Open Vilnius

“Sometimes, to be future-oriented, you have to look back,” says Remigijus Šimašius, the Mayor of Vilnius. For example, he explains, “if you look at pictures of the mobility of the future, you only see flying machines. But if you ask people what makes a pleasant life in the city, they will reply that it is about being able to walk to the shop, to work, or home.”

Low-tech innovation

Innovation isn’t always about the newest technology. “We don’t have abundant resources, but we have big ambitions to have a good life,” says Šimašius. Innovation is about making this happen. “This leads citizens and businesses to be innovative,” adds Šimašius.

An example of Vilnius’ approach to innovation can be found in its strategy to solve mobility issues. Electric scooters have raised many questions for all cities where they have turned up. What lanes should they use? The pedestrian lane? The bicycle lane? Is it safe to ride on the street? And everyone is very familiar with the experience of tripping on a scooter left in the middle of the sidewalk.

Vilnius decided to tackle the problem before it even appeared. After some market research, the city got in touch with the companies planning to introduce scooters in Vilnius and invited them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. With it, they agreed to collaborate on challenges and solutions in the future.

“For example, the first issue we tackled together was about the scooters left in the middle of the footpath,” explains Šimašius. “We agreed to limit the area of the operability of the scooters and not to allow them on certain hours in certain areas.”

Another example of a creative solution is how Vilnius solved its shortage of parking spaces for carsharing services. In cities, typically, there are designated parking places for carsharing, which means that users are limited in where they can leave or take a car, creating issues, especially around rush hour and at transport connection points, like train stations.

“We designed a special scheme for them,” confides Šimašius. Carsharing users in Vilnius can park in any parking space at an adapted price. “You can leave the car wherever you want,” summarises Šimašius. Users of carsharing services also benefit from tax incentives and special authorisations to enter resident-only areas.

Letting data drive decisions

Even though Šimašius values these “down to Earth solutions”, technology can support innovation. For example, Vilnius tries to make more data-driven decisions. “First, you have to understand the problem, who has this problem, what data we have and then come up with a data-driven solution. It’s a way of making decisions,” explains Šimašius.

This is why the city introduced six years ago an open data policy. “If it doesn’t fall under the General Data Protection Regulation, any data should automatically be open. If it’s not open yet and somebody asks for this data, it must be made accessible after this request,” explains Šimašius.

As for any technology, however, it isn’t always clear what is the best way to collect the data the city needs. For example, the city evaluates the best way to get information on their roads. Through sensors on the street? Using drones? Accessing data from users? “Of course, some alternatives are more costly; some are more reliable. That is when it becomes important to be open and tolerant of failure,” says Šimašius.

Service drone in Vilnius

No gain without accepting the risk of failure

Tolerance of failure has made it into the city’s strategy. “It’s crucial for the private sector, public-private collaborations, and the municipality itself,” explains Šimašius. “When it comes to municipalities, departments are often looking for 100% guaranteed solutions because failure can impact reputation. Most people, though, understand the importance of this tolerance of failure.”

Making mistakes is part of the creative process. “I’m very suspicious of people who never made any mistakes,” confides Šimašius. “It’s part of being innovative. Because innovation is something new, and something new is what’s not been tested before. And if it wasn’t tested, it has a bigger chance of failure.”

Yet Vilnius is not ready to make the mistake of depending on a single technology. So, the city welcomes both small local and big international businesses. “Sometimes our local startups complain that we don’t use their technology and prefer those coming from abroad. We want to be open to everyone,” says Šimašius.

This doesn’t mean the city doesn’t work with local incubators. On the contrary, they do. The point is that they are not exclusive to anyone. “We want to stay open to using all possible solutions,” insists Šimašius. As part of their plan to benefit as much as possible from the variety of businesses present in the city, a new department was created a year ago, collecting data on all the companies active in Vilnius.

One more element to Vilnius’ success

The municipality and businesses aren’t alone in fostering an environment for innovation. “Our citizens are eager to jump to new ideas and test them, be it new products, services or approaches,” says Šimašius.

Although being innovative might mean being quick to react to new issues, for your solutions to remain relevant, Vilnius recognises the importance of involving citizens from the start of the discussion. So, Vilnius’ recipe for success is a combination of listening to its people, fostering a culture of open data and a diverse business environment, accepting failure as a way to take risks, and choosing solutions that aren’t technological when technology isn’t needed.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer