By the year 2050, the United Nations predicts 80% of Europeans will live in cities or towns. Over time, wealth, businesses, workers, and jobs have all concentrated in cities, driving greater urbanisation around the world. Yet wealth is not equally distributed, and the dividing line between rich and poor can be even more acute in urban areas. Most big cities have neighbourhoods that struggle with issues such as crime, unemployment, and homelessness. How can those areas be rejuvenated?
Can we use technology to solve the problem? Obviously, there is no “one size fits all” quick fix, and each city (not to mention each neighbourhood within a city) is going to be different. But what sort of projects are out there (either in the public sector or private sector) that are aiming to solve some of these challenges using innovation, entrepreneurship and new technology? We spoke to people working on such projects in three European cities: Brussels, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam, to see what they would have to say.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Rui, who argues that the biggest problem facing innercity areas (such as Molenbeek in Brussels) is persistently high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. Can innovative projects on the ground help deliver real jobs?
To get a reaction, we put Rui’s comment to Ibrahim Ouassari, co-founder of MolenGeek, an innovative project created in 2016 to encourage local start-ups and entrepreneurship, teach coding skills, and provide a co-working and networking space. The project is centred in Molenbeek, a commune of the Belgian capital known for having high poverty and unemployment rates. What has been his experience?
We also spoke to Julie Foulon, another co-founder of the MolenGeek project, to get her take. Here’s what she had to say:
Next up, we had a comment from Kaj, who agrees that cities can be “change agents” but adds that we shouldn’t forget about transparency and accountability. Not all experiments in innovative solutions can be successful. How can we ensure that cities are transparent when experiments don’t work out, and that they share the results so other cities can avoid their mistakes?
We put this comment to Marius Sylvestersen, Program Manager at the Copenhagen Solutions Lab in Denmark. In 2016, their “Street Lab” was established, a laboratory in centre of Copenhagen where new solutions can be tested under real urban conditions before potentially being scaled to larger areas of the city. As somebody in charge of trialling innovative ideas for a major European city, what would he say to Kaj?
The development of new solutions requires systematic and targeted experiments on the right scale. Therefore, we have developed urban laboratories to test and demonstrate solutions before scaling them to the entire city. The ‘Street Labs’, as we call them, deliver an important foundation of knowledge about investments in new technology.
An important point in doing experiments is that some of them are going to fail. This provides us with important knowledge about which type of solutions can be scaled to larger areas of the city and on the difficulties that lie in implementing new technology. Actually, when we launched Street Lab our Mayor mentioned, in his opening speech, that if do not fail once in a while chances are that we haven’t been bold enough. More information on this lab can be found here.
Finally, we had a comment sent in from Stephane, who argues that finding innovative solutions to the problems facing cities is expensive, and there is simply no money in Europe for this kind of thing at the municipal level. Is he right to be so pessimistic?
To get a response, we put Stephane’s comment to Ger Baron, Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam. His city has committed to making life “better and more convenient” using technological and data-driven solutions, addressing everyday challenges from traffic congestion to sustainability in a smart way. But do cities really have the budgets to experiment with innovative new solutions?
I think cities are still ridiculously rich and spend a lot of money on bulls**t (and you can quote me on that), so there’s a lot of margin to do things differently. In the end, though, it’s not about doing extra things. It’s about doing differently things that we’re already doing. So, in that case, a bit of upfront investment would be logical and, obviously, it’s logical not to invest in theoretical research on stuff that might have a role in 25 years; we are talking about things that a bit closer to market and our innovation, most of the time, is making use of [already existing] technology and innovations, so it’s more ‘process innovation’ than it’s ‘technology innovation’. I think you can do that pretty easily, in a business-case driven way, by… not doing more but rather doing things differently. So, I disagree with him.
How can we revitalise inner cities? Can innovation and technology help us solve problems like crime, unemployment, and sustainability? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: (c) BigStock – Paul Sableman
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