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Amsterdam’s take on digital social innovation

22nd March 2017

Gijs Boerwinkel works as community manager at Waag Society. In his position, he is constantly looking for new ways to connect relevant target groups to the research labs and projects of Waag Society.

Amsterdam City was recently awarded the European Capital of Innovation (iCapital) award, which is being used to support digital social innovation activities across the city. In this blog we take a closer look at the model being used in the Dutch capital. What can we learn from it? And how is Amsterdam using the award to even further accelerate bottom-up community-driven innovation?   

What is the Amsterdam approach?

To understand why Amsterdam is successful in its innovation strategy, you cannot ignore the city’s past. Throughout its history, the struggle against water made it essential for its citizens to manage things collectively – one man can’t stop the water on his own! Due to the fight against floods,  Amsterdam citizens were forced to collaborate and protect the city from disasters since the 16th century, creating a society that relied upon creativity and collaboration.

This gave birth to the Amsterdam spirit: a desire for freedom, tempered by a tendency to cooperate and act collectively. The local government has always been embraced as a key factor to enable people’s freedom, while adding structure to collective endeavours. This characterises Amsterdam’s innovation climate creating a leading position in the world.

Amsterdam award.jpg

© European Union , 2016   /  Source: EC - Audiovisual Service   /   Photo: François Walschaerts 

The most important aspect of the Amsterdam innovation strategy, highlighted  by the European Commission, was its holistic approach, which addresses innovation from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives. This holistic approach can be seen as an indirect heritage of Amsterdam’s past and now consists of a combination of technological and social innovation bringing together multiple ‘forces’ in the city.

  1. Horizontally: the city is full of bottom-up initiatives: city creators, smart citizens, city of villages, social labs and maker spaces.
  2. Vertical: the municipality is developing new tools and methods: start-up in residence, the new school, space for social initiative, city hall plaza to name a few.

Examples of the Amsterdam approach

So for this type of innovation you need a distributed digital social innovation ecosystem that is facilitated and stimulated with dedicated support of a central organisation such as the municipality. A good example of bottom-up innovation is the Amsterdam Smart Citizens Lab. In this lab, tools and applications are being explored to map the world around us. Along with citizens, scientists, hackers and designers, the lab deals with themes ranging from air quality to the conditions of bathing water to noise pollution. MeetUps, pilots and projects all emerge from this lab, with citizens in the lead and citizens driven questions that determine the direction of the lab.

amsterdam smart.jpg

Amsterdam Smart Citizens Lab. Image released under Creative Commons

Another good example of the ‘Amsterdam approach’ is the FabCity movement, organized by Pakhuis de Zwijger, a platform for 80.000 city makers. Although the movement originally started in Barcelona, Pakhuis de Zwijger mobilized many multi-level stakeholders from Amsterdam around the idea. In early April 2016, a temporary, freely accessible campus was built at the head of Amsterdam’s Java Island in the city’s Eastern Harbour District. Conceived as a green, self-sustaining city, the FabCity campus comprised around 50 innovative pavilions, installations and prototypes where citizen- and civil society- driven innovation was displayed to the world. The FabCity expo is part of an international DSI movement to make cities more circular, energy neutral and resilient.

An important group of of middle ground organisations connecting the multiple stakeholders in the innovation domain contributes greatly to this way of innovation. Organisations such as Waag Society, AMS institute for Advances Metropolitan Solutions, Kennisland and Pakhuis de Zwijger all fulfil this role of distilling and channeling the bottom-up initiatives and connecting them to the right experts, designers and figures from the municipality. So for this strategy it’s essential to invite these type of middleground organisations in the innovation process.

The iCapital Award and citizen pilots

The European Union awarded Amsterdam with the the iCapital in 2016 to Amsterdam for its holistic and inclusive vision of innovation.

Amsterdam has found a way to give the award back to its local bottom up innovators. This seems just, as these innovators were the main reason that the city got chosen as Capital of Innovation in the first place. Through the project called: “Amsterdam, make your city”, the city is now enabling its local innovators to apply for a funding and support program to accelerate or strengthen their initiatives. Instead of using this budget for one or maybe two, top down, industry led innovation projects the city instigates a cascade of innovation throughout the city. This project shows that the city of Amsterdam does not simply aim to steer the initiatives in the city towards its own agenda. Instead initiatives are supported that emerge from the city regardless of the municipalities’ own agenda and ideas. This approach clearly shows the belief that the city has in its people, their capacity to identify relevant needs in the city, and their ability to meet these needs through bottom-up innovation. In many cities, knowledge institutions and corporates are commonly invited to play a part in urban innovation. However, the city of Amsterdam believes that the citizens of Amsterdam have at least as much innovative power to be invited to the table.

In addition to financial support (from €5,000 up to €20,000) the initiatives will receive help to strengthen their initiative during the process. The coaching and capacity building support is for a major part custom made. Participants are challenged to introduce learning goals themselves. Content of workshops with the participants will then be designed accordingly and Make Your City looks for matches with allies.

The purpose of Amsterdam, Make your City! is to strengthen existing initiatives in the city. The city does this by inviting 30 to 50 of the most innovative and significant practices to join us for a development trail.

The development process takes six months, and will begin in June and ends in late 2017. The program consists of monthly workshops and contact with "allies" from the network of the City of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Economic Board. Do you have an Amsterdam based initiative that can use some extra help? Sign up here!

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