Only a few short years ago, most of the news from Athens focused on financial meltdowns and street battles between anti-austerity protesters and the authorities, which was further compounded by a crippling migrant crisis that frightened off many would-be visitors as well as investors.
However, with the opening of the Renzo Piano-designed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in the Athenian seaside suburb of Kallithea – the first major architectural project completed in Athens since the financially disastrous 2004 Summer Olympic Games, the August 20 end of the EU’s bailout, and the economy finally returning to a period of growth after nearly a decade of ruinous economic armageddon, Greece finally appears to be solidly on the road to coming back from the brink.
The European Commission’s announcement on November 6 that it had awarded Athens with the title of “European Capital of Innovation” for 2018 is another sign that the Greek capital, and the country as a whole, is slowly turning the corner from the dark days of a few years ago.
The announcement comes at a time when Athens is hoping to shed its recent image as a bastion of leftist anarchism or a city full of destitute pensioners and out-of-work young people by placing a significant amount of importance on cutting-edge innovation that could also help change the perception of Athens, and Greece as a whole, by focusing less on its oversaturated tourism industry and more on the innovative skills of the Greek capital’s educated and ambitious population – many of whom would like to remain in Greece and apply their skills to projects that would see the debt-ridden country develop.
“Athens stands out as an example that a city facing many challenges can achieve great things. Through innovation, Athens has found a new purpose to turn around the economic and social crisis. It is proof that it’s not the difficulties but how you raise yourself above them that matters,” Carlos Moedas, the EU’s Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said while announcing Athens as the winning city at the Web Summit in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
In recent months, Athens has initiated several projects aimed at offering training on digital literacy and civic technology, as well as promoting sustainable innovations. These have been backed by other initiatives to renovate long-abandoned public playgrounds and historical public markets and transform them into exhibition centres and modernised community hubs.
Moedas said in his announcement that it was the Athenian city government’s active efforts “go the extra mile to test new ideas, technologies and ways to make its citizens heard” was central to the Commission’s decision to select Athens as Europe’s star innovative city for the year.
Of all the projects that are currently on the board for the city, the one that could have the greatest aesthetic and economic effect is an urban renewal plan known as POLIS² project, which hopes to revitalise abandoned or condemned buildings and merchant arcades in the historical centre of Athens by providing small grants to residents, small enterprises, and creative community groups.
The commercial centre of Athens was severely battered by the crisis years, forcing hundreds of small stores as well as larger businesses to close, leaving whole city blocks empty. If properly implemented, the POLIS² project could be a major boon for the city’s retail fortunes.