In this contributory post for 3DPI, Ben Deighton, Editor of Horizon Magazine, interviews Dr Anne Stenros, who chaired a group of experts that helped formulate the concept of the EU’s Capital of Innovation (iCapital) competition and is also Design Director at Finnish lift-maker KONE. Dr Stenros believes the EUR 500 000 award can help stimulate ‘grass roots’ innovation through things like 3D printing and high-tech design. This post was originally published by Horizon.
What is meant by innovation in cities?
‘I think that there is this grass roots level of innovation coming out right now, and that’s something that we want to support in the future. It’s not a top-down process, it should be bottom-up, and it should integrate citizens, amateurs, and professionals.
‘I was very inspired when I visited this avant-garde design exhibition at the DMY International Design Festival in Berlin. It had very experimental design not only in terms of tangible products, but also intangibles, such as digital design, augmented reality design and 3D printing, and the whole feeling of the fair was inspiring.’
What can cities do to stimulate innovation?
‘It could be that they want to take something that already exists, for instance a very lively activity that they want to take to the next level, such as this kind of design or creative, collaborative event. In Manchester I visited the first ‘fab lab’ (open digital fabrication laboratory) in the UK. There is a network of these fab labs throughout Europe, and they have something called the annual Maker Faire Europe which is taking place this year in Rome, where they bring together people who are doing things in open source and fab lab printing. I think this makers’ movement could be huge in the future if we take it seriously in Europe.
‘In the UK for example, they are already planning that children in secondary schools will learn (computer) coding, design, and 3D printing, so there is a new generation of innovators coming up – the ‘Do It Yourself’ innovators.
‘There is a lesson to learn, and that is how we can make innovation a passion for people. I think that in many cases in corporate life when it’s your work you tend to approach innovation in a very standardized, processed way, but when you do it on a voluntary basis you take it in a more open-minded way because it’s your passion, something that you do as a pet project. So I think we need more passion in Europe in terms of innovation and I hope this award is pushing that forward, because we all know that if you do something from the bottom of your heart, you can go through a rocky period, but you will find ways to do it if you really want to.’
‘I want to see this award as a tool to make people understand that innovation is much more than what is being done in the corporate headquarters and the campus areas.’
Are cities not already helping to promote innovation?
‘Yes. For instance, in the Netherlands they are now developing in dialogue with citizens the green extension, Floriade 2022 (the world’s largest horticultural exhibition), in the city of Almere; it’s a new type of city development that is going beyond sustainability, so it’s more like a natural organism in how it is going to grow. And then in Copenhagen, they have a programme for kids looking at how the city can support them better. While there are plenty of things that are not high technology, there are of course many cities that are also doing fantastic things in terms of smart city development; from how they integrate transportation, to energy efficiency, traffic flow, and people flow.’
Why should a city care about innovation?
‘Many cities today take this very seriously because they know that it’s not only about supporting innovation, they know that if you become a magnet for start-ups, you become a magnet for talent, so in the end you will also get more investors because they follow the start-ups. So, if cities can create this kind of upwards spiral, I think that’s very, very important. The truth is that cities are and will be the power houses of economic growth.
‘Metropolises have their histories, they have been the number one, two, or three by position forever, but if we look at the second-tier cities, they have so much potential because no-one is expecting them to be number one and they are the challengers. Rather than following the mainstream they can do something in their own way, and maybe something new might come from them. I’m very much looking forward to those second- and third-tier cities taking this opportunity and starting to think about their own innovation future.’
So something new might come up?
‘We are all are looking for some kind of transformation and that’s why part of this competition requires cities to have a future plan, and to know what they want to achieve next. That is the ideal model because innovation is not about looking back; it should be forward-looking by nature. Of course, you have to have a certain type of existing culture that supports this forward-looking capability. What we need today is this kind of visionary leadership at city level to consider what a city wants to be, where it wants to go, and how citizens can share this vision. The vision should be created with citizens and it should be bottom-up. Then this shared vision could become a target or a mission for the future.’
What must a city do to be a contender for the iCapital award?
‘They have to show what they have done previously, so that they can show their innovative capacity and competence. We are facing a future where there is so much potential also in Do It Yourself innovation that we should encourage it more.
‘There are established ways of getting support for high-tech companies and so on. In Finland, we have a very good innovation ecosystem that supports companies and their innovation initiatives, and we also have the EU-level innovation programmes. However, people tend to see innovation limited to this high-tech arena, and that’s why we want to break this outdated image. Innovation can happen at many levels and all people should be included – the iCapital is an integrated thing.
‘There is this momentum when you can create something digitally and print it somewhere locally. Even children with free software can create their own toys and print them, this is small-scale innovation for sure and we are only at the threshold of this transformation. However, this is going to be the next industrial revolution in our world. I want to see the iCapital award as a tool to make people understand that there is potential to do much more than what is just being done in the corporate headquarters and the university campuses. If you have passion for something, go and do it.’