“I have to admit I do not have all the answers to respond to the challenges we are currently facing,” opined Maarten van Ooijen, Deputy Mayor of Utrecht. “That is why I am so happy that we are not expecting the answers from the people that are on the stage, but from each other. We are looking forward to seeing other solutions and social innovations. We need creativity from everybody.”
Van Ooijen, who is also Chair of the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, spoke at the opening of the three day Social Innovation Lab this week, hosted by the city of Berlin, which this year looked at how cities can use social innovation to ensure fair, green and digital jobs.
Rising social inequalities are “nowhere more visible than in cities,” he continued. Nevertheless, some takeaways from the pandemic have been that “cities have stepped up in an unprecedented way with fast and immediate responses to help the most vulnerable people.”
Social aspects overlap with all other aspects
Van Ooijen referred to a key challenge in his remarks: breaking through organisational and policy silos. “We have to think of collaboration among social, digital, and physical departments. All kinds of social issues are connected to the physical part of our cities,” he said.
Filipe Araújo, Vice Mayor of Porto, agrees.
As Chair of the Eurocities Environment Forum, he highlighted the importance of working together from the social but also environmental perspective. Green and digital transitions need to go hand in hand with social investments to ensure the fair inclusion of all.
“We all agree on the importance of social development and meeting the targets that are set. We should keep them together with the green and digital targets. We cannot see them apart but moving forward together. Otherwise, we are leaving people behind,” he said.
Bailie Annette Christie, SAF Vice-Chair and Glasgow City Councillor, shared her experience as the COP26 host and talked about projects connecting climate change initiatives with gender equality solutions. “I would humbly like to say that in my own small way, I played my part in this. The City Council brought together 2,500 15-year-old girls to discuss the climate and ecological emergencies in partnership with the Women of the World Foundation and Glasgow Caledonian University’s Climate Justice Centre,” which was created by the Mary Robinson Foundation. The Councillor then quoted Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “Where the problems are man-made, the solutions are feminist.”
Recovery means inclusion
Dr Klaus Lederer, Mayor and Senator of Berlin, who orchestrated the official opening, claimed a successful recovery means making it inclusive and sustainable. The main objective, he said, is to create an inclusive labour market, reduce social inequalities, poverty and tackle climate change.
“It is crucial that we ensure decent working conditions in this transition and leave no one behind,” he stated. “An inclusive recovery means protecting the most vulnerable groups such as young people and children, elderly people, people with disabilities and migrants and refugees.”
Van Ooijen highlighted access to quality jobs, and skills training is fundamental to fight against poverty and ensure a fair and just transition. “As we rebuild, we must look at how to address existing disparities that make some groups more vulnerable than others and make our labour markets more inclusive.”
The Mayors Alliance is already a good signal to show cities’ commitment, but van Ooijen pointed out that we must go further and take more significant steps in social investment. Finally, there is a need, according to van Ooijen, to invest in cities to make their role bigger in the overall policy context, making it more direct and flexible. “With all levels of government working together, we can continue to build on these successes and deliver on the European Pillar of Social Rights.”
Last year, Vienna signed a pledge committing to increase access to essential services such as water, energy, subsidised housing and mobility. For the council, the recovery should guarantee public services following specific principles: security of supply, reliability, social price policy, health and sustainability.
Christian Oxonitsch, a member of Vienna City Council, declared that: “To foster the social dimension of the EU, Vienna reiterates the demand of many cities, regions and public services providers across Europe to exempt investments for public services from the EU’s debt criteria to create the necessary leeway. We can only have a social Europe together with the cities.”
Cities call for EU funding
Katarina Ivanković Knežević, Director for Social Rights & Inclusion at the Directorate General Employment of the European Commission, expressed her concern about the consequences of the pandemic, given that it is not yet over, “we will see them fully in years to come.”
“We need the European Commission and national governments to include cities in developing new pathways and strategies,” stated van Ooijen. Cities would like to change their way of working, but funds are essential. “The recovery needs an unprecedented level of social investments that cannot be done by cities alone.”
Ivanković mentioned reactions at the EU level, especially compared to the previous crisis of 2008/2009, were much faster to secure employment. Now, SURE, recovery plans such as ReactEU, as well as the revisions of the financial regulations, are all instruments in place to help with the immediate impact of the crisis. However, she agrees on a more concrete financing plan for cities and highlights the importance of thinking of this type for the next EU budget beyond 2027.
A call on behalf of future generations
Professor Frances Stewart from Oxford University delivered an inspiring keynote on the idea that “the future generations are not given the importance they deserve.”
She stated this is a massive failure, and one of the reasons is the structure of political bodies that do not admit the participation of future generations. Solutions presented could be reducing the voting age or reserving a proportion of seats for people representing the future at national and local levels.
The professor presented three possibilities to improve what she refers to as ‘futurability’ locally. The representation of future generations through appointed councillors or committees, some procedural changes such as including future impacts in reports, or even the improvement of the deliberative process by creating cross-party commissions and networks, for instance.
“We have a severe democratic deficit, which has serious implications for current decisions and future wellbeing”, she stated. “Shouldn’t future generations participate in current decisions? In a true democracy, people should participate in decisions that affect them.” However, although thinking about the future, we should not do it at the expense of the citizens in the present. According to Stewart, even in the public sector, we are not valuing future generations accordingly.
“Where national governments fail to take actions, cities can still make a contribution and have an effect,” she added.
According to Bailie Christie, we should learn from past mistakes but move towards a dream of a new conceptual universe for the wellbeing of us all, especially for future generations. “Our cities, as policymakers, must rise. Rise to the challenge. Rise for the future of our people and planet. Let’s do that, cities together, as we lay the foundation stones for future generations.”
She advocates for a different future. In the past 18 months, “we’ve had time to reconsider what our future could be, to create a new narrative and rewrite our story. Stories about our relationship with our planet, our people and future generations to create an inclusive, healthy world with wellbeing at heart.”
Margrit Zauner, Senate Department for Integration, Labour and Social Services in Berlin, gave the final remarks on behalf of the city host. “I hope you have been as inspired as I have by the speeches, the projects and the great ideas everyone shared.”
Ms Zauner called cities for applying the same principles to the green transition promoting green businesses and their competencies, as well as digital skills.
Indeed, cities will continue to work together, and the (social) future will be brighter.
All of the main stage events can be rewatched on the Berlin Senate Department’s YouTube Channel