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The case for citizen leadership:  How EIT Community can harness grassroots innovation 

A quiet revolution is underway in the towns and cities of Europe. It’s not the easiest time to be positive about climate change and uncertain futures, and where global political action fails to inspire, ordinary citizens have filled the void.

06 Jul 2023

Real people are taking up the challenge of transforming our common spaces, making them sustainable, and beautiful, together. After all, who is better positioned to spot the needs of the local community than the inhabitants who walk down the same roads, sit in the same parks, and shop in the same markets?  

In Barcelona, Clement Rames had been asking himself the same question. Along with his neighbours, he had noticed they could solve the double dilemma of empty paved spaces and the decreasing air quality in the city. Their grassroots collective sprang up organically with demands for cleaner air, and citizen-led design, and before long, public spaces in Barcelona were being reworked in collaboration with the public themselves.  

Clement and Aqui secured EIT Community funding for their project and began to develop their own ‘superblock’ to respond to the local neighbourhood’s needs. Everyone was taken into consideration; from teenagers to local schools, and neighbours of all ages and backgrounds – and together the project transformed unused parking lots into living, breathing public spaces. 

Clement Rames from Aqui, a project supported by EIT Community - New European Bauhaus

Featuring outdoor cinemas and open forums, it gathered people and kept them together – and what Aqui ended up building was an empowered and emboldened community. If you ask Clement, the project was focused on cultivating an ecosystem of care to strengthen the social fabric of local communities, who had been left lonely and disparate in the post-pandemic era.  

This resurgence of collective action and longing for community was the underlying theme discussed during a showcase of several EIT Community funded projects in Barcelona. Although innovation and creative uses of tech are the key to solving everyday challenges, the drivers of change are real people. 

“We can’t do it alone – we need universities, NGOs, citizens, startups and companies to work together to make it happen,” said Martine Van Veelen, Director of EIT Community at EIT Food, as she welcomed project owners and program leaders last month to the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya to discuss how the EIT Community is building a sustainable, resilient, and equal future.  

Martine Van Veelen, Director of EIT Community at EIT Food

But what is the key to making this happen? Every EIT Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) leader featured on the expert panel had their own perspective. For EIT Manufacturing Project Manager Adrian Bablok it’s AI – machine learning and deep learning algorithms are just one example of the tools we can exploit to guarantee sustainability and competitiveness.  

In France, Karos Mobility had become tired of the glaring deficiencies of the public transport system in rural regions. Their solution was an AI-powered carpool app for daily commuting, bringing municipal transport links within closer reach of users in under-served areas. Over seven million car rides have been requested on the app so far in France, Germany, Denmark, and soon in Spain. That’s seven million journeys with a lower carbon footprint, and the increased mobility of thousands of customers. A crucial gap in public services was therefore filled with minimal environmental impact.   

Anaïs Enrico, International Development Manager at Karos Mobility, a start-up supported by EIT Community - Artificial Intelligence

Without a truly circular economy however, the copper and silver needed to build the amount of tech tools needed remain outside of our reach. As the Circular Economy Senior Advisor Dr Ignacio Calleja (EIT Raw Materials) reminded the audience, raw materials must be readily available and reusable to build an effective AI future.  

Putting people at the heart of these changes goes a long way to neutralise the fear surrounding the rapid rise of AI. Each KIC, though focused on different issues, agrees; with an innovative approach, diversity in our decision-makers and entrepreneurs, we can make radical impacts through small, localised changes.  

Natalia Vera (Cities Advisor for the New European Bauhaus) said: “The New European Bauhaus touches homes, hearts and souls – we can co-create public spaces with local actors to improve the quality of life of a community.” And Ana Alcaine (Supernovas Project Manager for EIT Food) made it clear that diverse teams, with women at the helm, make better decisions for society.  

Psiconnea, for example, overhauled the way mental health services can be accessed, by combining psychology and AI to enable positive behavioural change in thousands of users through an app in the palm of their hand. Thanks to CEO Rosa Becerril, another solution to today’s mental health crisis became readily available with a simple internet connection.  

Similarly, Ethikis ad civis cofounder Elsa Lomont was providing another tool for consumer protection by developing an EU certification programme to address planned obsolescence and misinformation surrounding product sustainability. Not only did the programme impact consumer behaviour in early buying stages, it also changed the mindset among manufacturers during the production process. 

Elsa Lomont, Cofounder of Ethikis ad civis, a start-up supported by EIT Community - Circular Economy

Like Aquis and Karos, and many other initiatives, these projects were able to quickly scale up their offers to the community thanks to EIT Community funding.  

They all unanimously agreed that EIT Community calls and funding were instrumental in their success. It gave them the resources to innovate on a larger scale, with legitimacy, security and support. The funding gives further support to female change makers who have been traditionally excluded from the tech and innovation space.

Every brilliant idea deserves a benefactor. Several EIT Community calls are currently open for anyone or any project working on the New European Bauhaus values of inclusivity, sustainability and design, women in investment and entrepreneurship, or even artifical intelligence. Whether you are an existing citizen project who wants to take their idea beyond the community, or an institution who can host changemakers and celebrate their new ideas – we’re in it together.