I had never heard the story of the rabbit and the lion. It starts with a weak rabbit seeking advice from the mighty lion on how to protect himself from predators. The lion assured the rabbit that the solution would be for him to transform into a lion. Elated, the rabbit wanted to know how. “Well”, said the lion, “I am only good at strategies. You have to figure out the rest on your own”.
This story was told by the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, as he addressed a room full of donors, investors and partners at the Tirana Smart City Conference 2016-2026. I could not help myself but feel a bit culpable, as I could see how in our line of work sometimes we resemble the lion. Tirana on the other hand, is more like the rabbit. It is a city that struggles every day to provide basic services to its citizens, a city hardly accessible and friendly to those in need, a place where quick economic gains have taken priority over well-being and quality of life.
Yet, I believe that Tirana has the opportunity to transform itself. The local elections of 2015 brought two major changes, both in terms of its boundaries and vision. Today, the Municipality is 25 times larger and led by a young and charismatic Mayor. I am tempted to compare him to Justin Trudeau (the newly elected Canadian prime minister), for his vivacity and sense of inclusiveness.
The vision to transform Tirana into a smarter city that better serves citizens and visitors alike was presented on January 20th. 112 project ideas were introduced across five priority areas, namely Better Economy, Better Mobility, Better Living, Better Society and Better Rural Life. They included the establishment of technological and economic development zones, social innovation and ICT labs, housing solutions for Roma and Egyptian communities, minimum bike grids and many more.
Beyond introducing the 112 project ideas, the conference hosted two expert panels on 1) innovative financing mechanisms and 2) open data and citizen engagement. The selection of these two topics was not a coincidence. Municipal bonds, social impact bonds, public-private partnerships, transferable development rights, crowdfunding etc., are all means to top up an extremely limited municipal budget. Citizens on the other hand, if engaged, could play a major role in building a smarter Tirana both in bringing to light everyday challenges as well as designing solutions.
By no means do we have the solutions to turn the rabbit into a lion, or Tirana into a capital comparable to capitals like Amsterdam or Stockholm. Yet ideas are buzzing in my head as to how we can support the Municipality of Tirana in building inclusive citizen engagement platforms, availing open data to empower citizens so that they can contribute, designing smart solutions for Roma housing, building parks friendly to people with different abilities, and these are just to name a few.
Really, all we can commit to now is to make the rabbit run just a bit faster.