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, and Athens Partnership, an umbrella organization positioned to intersect between city government and private sector partners.
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.