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With the growing decline in trust of political institutions, is it time to shift the narrative and celebrate the successes of political innovation?

Ii: a model municipality

Imagine a vast river meandering through a picturesque Finnish landscape; pine trees and spruce trees gently swaying in the breeze. You are stood on the banks of the Iijoki.

Situated at the mouth of the river is Ii, the administrative centre of this northern municipality. Ii is something rather impressive. Its population may be small (just under 10,000 residents), and its name even smaller, but it harbours the biggest of ambitions: to be the first zero-waste town in the world by 2050.

Li, Finland, which harbours the ambition to be the first zero-waste town in the world by 2050

With the support of the mayor, Ari Alatossava, the town is already making remarkable progress; it has halved its greenhouse gas emissions in just eight years. A number of schemes have contributed to this success: investing in solar, wind and geothermal energy; switching to electric vehicles; expanding recycling and waste sorting facilities; introducing smart meters; and many more.

Embedding a future-friendly mindset into the education system has been key to ensuring that the town are on track to accomplish their goal. Action in the classroom by students includes measuring the water, heat and electricity consumption, whether all the electrical devices in the classroom have been switched off, and whether the temperature of the classroom is too hot or too cold, raising awareness of their own emissions. Children are also encouraged to leave personal messages to their teachers; an update on how they have been protecting the environment.

The changes made by the town have fostered a virtuous circle. Taxes have been reduced, jobs have been created, and €2.5million has been saved from the annual budget. Waste is minimised through creative initiatives, such as citizens holding workshops to fix broken devices and clothing. 

The steps taken by the town of Ii serve as an inspiration to other municipal areas and nations who are serious about facilitating a just transition. They demonstrate the power of effective political innovation.

Time to innovate

The climate crisis is the most pressing threat of our time. Tackling it requires political leaders to step up and embrace innovative methods and thinking. And this is exactly the rationale behind the Innovation in Politics Awards.

The awards scheme, which covers all the members of the Council of Europe, was launched three years ago by the Innovation in Politics Institute. Edward Strasser, the institute’s founder and CEO, said: “As citizens across Europe worry about the state of democracy and what to do to ensure its survival, the Innovation in Politics Awards help out in two ways. First, they find political projects that actually work and can therefore serve as best practice for others. Second, citizens can contribute to improvements in politics by becoming a juror and putting new role models in politics centre stage.”

The awards are designed to identify and recognise projects and politicians who are at the fore of political work in Europe, across a plethora of categories: digitalisation; rural development; education; democracy; human rights; community; ecology; economy; and quality of life.

The town of Ii received the award in 2019, in the ecology category, for its ground-breaking work to reduce CO2 emissions. Other winners are as varied as they are remarkable; amongst others: a smart city in Germany, a cooperative council in the Netherlands, and a GovTech Lab in Lithuania.

What does 2020 hold?

This year, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), has partnered with the Innovation in Politics Institute to become the UK representative.

For more than 260 years the RSA has been at the forefront of social change. Through our ideas, research and 30,000 strong Fellowship, we are a global community of proactive problem solvers, sharing powerful ideas, carrying out cutting-edge research and building networks and opportunities for people to collaborate, influence and demonstrate practical solutions to realise change. We are delighted to partner with the Innovation in Politics Institute to continue promoting new ways of tackling social problems and improving the communities we live in.

Who can get involved?

In some form or another, everyone!

Do you run, or help run, a project or initiative in the UK that is having a tangible and material impact on the lives of citizens? Is it at least partially financed by public funds? Providing the project meets the selection criteria, it may be eligible to be apply for the Innovation in Politics Awards. (For any questions or support on applications, please contact the RSA public services team.)

Are you interested in social innovation? Would you like to be part of a citizens’ jury of 1,000 Europeans? You can apply to be a juror and play an integral role in this continent-wide search for leading political practice.

Rebuilding trust

Public trust in our political institutions and elected officials is diminishing. This force is corrosive and poses a real threat to the fabric of society. We are already seeing its various manifestations developing across Europe, not least with the rise of nationalist populist politics.

The Innovation in Politics awards provide an antidote to this narrative and celebrates the people and projects who are strengthening democracy. Decades-old, tried-and-tested political instruments may be increasingly falling short of citizens’ expectations, but there is an abundance of innovators out there who are working against the grain and deserve recognition. More importantly, these innovations improve the lives of millions of citizens across Europe.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed structural weaknesses in societies and economies across the world. Though these gaps must be addressed at the state-level, it has been inspiring to see thousands of ordinary people join together through local mutual aid groups.

In this time of crisis, we must look to and learn from the emergent networks of support and solidarity to pave the way to a more resilient, collective future.

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