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Community-led local innovation to reconnect Europe with its citizens

Nov 22, 2022 | Opinions

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Many local areas and communities in Europe are facing important challenges (a declining number of jobs, insufficient basic services, a growing digital divide, depopulation and climate change, to name a few) that hamper their sustainable development. These global trends are leading to increased development disparities among territories and a general discontent among people, who as a consequence disengage from Europe and opt for political options that put the sustainability of the European project in danger. It is time for Europe to reconnect with its local citizens and entrust them as key actors that contribute to the challenges faced and emerging opportunities. Strengthening place-based and community-led innovation will empower local citizens to take action and boost democracy in Europe.

The EU has put in place political agendas for the green, digital and social transitions that are needed for Europe to respond to a range of major multi-dimensional and interrelated challenges and opportunities: integrated territorial development instruments and funds in Cohesion Policy (ITI, CLLD, new Policy Objective 5), Rural Development (LEADER, Smart Villages) and indeed in many other policy areas (Just Transition, Covenant of Mayors, Cities Mission, etc.).

However, existing EU and domestic policies and instruments will not be enough on their own. Making these policy agendas a reality requires the implementation of innovative responses (new processes, instruments or services, not necessarily EU-funded) in all parts (including non-EU countries), with a special effort being given to those territories and communities lagging behind. Transition contains risks but also real opportunities for local communities to play a new and distinct role for the future of Europe.

In this context, some local communities are already undertaking innovative actions to respond to the challenges and opportunities they face. Community-led responses have proven to be incredibly effective in addressing deepseated issues that are otherwise difficult to tackle and to support the transformative changes needed in Europe. This is especially true in situations where community action is aligned with and supported by public policy and initiatives that recognise and nurture a bottom-up approach.

Community-led innovation tends to be incremental in nature, based on coordinated small-scale actions which create closer bonds with its citizens. It is precisely these “soft” forms of innovation that are the most difficult to grasp and the most challenging to take shape, while they create more long-term sustainable benefits in local areas.

Ground-breaking community-led initiatives from across Europe exemplify the value of community-led local innovation as a key approach to offer sustainable responses that contribute to Europe’s ambitions for the future.

Utrecht Refugee Launch Pad (URLP): Living, learning and working together with Dutch neighbours (Plan Einstein)

Like many other cities in Europe, Utrecht, the 4th largest city of the Netherlands, faced the need to welcome and integrate a growing number of asylum seekers in local communities. Especially in deprived neighbourhoods, there is a risk of poor social inclusion of new migrants where residents already themselves face problems of high unemployment and lower levels of education, sometimes leading to openly hostile reactions. Since 2015, Utrecht has developed a new inclusive approach to provide reception facilities for refugees in neighbourhoods, by the creation of a combined learning and living environment for both refugees and the local community. In the Overvecht district of Utrecht, nearly 400 refugees and asylum seekers, of some 170 nationalities, live in the same buildings as dozens of Dutch young people. Dutch youngsters are of mixed levels of education, occupation, gender, age, colour and background, yet find common ground in their intent to create a community with the asylum seekers within the neighbourhood.

Credit photo : UIA Initiative.

Neighbourhood members are invited to follow international entrepreneurship training or Business English classes together with the asylum seekers, followed by peer-to-peer coaching and introductions to local businesses. The learning can be used both within the Netherlands and elsewhere if the asylum request is denied, or when refugees may want to rebuild their home country when the war is over. The project seeks to offer asylum seekers and neighbourhood youth alike an active and entrepreneurial environment. With integration activities, the local residents can get to know the new arrivals, while taking classes for their own future, too. By mixing refugees with neighbourhood participants, potentially opposing groups can bridge the gap and experience mutual support instead of growing alienation.

In addition to the training activities, the project connects people by providing meeting spaces for newcomers and Dutch people at neighbourhood level, and by cooperating with local NGOs and associations that provide various range of activities for migrants in order to activate them “from day 1”. Recently, the number and variety of activities has increased through the creation of alliances with new partners, offering more options to asylum seekers, from cultural and creative activities (theatre, music, design…) to sports, gardening, or the development of practical skills in other fields. This community dimension, based on linking asylum seekers to the neighbourhood environment by finding common interests with neighbours, is the main strategy of this phase, alongside the adaptation of activities to the new context and profiles. Activities are planned for residents with different profiles and education levels, with a special focus on women and the older population of the neighbourhood, a group disproportionately affected by COVID, with some asylum seekers providing support on daily and practical activities. After the end of the EU funding (UIA), and with some adaptations, the sustainability of the project is guaranteed for the next few years, thanks to the political consensus and the commitment of the municipal government to include the project in its integration policy strategy. The Plan Einstein has been a turning point in the reception policies for asylum seekers in Utrecht and has also managed to influence policies at state level.

Credit photo : UIA Initiative.

What is community-led innovation?

Community-led innovation means any new and creative process, service or product that emerges in a local territory as a result of a participatory process involving local communities and actors in order to seize new opportunities or address local challenges, and which result in positive economic, environmental and social impacts to and in the territory. Hence, it offers opportunities to encourage positive change and generate local socio-economic and environmental welfare. In a nutshell, community-led innovation involves:

  • local empowerment of people: local actors taking the initiative to find practical and transformational solutions. There is no standard model or solution for community-led innovation which makes it suitable to any context while also challenging.
  • local capacities and assets: local people taking stock of local assets (economic, physical, human, institutional), drawing on the best available knowledge and taking the initiative.
  • local collaboration: Creating new links between local actors, local authorities, local economic actors, urban and rural, regional, national and EU-wide, to co-produce new solutions and make them relevant to the local context.
  • going beyond the local area and stakeholder groups: Local knowledge is essential as only local actors know their specific context and needs and whether outside solutions are workable. In addition, working with actors from outside the territory helps bridge new opportunities and ideas from others (academia, enterprises, government, etc).

Lormes, the village of the future (‘Petite ville du futur’)

Lormes exemplifies the innovative spirit of a local community to find responses to the challenges and opportunities ahead. It is a small market town (1 300 residents) located in the Morvan area, in the county of Nièvre, Burgundy (France). The village and its community was already two decades ago one of the first in France to realise the importance of digitalisation for their future and started working together to launch their digital transformation process in the early 2000s.

The village created a local organisation called “Digital Mission” to provide digital training to the population, enhance the digital literacy of the community, and help them to overcome their exclusion from the digital transformation process. The “Digital Mission” describes itself as an ‘Accelerator of Digital Transformation’ for the territory and has been the focus of digital innovation since 2003. With enhanced digital capacities, the creation of a local Rural Hub in 2008 enabled Lormes to maximise the potential of local skills by providing office spaces and IT support services to the community.

In 2017, the ‘Village of the future’ process was launched to support the development of the local area through a participatory process, involving all key socio-economic and political actors of the community. The main objective of this initiative was to support communities in the development of a shared common vision for their territory, which fulfilled their ambitions while promoting sustainable development. This process was supported by a group composed of architects and service designers who led this reflection with local citizens. The co-development process involved around 500 inhabitants, nearly 40% of the population. The process took place in three main stages, namely: i) launching the approach, ii) the diagnosis of the local needs and ambitions, iii) envisioning scenarios for the village.

Credit photo : Lormes, Petite Ville Du Futur.

“Let’s invent together the rural territory of the Future” is the slogan of the ‘Petite ville du futur’ initiative. As a result of this process, several innovative initiatives were planned, designed and implemented such as RuralDigital Hub played, a Senior Care Home with tele-geriatric consultations, a new primary school that respects low-energy standards, three free Wi-Fi points in the village, a community sensor project monitors water, air and energy quality, and a young ‘Fibre Advisers’ to improve the digital inclusion of elderly people.

Lormes is the perfect example of how a territory can evolve from being digitally excluded, with very poor or nonexistent internet connectivity, and lack of digital skills, towards a situation where the village acts as a digital player. It did this by providing services to the surrounding area, through the development of an ecosystem based on citizens’ participation and access to knowledge and digital expertise, through which they were able to implement innovative actions.

What is the added value of ELIF?

AEIDL is launching the European Local Innovation Forum (ELIF) to help drive a pan-European conversation about local innovation, enhance action on the ground, and put them on the EU policy agenda.

There is a significant effort by the European Union to support EU policy networks that boost directly or indirectly local development, and which are linked to specific EU policies and instruments. The European Network for Rural Development in 2014-2020 (CAP Network 2021-2027), FARNET (now known as FAMENET), as well as the ESF Social Innovation+ Initiative, the European Urban Initiative or URBACT, Interreg are key examples of these efforts.

At the same time, there are pan-European territorial networks and expert groups organised by civil society such as LDnet, ELARD, CEMR which focus on enhancing local development through different strategic angles (by way of being devoted to a specific thematic focus, policy instrument or type of territory or public authority) or with a more political angle, as in the case of the various European Territorial Associations.

Despite these very useful initiatives to support local development, a stronger focus on community-led innovation is much needed and demanded by local communities who seek to build capacities to respond to the modern challenges they face or to seize emerging opportunities for development. This is most evident in local areas such as villages and small and even medium sized urban areas. Local communities often have insufficient awareness of the various policy tools that exist, and have limited capacity to even attempt to engage in all the available policy and funding frameworks. Also, they are hampered by issues of legal or financial capacity that prevent them participating in these schemes and programmes. And yet, local communities are finding new ways to co-create and implement innovative local responses without the support of mainstreaming policy instruments (in the shape of smart villages, social enterprises, local hubs, citizens laboratories, etc.). These are often simple and practical forms of innovation that can be transferable and replicable, and which provide local solutions that can positively transform local areas. These communities require and benefit from peer learning and exchanges across Europe to get inspired, get new ideas, connect with others or simply to realise they are not alone.

In this context, the European Local Innovation Forum (ELIF) was launched to fill that gap and to connect and mobilise like-minded experts and organisations operating and connected at local level in both urban and rural settings, to facilitate the exchange of ideas, learn from experiences and draw lessons to boost innovation in local communities from across Europe. AEIDL aims to act as a hub that connects stakeholders and organisations at all levels and builds synergies that boost local innovation. A non-exhaustive list of likely ELIF participants would be made of local innovation hubs, civil society organisations and networks, regional or intermediate public authorities, research centres, Local Action Groups, municipalities and stakeholder organisations and experts. ELIF also aims to establish linkages with other EU level stakeholder organisations and networks to work in partnership to strengthen local innovation through better knowledge and policy instruments.

Participation in ELIF is voluntary and no bureaucratic or financial commitment is required. ELIF is member-based and self-sustaining, with AEIDL merely acting as facilitator, and will therefore be as effective as we all make it.

By registering in ELIF through the following form, members receive a monthly newsletter with information related to local innovation and outcomes emerging from the portfolio projects from AEIDL. In addition, ELIF organises virtual spaces in the form of Thematic Communities to support exchanges of its members around key thematic areas. At this moment, two Thematic Communities are coordinated on i) Community led social innovation and ii) Territorial development.

Why is AEIDL embarking in ELIF?

Since 1988, AEIDL has been working to make sure that EU policies support local development, and to connect local actors across Europe to support community led action. While there are initiatives and even funds to support community-led local development, over time AEIDL has observed an increasing lack of focus on local innovation. We believe that there is scope to address that gap, by way of connecting key actors, initiatives and innovators from across Europe.