Citizens driven innovation in the Mediterranean: when digital and social tracks converge in a fertile context

Women taking pictures with smartphones

Mediterranean young societies have not turned this huge potential into a positive outcome. Technology is increasingly helping their conscious citizens regionally to innovate while developing and organizing these responses. It is shaping the midterm reality more than we are aware.

Innovation is becoming a sort of transversal and comprehensive mantra in the global agenda of both the public authorities and the main economic actors. From the development model implemented in a region to the management of the economy, the way authorities interact with their citizens (e-government), the efficient use of increasingly scarce natural resources, the development of smart responses to social challenges (acquisition of skills, health diagnosis, job creation, traffic management…)…. Today, every aspect of daily life is able of improving its management through innovation and new digital technologies.

At a regional context, Mediterranean societies are going through an historical moment of change, where demographic growth and increasing urbanization go hand in hand with the strengthening of the economic and social demands for inclusiveness.


It is at the local level where most regional challenges converge and impact


These Mediterranean young societies, with around 60% of its populations below 30 years old, are composed by the most connected and better-prepared generation of Arab history. Nevertheless, this has not turned this huge potential into a positive outcome. In fact, according to the International Labour Organization, the Middle East and North Africa have the highest youth unemployment rates in the world.

Many of the most relevant cities of the region are growing without much control, multiplying the pressure on the resources and the social services. High density, insufficient services, traffic chaos, deteriorating environmental quality, non-integrated new citizens from other countries (either refugees or migrants)… are all challenges that cities are increasingly facing. Thus, it is at the local level where most regional challenges converge and impact. And it is at a local level where many of these must find their responses, either by the authorities or by the civil society itself.

Paradoxically, a lively, vibrant and quite digital civil society is flourishing among certain segments of these urban areas. People that do not expect any more that public authorities will fulfil their service providing obligations. Thus, they are increasingly (re)acting and organizing themselves in new frameworks to cope with this challenging context, either as individuals or as communities.

It has become clear that old problems and challenges (social, economic…) do require new responses and new methodologies to develop innovative responses. The old paradigms to face these challenges have proven insufficient and exhausted. Here is where technology emerges as a disruptive factor that should be integrated into the social innovation mechanisms. Thus, social innovation should use technology to improve living conditions in two ways: both in the outcome of the measure that impact societies, but also in the way social processes and methodologies are (re)defined. 


The idea behind Labs is to integrate innovation and technology in the responses to social challenges


Technology is increasingly helping these conscious citizens regionally to innovate while developing and organizing these responses. We are witnessing it in cities like Casablanca, Tunis, Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Bethlem or Istanbul, among others, that citizens are using innovation and technology to drive and lead change in their daily challenges.

Innovative bottom up digitally based initiatives to overcome the lack of quantitative and qualitative formation to youth are flourishing, either physically in urban areas or on-line. Similarly, social initiatives technologically based to allow the professional recycling of long-term unemployed, creative collective responses to social problems (such as traffic management or health coverage), integration of new incomers from abroad through innovation courses, or initiatives for the empowerment of women through the provision of practical value added digital skills are all spreading through the region.


Old problems and challenges do require new responses and new methodologies


All about the Labs 

In this dynamics, the so called Labs are a very useful tool that puts together and enables citizens, universities and training centers, private sector and local authorities to converge towards a common objective. Living Labs, Fab Labs, co-working innovative spaces, incubators of digital start-ups… are significantly appearing in the region lead by conscious civil societies that are aware of the power of technologies to develop inclusive solutions. The idea behind these Labs is to integrate innovation and technology as a natural factor in daily life as well as in the responses to social challenges. Thus, the natural users and actors of these initiatives are kids and youth, although not exclusively. 

Digital means should be seen as an ordinary element that allows developing all kind of solutions to all type of social needs at an individual level, but also at an urban and community level. We are facing a turning point in the use of technology in the region. Digital tolls are not only used to generate economic growth and value added jobs. It is also used to (re)imagine and develop new ways of social interaction and inclusive collaboration that will have a sort of homeopathic societal impact. It is shaping the midterm reality more than we are aware. 


By Javier Albarracín, Director of Socioeconomic Development Department

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