Highlights from EDF on Sustainable Innovation Ecosystems

4 April 2019

Understanding together what it takes to build sustainable innovation ecosystems

How do cities adapt to and lead societal innovation when faced with fast-paced change and disruption in their local environments? Cities are reclaiming their role as co-creator and co-designer of societal innovation by taking more active roles within their local innovation ecosystems.

This includes working with businesses, and other partners within the ‘quadruple helix’ such as universities and civil society. The success of any long-term partnership, however, depends on working with citizens, and finding ways to translate their ideas and feedback into projects that benefit the entire community.

Over 120 city changers met in Florence from 27-29 March at the EUROCITIES Economic Development Forum to discuss precisely these issues by sharing knowledge between cities and look at ways to achieve scalability and impact the European innovation ecosystem.

As Andre Sobczak, chair of EUROCITIES Economic Development Forum and deputy mayor of Nantes, mentioned in opening remarks ‘we always need to make sure to have a concrete impact on the ground’. This can mean understanding the integrated way that cities work and building in participatory approaches.

A keynote speech by Esteve Almirall focused on how to foster innovation at the local level, particularly looking at how cities can use new technologies and governance structures to foster co-creation of innovation as well as to offer public services in innovative ways.

The role of inclusion and participation was highlighted, and the keynote speaker inspired the audience by reflecting on the need to start bottom-up to build a truly European model which is both sustainable, locally driven and inclusive.

The panel debate, which set the scene for the following activities, was centred around question of ‘why and how cities should build an innovation ecosystem’ and benefited from interventions of cities which highlighted their best-practices, but also from contributions of EU Commission experts which provided valuable inputs towards a European common definition for innovation ecosystem.

City Lab: Using collective intelligence to offer solutions to common problems on how to boost innovation at EU level

A highlight of the first day was the forum’s first ever ‘city lab’ – an innovation in itself that saw city representatives working through real problems they face in their cities to find common challenges that can be related to the European level.

During the innovation city lab city representatives were divided into subgroups, each trying to look at challenges and opportunities of innovation from a different point of view, but all trying to find common policy recommendations on how the EU can help building more sustainable innovation ecosystems.

The four subgroups included: Cooperation with EU Programs and Tools; Cooperation with Education and Research; Cooperation with Entrepreneurship and Start-ups; Cooperation with Citizenship; and Cooperation with Technological sector.

Some preliminary observation of the main inputs provided during the discussions and which, following a rigorous analysis, will contribute towards a forthcoming EUROCITIES position paper include:

On the overall role of innovative cities in EU context

  • Cities must reclaim their role as key facilitators and coordinators between different stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem, allowing co-creation and the promotion of innovative ideas and practices.
  • A stronger commitment and resources (e.g. funding) for capacity-building (in particular to build impact-assessment and measurements) and scaling-up at local level must be granted to boost innovation in cities in a more programmatic way. There must be an acknowledgment that European cities are going at different speeds, and there needs to be actions that allows catching-up.
  • In order to fill information gaps the dialogue between European Institutions and cities should be continued and strengthen (e.g. Urban Agenda for EU). Cities should be included in the process of creating the themes of calls in EU projects (e.g. Horizon Europe) so as to create innovative solutions that are in line with urban needs and challenges.
  • The lack of funding for new ideas at local level must be overcome by allowing EU tools (e.g. InvestEU) to be more accessible, targeted to end-users and allowing quadruple helix (especially more openness and flexibility to allow participation in application processes). Previously funded and developed ideas must be better accessible in a unified portal so as to build on best practices and failures. This is in line with a strongly needed long-termism approach.

On the role of Education and Entrepreneurship

  • Cooperation between universities and local authorities is currently far from ideal but is it crucial in the process of boosting sustainable innovation. Goals and Objectives (KPIs) must be more synchronized and developed in a dialogue.
  • Tools such as smart-specialisation strategies must be developed together and better communicated with the local people. The Education sector must be more connected with the needs of entrepreneurs and more supportive of innovative citizens that want to change the innovation landscape but lack tools and soft skills. Only this way cities will be able to attract and retain talent.
  • In order to facilitate entrepreneurship and start-up, cities do not expect to tax regimes and remove bureaucratic burdens altogether. However, they can be better supported and trained to provide advisory services to entrepreneurs on how to navigate bureaucracy and deal with issues of taxation and access to funding. At the same time, EU must streamline, facilitate and push for comparable standards.

On the role of Citizenship and Technological tools

  • To allow more cooperation with citizens it is essential to create digital and physical tools that can allow sharing and management of information in an accessible way. City administration can start experimenting this with innovative (public) procurement, moving from a competitive towards a cooperative framework using the added value of citizens collective knowledge.
  • In order to make best use of digital tools, particularly regarding participation and data tools (e.g. civictech), cities must increase cooperation and work together towards common EU wide solutions. At the same time, city administration must also change their own mentality at the local level towards technological innovations (e.g. govtech; open data). This can be only possible by opening spaces to new personnel and professional figures. There is a need to understand how the public value (e.g. public open data) created by these processes is then capitalized by the private sector, and how the benefits can be commonly shared.
  • Besides providing support to traditional entrepreneurs and businesses, cities must provide tools and advisory to start-ups that are focusing on social innovation and that are essential into solving societal challenges and achieve sustainable urban development.

Breaking the silos in Working Group meetings and testing innovative practices on the field during study visits

This sense of innovation was continued on day 2. In order to foster a more collaborative approach to their work, several working groups joined forces to draw upon the skills of different city experts. A workshop on the capitalisation of Urban Innovative Actions looked at what has been achieved in Turin to build collaborative models of urban regeneration with the Co-City project, while it also inspired participants how much more can be achieved in this area with innovative practices on public procurement.

During a separate meeting of the working group on city branding and international economic relations, a ‘critical friend review’ saw the different city experts working on a current challenge for the city of Ghent, and once again sharing innovative ideas on how the city can best develop its city branding strategy for the years to come.

During a joint meeting of WG Innovation with WG Entrepreneurship and SMEs participants also had a chance to focus on exchanging practices on how to build innovative financing tools and in turn how can these feed into the creation and monitoring of innovation strategies that are more sustainable, inclusive and with a long-term view.

The host city of Florence also participated actively throughout the three days – taking part in both a political lunch on public procurement as well as in a presentation of inspiring EU projects that aim at scaling up innovation (e.g. speed-up), contributing to the panel debate on how the city is building innovation and presenting in the working group meetings its innovative branding strategy which goes beyond city borders and towards the metropolitan areas as well as its vision to make Florence an hub for co-creation and start-ups.

Cecilia Del Re, deputy mayor for economic development in Florence, shared further examples of Florence’s innovation – such as a digital newsstand that brings news to people in a way they are more likely to consume it, but also exploring Florence vision for 2030, which takes into account strategies on how to handle issue of over-tourism.

Besides discussing definitions and suggesting better policies to foster innovations, participants had the opportunity to see the spaces where the innovation actually takes place. During the evening of Day 1 participants visited the newly renovated Museo Bardini, where they had the chance to see first-hand how Florence is capitalizing on less popular historical and cultural assets in order to redirect tourist flows.

Spending the evening at the Student Hotel on Day 2, participants had the opportunity to see how young innovators are rethinking the spaces in which new ideas arise. Finally, visiting the Murate Idea Park, a hub for start-up incubators, participants had the chance to see how a former prison can find a new purpose, and how it can serve the city to meet new challenges for the future.

Business Meeting: Setting the scene for more concrete ways of working in the future

On the business side of things, participants approved a new 2-year strategy for the Economic Development Forum which tries to break silos and focus more on actions with an impact that can foster a better quality of life for its citizens.

To build up on this promise, EUROCITIES staff announced its commitment to build practical actions on public procurement. This will be possible thanks to the Big Buyers Network, and which will look at how Cities can use public procurement as a strategic tool for innovation.

On the other hand, the coordinators of the Urban Agenda Partnership on Jobs and Skills shared the current achievements and future actions necessary to make sure that citizens are equipped with the necessary skills for the future.

The next EDF will take place in Munich on 16-18 October.

Missed out on attending? You can listen to the key note address from Professor Esteve Almirall, Center for Innovation in Cities, and the opening session below:

Opening session: