Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero who fought the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, probably crossed the then small city of Tirana during his travels to and from his castle in nearby Krujë.
Today Skanderbeg would have been surprised to see what Tirana has become – not only Albania’s capital city but also an important economic and political centre in the Balkans. A thriving place with over one million inhabitants, the municipality knows the importance of investing in its future and its citizens. One of the sunniest cities in Europe, Tirana is also the European Youth Capital 2022 with projects aimed at developing its full potential.
Increasing the city’s tech potential
Tirana is currently working with startups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) to invest in the city’s future – and its present. SMEs represent the vast majority of business in the European Union, and Albania is currently a candidate for EU membership.
According to Faola Hodaj, Tirana’ Director of Innovation, the city offers several facilities and public spaces to promote creativity for young entrepreneurs. Hodaj and her team started by responding to a growing need for a municipal innovation hub and a centralised database for startups and investors in the city. From there, they went on to establish a local networking point where individuals, entrepreneurs, SME’s and startups can register and find information and support for their growth not just in Albania, but elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
Digital Tirana is an online platform that was “developed by the city and is managed by the innovation team. It brings together different actors of the startup ecosystem and thorough information of the technology and innovation sector,” explains Hodaj. The project was launched in 2021 and the platform went online on 26 March 2022 with an official event.
Digital Tirana provides “information on financing actors, startups in Tirana, co-working spaces, incubators, possibilities, offers for youngsters and digital nomads,” Hodaj adds. And it came to life after the city observed that startups “lack capacity on their everyday job and need to connect to a wider network, so by analysing the needs of startups and the community we decided to create the platform,” the innovation Director explains.
There are four main pillars that support the project: market access; strengthening ecosystem collaboration; building new innovation centres; and talent discovery.
With that in mind, Hodaj explains that “we have gathered and are consistently working on a local database with information on startups, investors and other actors on the ecosystem by making sure that on our platform people can easily find what they’re looking for: a contact point, descriptive information, or a review.”
“An important added value – she adds – is that startups and other actors can register themselves. As a next step, we want to build a bridge with potential investors so they can help each other.”
The platform is equipped with a guide to the ecosystem, Hodaj adds. This “to help idea-stage startups on where to go, what to do, how to build a team, move forward, where to find help, and how to design a business plan, etc,” she concludes.
Networking and new talents
In sum, the city provides all that is needed for a startup to develop – from planning to networking to raising funds and expanding the project. Digital Tirana also hosts TechTalks in which founders and managers share success cases to inspire others in the community.
The project goes even further. On the platform, individuals can find information about the city – from where to stay in Tirana to where to find a community fitting their needs. Additional information about attractions, nightlife, tourism, or cycling is available to anyone seeking to invest, move in or visit the city.
For the tech-savvies, a job section on the platform provides tech opportunities in Tirana, offering a way to broaden the local startup community and foster connections.
The city is also going after young talents, through initiatives such as the Bibliotech programme. Hodaj says that “four public spaces in public libraries are equipped and have been technologically transformed, so youth can go there not only to read or rent a book, but also to use PCs to learn programming languages.” In addition, the municipality is planning on sending scouters to local schools to find promising students with a talent for technology and innovation.
“We aim for next year to start a high school program. We’ll go to all public schools to find new talents for the innovation and tech sector. We want to identify bright youngsters and show them what the city has to offer,” Hodaj explains.
Tirana is focused on looking forward. There are no more enemies to be defeated like in the times of Skanderbeg. Challenges have definitely changed, but not daily battles such as getting a seat at a table with major players.
Today, the Albanian capital is seeking to integrate, promote change, and provide opportunities for its citizens. Digital Tirana is part of this effort.