Leadership and People Power: Reflections on the Greek Scenario

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on July 10th, 2015

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Greece in mind

Right now, it’s hard to see beyond Greece. Yesterday, its people made their momentous referendum decision, defining their, and Europe’s future, one way or another. It is in Athens, that we will see the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.

What do we make of Tsipras’ call for a referendum? A cop-out – effectively ducking out of responsibility? A commitment to people-power? A slight of hand in the blame game with Greece’s creditors? Whatever our response, this represents a new type of leadership, forged as a result of the ongoing Crisis.

Greek People Power goes back a long way

Last week at a workshop in Berlin I was reminded of another Greek connection to the concept of people power, only this time with much deeper roots. This was at an event where the city of Amersfoort was presenting its new city governance model. Some of you will be familiar with this, as it was showcased in our recent Social Innovation workstream.

For those of you who have not heard of Amersfoort’s approach, the city is embarking on an ambitious journey with its citizens. At the heart of this, is a willingness for the administration to ‘let go’ and to mobilise residents in a range of local projects – resourced with public money. At the same time, municipal staff have been charged with reinventing their roles – getting out of the office and providing an important brokerage role in the community. This ‘innovation’ has been referred to as ‘free-range’ civil servants. The city’s mayor, Lucas Bolsius, fronts a team that talks about ‘collective leadership”. And it was the City Mayor who triggered these developments when he labeled 2014 as the ‘Year of Change’; in Amersfoort nothing has been the same since.

The Greek connection to this story comes via David Van Reybrouk, who developed the G1000 suggestion. At the heart of this is the concept that citizens are chosen by lot to participate in city administration as part of their civic duty – as they do by serving on a jury. The G1000 concept was piloted in Brussels then developed in Amersfoort, where it provided the basis for the city’s new wave of work. In the Dutch city, citizen volunteers are playing a key role in urban development, as a result.

The process echoes the Greek principle of selection by lot to assume civic responsibility. Their core concept was also that every citizen should be ready to take their turn. Van Reybrouk argues that this model is attractive now because of the democratic deficit and breakdown in trust between politicians and the public. He concludes that without a radical overhaul, our democratic system is under real threat. He is particularly scathing about the electoral process.

 The value of listening

The wider question about the link between leadership and citizen empowerment is one that we’ve visited before, for example in relation to Seoul’s Mayor, Park Won-Soon. As cities remain under the spotlight, a great deal of exciting new activity is under way to mobilise citizens in order to harness their ideas, as well as to build trust. As Mayor Park repeatedly says, this must start with listening to citizens.

A recent NESTA publication, Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up contains some good examples of how cities around the world are doing this.

They include Peta Jakarta which has created a number of crowdsourced solutions using social media platforms. One of these is Qlue, which crowdsources citizen flood reports from Twitter – very useful in the world’s most flood-prone city.

Closer to home, certainly for URBACT, is the Paris Mayor’s participatory budget scheme, “Madame Mayor, I have an idea”. This will assign €500 million between 2014 and 2020 to projects proposed by citizens. To date, the biggest idea has been to develop a series of vertical gardens on buildings throughout the city. The initiative will be the largest participatory budget exercise undertaken anywhere in the world.

 Towards smarter cities – and smarter leaders

What we are seeing is a re-assessment of the Smart City concept, with a growing recognition that it has relied too heavily on hardware and tech-based solutions. The emphasis needs to shift to software and people – as we look to get better, more-sustainable solutions with (in many cases) reduced resources. This also implies a recalibration of the private sector’s role, which must go beyond a short-term commercial imperative to sell kit.

There is sense that all of this remains very fluid, and that we are moving into uncharted waters. In Greece, where we started, cities like Thessaloniki and Athens have been endlessly innovative since the Crisis began, with the leanest of resources. We have seen this in Spain too, where recent elections added another spin to the new civic leadership evolution. In the country’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, prominent anti-austerity activists now occupy the Mayors’ offices.

Interestingly, both of them are women, free of old political ties and with string campaigning track records. Already in the Catalan capital, Ada Calao is already setting out a fresh agenda and she is well-placed to mobilise a very different set of power networks in the city.

We are witnessing the evolution of 21st Century civic leadership. In Spain and Greece we can see the impact of the Crisis on this. But other drivers – amongst them social media, the collapse of trusted institutions, and public anger at endemic corruption– are all in the mix. So, whatever unfolds in Greece, the appetite for new leadership behaviours, able to genuinely mobilize citizens to transform our cities, is only likely to grow.

 Header image by alk_is on flickr, under creative commons license

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