Late in 2018, Athens was named European Capital of Innovation, clinching the iCapital award for using innovation as a call to action to respond to societal challenges and improve the lives of its residents and visitors.
In the last five years, the City of Athens has looked to the younger generations for inspiration on ways to readapt, regenerate, and revive.
The results have been impressive, with at least a handful of start-ups out of Athens – among these Innoetics and Taxibeat – achieving big business player status and venture capital investors betting all the more on young Greek business ventures.
Despite, or perhaps spurred on by the country’s devastating economic crisis, innovation has become the stepping stone into a new era.
The Greek capital has evolved into a dynamic start-up ecosystem that involves its residents in governance and decision-making while harnessing new ideas to create a friendlier more functional city.
From the installation of a smart parking system and an app enabling Athens residents to make real-time requests on urgent city issues, to crowdsourcing initiatives for the revival of abandoned city districts, local authorities are placing innovation, youth, and social entrepreneurship at the top of their agenda.
With this in mind, the city authority established the Digital Council of Athens, an advisory body made up of CEOs from pioneers such as Google, IBM, Vodafone, Nokia, Αccenture, Microsoft, Oracle, OTE, SAP, and WIND, as well as academics, city officials, and Bloomberg Associates to put a budget of €15 million to good use.
Athens is an ideal base for start-up activity. It’s an affordable city, boasting a high-level R&D ecosystem, a large number of skilled engineers and developers, lower rates and costs, and dozens of start-up events and contests. One of the key remaining challenges, poor connectivity, is being tackled as a priority project by the new government.
The city is also home to quite a few coworking spaces such as Impact Hub Athens, Found.ation, and The Cube Athens.
Among the most important innovation events is the annual Athens Digital Lab contest, backed by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Athens Partnership, COSMOTE, and Nokia. It’s the first municipal early-stage tech incubator, a research and development lab for smart city digital solutions, that supports the development and maturation of applications addressing the city’s needs, as well as its digital transformation.
Another leading initiative is the InnovAthens Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub, offering everything from incubation to funding.
The city organises dozens of start-up events and hackathons all year-round engaging with the community and prompting them to participate in smart city solutions with their ideas while providing the R&D, networking, support, and access to funding options.
Beyond providing immediate support to start-ups that are now looking to succeed, the council is also investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs: the innovative thinkers that need help switching to the digital age.
One such support programme is the Start Project run by non-profit organisation Social Innov, in cooperation with the Athens city council, and with the support of Microsoft Hellas.
In 2018, 2,500 people developed their digital skills in 250 workshops held by the project. The number of those benefitting from the training reached 4,000 in 2019. The programme is currently being expanded as the municipality aims to transform Athens into a smart city by offering more training to a broader cross-section of the community.
“We started the Start Project with the Athens city council with a deep belief that all our fellow citizens have the right to digital knowledge,” says Peggy Antonakou, General Manager of Microsoft Greece, Cyprus and Malta.
At the same time, the municipal authority is also turning to its residents for fresh ideas that will address new urban challenges and create social business models requiring limited funding.
One such initiative is Impact Hub Athens, which is behind the reopening of the central Kypseli Public Market, which hosts shops, art shows, educational and book-sharing events, as well as social cooperatives.
The POLIS² project also works with residents and small businesses to revive or upgrade inner-city neighbourhoods by backing innovative social and solidarity economy ventures and encouraging social entrepreneurship.
With innovation and technology becoming a way of life for many in the city, Athens is getting smarter.