slowly shap­ing a legacy for the fu­ture. The city has opened a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for it­self – now all it has to do is step through it.

Athens Mayor Gior­gos Kami­nis (l) waves as he re­ceives the mil­lion-euro check.

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