Europe's biggest cities believe the European Commission's definition of innovation is too narrowly focused on the commercial and research sectors. In an interview with EURACTIV, Paul Bevan, secretary-general of Eurocities, said Europe's urban centres are teeming with examples of social, organisational and market-driven innovation.
"We get a little frustrated that the focus is on R&D and market innovation. Those things are hugely important to Europe's global competitiveness and we wouldn't want to diminish that. However, we are concerned that the role of city governments as innovators and facilitators of market innovation is not part of the discussion," he said.
Eurocities, which lobbies on behalf of big cities, expects to make this point to Innovation Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn when they meet in the coming weeks. EU innovation policy is about more than just "grand projects," said Bevan.
He believes the green agenda is a major driver for change and has forced city planners – and citizens – to rethink the way they plan and use public services. Some cities are teaming up with private companies such as Siemens to work on improving the energy efficiency of buildings.
Public private partnerships (PPPs) have become an increasingly common feature of how public authorities use their budgets and are likely to continue to grow, according to Bevan. He said some long-term projects have come under fire for ending up costing more than they would had the service been provided without engaging private contractors.
The Eurocities chief said private sector expertise can help deliver large projects and it is up to each city to decide whether to launch PPPs. However, he expressed concern that Brussels might force cities to rely more heavily on the private sector.
"Many cities feel very strongly that they should retain the right to do things themselves. The Commission has given an undertaking to look – again – at services of general interest. There is pressure from the EPP [European People's Party]-dominated Parliament and Commission to open up markets to the private sector. Cities don't want to be forced to do that," said Bevan.
He said large cities like Vienna have policies of delivering services themselves while others such as Stockholm have created partnerships with private enterprises. "It's a matter for each city and depends on culture," Bevan said.
Public sector deficits will heap pressure on cities, requiring more innovative ways of working, but e-government has also shown how rapidly local governments can change how they do business.
"What is now commonplace seemed like a major challenge ten years ago. Innovation has taken place but it's not really celebrated in the same way," said Bevan.