Driving social innovation at a city level: Mayor Aboutaleb on Rotterdam

How can mayors be more involved in driving social innovation at a city level? Social Innovation Europe recently asked Mayor Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, the Netherlands to share his insight on innovation in his city.

Please allow me to say that I am so happy with the subject you have chosen for this interview. This is a subject close to my heart, and a very important one for the future of our cities.

I cannot stress social innovation enough. In 2013, as rapporteur for the Committee of the Region’s on the Social Investment Package, I made a call for a clear commitment from all decision making layers, including EU institutions, to citizen participation in all phases of policy development, from deliberation to implementation. It is of the utmost importance at this particular moment that we regain trust in our democratic institutions by demonstrating our full responsiveness to citizens’ needs and aspirations.

In addition, by looking for answers at community level and capitalizing on the energy, willingness to make a difference and knowledge about the real needs on the ground among citizens, we will be better equipped to come up with realistic and effective answers to social challenges. Investing in communities at (sub) local level also creates stable neighborhoods that will have a positive impact on safety perception.

Social participation and inclusion must be the keys for achieving our social ambitions, developing welfare states and keeping them strong. By providing education, inspiration and opportunities, it is my personal ambition to empower citizens to reach their full potential and to use and further develop their set of skills to the maximum, with economic self-reliance being the objective.

To give you two examples: Together with the national government, we run a sustainable urban development programme to regenerate the southern neighborhoods of Rotterdam. I am personally involved in this ambition, by engaging people, talking and listening to hem and to urge them to be active, to be part of the community and to have an influence in the implementation of the plans which have a direct impact on their lives on the streets.

Another example is “Neighborhood Rules”. Every two weeks, I knock on the doors of people and ask them to join me in a gathering, in their own neighborhood, to talk about street level problems and challenges. By being in the same room, there is chemistry to listen to each other to, firstly, take away the “irritating differences”, and then to come up with real solutions for their problems. For me, these gatherings are about involvement, engagement, stimulating, and encouraging citizens to come up with ideas for solutions.

In these gatherings, I also see that people are sparkling, critical and full of organizing capabilities. I just enable them to make their own choices and use their creativity byy facilitating the city as a place for people, ideas and experiments and finding new collaborative and participatory models corresponding to their needs.

There is no exact blueprint for social innovation, except that we have to do it with all stakeholders in the city. We need to harness the energies of all the individuals, civil society and businesses flocking to our urban areas. The innovative spirit of social entrepreneurs who can step in with new solutions to meet demand for services and infrastructure should be fostered. Regions and cities should strive for a process of co-creation by forming productive partnerships with the private sector and civil society groups, while simultaneously promoting genuine and profound citizen involvement at all stages of social innovation (ideas, planning, piloting, developing and implementing).

To my belief, citizens participation leads to four crucial elements: cheap, fast, full support and less complaining citizens. However, we have to care for three pitfalls:

  • It is not (yet) suited for all issues, e.g. some safety responsibilities remain confidential and sensitive
  • The discussion should not be ‘captured’ by the ‘biggest shouters’ or usual suspects
  • Some issues are just too complex to be crowd-sourced.

But the real challenge is how do you get citizens to be ambitious but also realistic? An example: Sustainability is an issue that affects the lives of most people. There is a huge commitment. This is understandable because it has a significant impact on their quality of life. Consider the consequences of poor air quality or noise pollution. At the same time, we find it difficult to get people to take action or to change their behavior. We are still looking for a good solution for this contradiction. The reality we are looking for, is the awareness that the key to the solution partly lies in the hands of our citizens

There is still much effort needed, we are learning every day. What is needed for real co-creation are the following conditions:

  • Be ambitious and at the same time be modest
  • Listen well, do what you have promised, connect, inspire (Neighborhood Rules)
  • Build trust (10% more trust = 1% economic growth)
  • Manage people’s expectations of what is feasible and what is not
  • Make sure you have the right reflection of your population reacting
  • Be flexible and cooperative as government
  • Communicate the results
  • Give the citizens their own responsibility for the actions of their lives (full engagement)
  • Develop and stimulate talents (talent house)
  • Invest in children and in (vocational education (childrens zones, transport college)