Innovative solidarity awarded $3 million

18 January 2022

What if people in your city could team up en masse to help those in need? Or how about if a new digital currency could encourage businesses to make social investments? And can we keep hold onto some of the efficiencies presented by online learning? These ideas, activated in Istanbul, Rotterdam and Vilnius respectively, have earned the cities $1 million each and a year of technical support as winners of the 2022 Global Mayors Challenge from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Istanbul – anonymous solidarity

Have you ever been into a coffee shop that let’s you pay into a fund to buy a second cup for customers that can’t afford one? You may not have known that this popular scheme is based on a hundreds-of-years old Turkish bakers’ tradition, one which has now evolved into a new form to suit urgent needs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a crowd-sourcing scheme launched by Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu in the early months of the pandemic, those who choose can give money to pay off the utility bills of other residents of their city. The payments are completely anonymous for both parties, marking what Imamoğlu has described as a “historical act of solidarity,” T-Vine reports.

Nonetheless, all of those who submit their utility bills to the city for the scheme go through a basic means-testing process so that givers are guaranteed that their generosity is not being taken advantage of.

The scheme was a response to applications by 25 percent of Istanbul households for social aid during the first year of the pandemic, a demand that could not be met despite the city tripling its social-assistance budget, according to Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“This city-wide, anonymous and peer-to-peer solidarity campaign will not only provide relief in the face of rising levels of urban poverty, but it will also help reduce social and political polarization by building bridges between different segments of society,” the Mayor of Istanbul told Bloomberg.

Rotterdam – social digital currency

Remember all that fuss about bitcoin? What if someone could develop a digital currency that was a force for global good? That’s exactly what Rotterdam has done in response to stressed public budgets in the face of an unemployment level that is twice the national average and rising.

A new digital marketplace, termed Rikx, is a platform through which local social entrepreneurs can connect with investors. Through Rikx, private-sector partners can purchase digital tokens that monetize social impact generated by entrepreneurs, similar to ‘offsets’ in the carbon market.

Social entrepreneurs are individuals who start companies with a social purpose. While many investors these days are looking for green and social investments, the normal marketplace is not ideally configured to match capital with such enterprises, mainly due to issues of scale, precedent and inertia. Innovations like Rikx allow the city, as a trusted partner, to bridge this gap in the marketplace so that finance can find innovative projects that help the city’s most vulnerable residents find work.

“I am thrilled that Bloomberg acknowledges our innovative efforts by awarding Rikx for further development,” said Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb. “By selecting Rotterdam as one of the best 15 innovative cities in the world, I am confident that we are on the right track to build cohesive societies in our cities. With this support from Bloomberg, it is my firm believe that Rikx has the power to generate significant social outcomes in Rotterdam, and elsewhere, resulting in increased social and economic resilience in our cities,” Aboutaleb added.

Rotterdam has a long history of coordinating with local employers to strengthen opportunities and improve social outcomes, which you can read more about here.


When this pandemic ends, will all the lessons we’ve learned about what can be managed online be scrapped, or will we hold on to the efficiencies we’ve achieved? For Vilnius, a city which has often been ahead of the tech-curve, the pandemic was a wake-up call about the lack of digital skills among many of its teachers. It was also a lesson on which elements of learning work well online and which don’t.

To capitalise on these lessons and ease an overcrowded public school system, the city is investing heavily in helping teachers get more familiar with technology and keeping hybrid (online and in-person) learning options a part of the system long-term.

A new database of online lessons, and the conversion of some city buildings and cultural spaces into digital classrooms will create the conditions for this change. This doesn’t mean slacking-off on in-person contact for kids. Rather, with the programme ‘Vilnius as an Open School’, the city wants to create a more flexible and modern environment to facilitate different learning styles and schedules, and the kind of variety that makes learning fun.

“Education is one of our top priorities, and I have no doubt that with the help of the Bloomberg Philanthropies we will make this idea a reality. Teaching and learning in Vilnius schools will be even more interesting and effective,” Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius told Bloomberg.

You can read about all of the excellent ideas from Eurocities members who were contenders for this year’s prizes here.


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer