Social Innovation

Measuring innovation? Forget company value, and ask how inclusive the community is

Students sit in the library of the university KU Leuven "Katholieke Universiteit Leuven" in Leuven, Belgium, June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - D1AETIXBEXAA

Leuven is innovative in that it brings the entire city together – government, companies, civil society and knowledge institutions. Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Mohamed Ridouani
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  • Leuven is a city proud of its unique and successful innovation model.
  • The current mayor is the product of a community spirit of encouragement and collaboration.
  • In Leuven, citywide platforms unite different parties to work on major societal challenges such as climate crisis.

Read about innovation in Europe and the discussion will quickly turn to the perceived lack of "unicorns" or even "decacorns" (companies with a valuation of at least $ 10 billion).

I don't think this Silicon Valley perspective on innovation is particularly useful.

After all, what good is a decacorn if it only benefits a handful of founders, VCs and banks? What is the point of technology if it doesn't make the world a better place to live in? And how sustainable is it when only a small group of people can harvest the fruits of progress?

Instead, what if we looked at innovation from the angle of daily quality of life, measuring social mobility or a sense of wellbeing? Because these are the true indicators of innovation.

As is a kid in a social housing flat, sharing a bedroom with two siblings, feeling confident enough to pursue his/her ambition and to be part of society.

I am the oldest son of a labour migrant who had to teach himself to write. My father moved from Morocco to Belgium at 16 to become a construction worker. My mother followed him shortly after. She was 18 when I was born. I am, today, also the mayor of Leuven.

Leuven: a Belgian city of 100,000 inhabitants (500,000 in the metropolitan area) and an economic powerhouse. It is also a university city with 60,000 university students and was recently awarded the title "Innovation Capital of Europe" (iCapital) by the European Commission.

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Leuven is growing at a rate of 3% per year, spurred by university research, spinoffs and scale-ups. And it is an economic growth that is inclusive and sustainable.

Impressive economic and population growth are being managed alongside a plateauing of carbon emissions levels. By 2050, with the help of the entire population and stakeholders, the city will be climate neutral.

It is this mix of economic growth, social inclusion and environmental ambition that the European Commission rewarded with the title of "Innovation Capital" of Europe. It goes without saying that as a mayor, I am very proud of this fact. But as someone who grew up here, the accolade also resonates on a personal level for me.

Two separate elements – my own journey and how my city approaches innovation – are deeply and emotionally connected for me. In Leuven, we measure innovation not by the amount of wealth we create for the few, but by the impact we have on the lives of all.

The self-made man? It's just a myth

As a child, I lived with three families – my father's two brothers and their families – under one roof. Every family had a room. The basement was our shared kitchen. It wasn't until I was 23 that I had my own bedroom.

The learning curve as I went through life was steep. I went to a restaurant for the first time ever when I landed a job as a Deloitte consultant, fresh out of university. For people from a middle-class background, it is hard to imagine the cold sweat that I endured during that lunch, in my cheap, off the rack suit that I had bought.

But here's the thing: my story is not the story of a "self-made man". It's a story of a community allowing me to dream and reach high.

I could not have made it without people such as the volunteers at neighborhood center "De Straatmus" ("The Street Sparrow") helping me with school assignments. But more importantly, they encouraged me to have dreams in life.

Even in one of the richest regions of the world, not everyone feels that they are naturally part of the prosperity and progress. They need to be actively invited and included.

Work with everything – and everyone

If Leuven can call itself the "Innovation Capital of Europe”, it is because we managed to create a model for innovation that tries to include everyone, and has an impact on daily life.

Our innovation model is based on two principles: work with everything and everyone you have.

Leuven is blessed with a rich and undepletable natural resource: brainpower. It is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, KU Leuven, which tops the Reuters rankings for innovation year after year. The IMEC research institute is a world class R&D facility. Spinoffs, startups and economic life have sprung up around these institutions.

Image: Reuters

We are home to a rich creative and cultural scene and a vibrant civic community of non-profit organisations, associations and volunteers.

Our role as a city is to find ways and platforms to bring the entire city together – city government, companies, knowledge institutions and civil society. This will allow everyone to collaborate and contribute on the major societal challenges of today, supported by governance based on shared decision making and leadership people can believe in.

We have created citywide platforms to work on the climate crisis (Leuven 2030), the economy (Leuven MindGate) and education (SOM).

By inviting the entire population to collaborate on major societal challenges issues, we also see enormous leaps and bounds on a smaller scale: a lively pedestrian area, massive adoption of bicycles, better air quality and a higher quality of life.

A European dream leaves noone behind

Instead of an American dream, where people need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, I believe in a European dream where people build each other up.

What is all that brainpower and affluence for, if we can't make an impact on the biggest issues and challenges that our society faces?

We can see in advanced economies what happens when people feel left behind: anger, populism and conspiracy theories abound.

Apart from the title of "Innovation Capital of Europe", the European Commission gave Leuven 1 million euros. We will spend that on creating a "City Transformation Academy" to export our model of participatory and inclusive innovation.

Our goal is to assemble together, year after year, the thinkers and doers from across Europe who want to transform European cities into vibrant, inclusive communities. Through an open and honest exchange of successful experiences and failed experiments, we aim to inspire and to build best practices to "innovate for the better and for all" – our city's motto.

Leuven might not be a metropolis like Paris or Berlin, but its model can serve as a blueprint.

To use an innovation buzzword: yes, it scales.

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