Austerity measures and Greece’s economic crisis have significantly reduced the operational capacity of Athens’ city government. To compound the problem, outdated regulations have stifled necessary reforms to make government work in leaner times, with trust between citizens and government eroding. At the same time, a vibrant civil society emerged, with large numbers of citizens working together to improve their neighborhoods and communities. These initiatives, however, were often spontaneous – the new crop of community groups were disconnected from each other and potential supporters. There was no clear way for city government to engage with their activities, which carried on alongside its own social services.
synAthina is an online platform which allows members of the community to engage in problem-solving and reform. Individual citizens and groups submit volunteer activities, as well as ideas on how to improve their city. Citizens who submit ideas are connected to the relevant government representatives, non-governmental organizations, and private businesses that can support their efforts. If traditional processes are needlessly prohibiting the advancement of good ideas, the synAthina project team works with partners in city hall to update those regulations, policies, or procedures.
Over 3,000 community activities have been posted on synAthina. Building on the issues that citizens care about most, synAthina has brought community groups together to help deliver on several of the Mayors’ top priorities including transforming previously derelict buildings into new public spaces and cleaning streets of graffiti with a campaign backed by banks, businesses and civic groups. synAthina’s work led to the creation of a new municipal department, the Innovation Office. This office supports innovative projects in the city, building on practices developed and inspired by synAthina. Athens won a €5 million EU grant to further develop their community engagement work with a focus on the refugee crisis, and was named European Capital of Innovation in 2018.
Athens has recognized the role of civil society and has dynamically embraced citizens’ initiatives in its decision-making process. In times of austerity, we wanted to create a systematic mechanism that collects the available capacity of public spirited citizens to co-create new solutions for a better life in the city.