Eurocities on local innovation in times of crisis

Interview with Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary General, Eurocities


How can crises accelerate innovation?

Throughout this current health crisis, cities have reacted with urgency, in full realisation of the serious consequences facing their citizens. Many public services, from simple things such as downloading forms to others such as social services, have been moved online. This includes several innovations, such as online food and drink festivals (where recipes and music are shared), museum tours or improved digital access to public library records.

The crisis has led to an acceleration of our digital transformation. We’re finding new ways to cope in this current period of new normal, but we’re also standing on the shoulders of giants in the sense that the transformation was already happening.


How has Eurocities mobilised during this time?

I’m extremely proud of the way Eurocities, as the network of larger European cities, has been able to adapt and respond at this time. Of course, for the staff this has meant teleworking and coping with new ways of connecting with one another. But more widely, in our interactions with members we have maintained our top level services.

Our series of city dialogues have been bringing city representatives from across Europe into one online space made for them to exchange information and share tips about how they have been responding to specific aspects of the crisis, whether about finding safe ways for people to move around or discussing its impact on the most vulnerable groups, and what to do about it.

And in our advocacy work, I am pleased too that we have maintained good contacts with the European Commission and Members of the European Parliament, including hosting several online events and meetings with MEPs and Commissioners. So, the fight for a greater urban voice goes on. Just recently, for example, we had a great victory in the ongoing EU budget debates when an agreement was reached to increase the amount of money from the European structural funds that is earmarked for sustainable urban development.

How can local innovation make cities more resilient?

Cities are innovators. In every conceivable way our cities are constantly finding new ways of doing things. One of the most significant overall developments that I have witnessed in my time involved in urban affairs has been the realisation by many city governments that it is important to innovate the way they work with citizens and local stakeholders, such as businesses and academia. This means involving citizens, in all their various roles, in policy designing and making – Nantes is a very good example with their Grands débats – but also bringing together the different actors of their local innovation ecosystems to tap into the know-how of enterprises and universities and help spread the risk of plunging into the unknown.

Take the climate for example. Cities are not only innovating, but they are also mitigating the impacts of climate change and building resilience. We’re increasing blue/green infrastructure, setting clean energy targets and working on reducing the carbon impact of the value chain in areas as diverse as food and mobility. We innovate to create healthy places for citizens to live, work and play in.

Last but not least, city innovation also entails making a leap in the ways local government works and functions. We need to move from a silo-based organisation and planning to a holistic, integrated and citizen-driven way of conceiving and leading urban development.

These actions come together in my role as rapporteur for the board of the European Commission’s Climate Neutral and Smart Cities mission, which aims at promoting and supporting the systemic transformation of 100 cities towards climate neutrality by 2030 – for and by the citizens. Here we are already working to propose new funding and financing models that will help unleash the innovation potential of cities, and crucially, to scale up the most innovative examples to help build sustainability and resilience across Europe.


Eurocities in short

Eurocities wants to make cities places where everyone can enjoy a good quality of life, is able to move around safely, access quality and inclusive public services and benefit from a healthy environment. We do this by networking almost 200 larger European cities and gathering evidence of how policy making impacts on people to inspire other cities and EU decision makers.