How Bologna is Stimulating Environmental Action through Social Innovation


By Adam Tassle
This article was published by The European Institute of Innovation & Technology on October 9th, 2014

Descending out of the cloud toward terracotta roofs and soaring 11th century towers, I am excited to be spending the next month in the historic city of Bologna, Italy. I’m here as part of the ‘Pioneers in practice’ knowledge-sharing program, run by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and coordinated by Climate-KIC West Midlands.

Flying low as we approach the airport, I’m encouraged by the number of solar panels dotting the roofs of rural farms and buildings. Travelling through the city on a hodgepodge of electric, gas and diesel powered buses, I quickly appreciate that Bologna is a city that is appreciative of environmental concerns and enthusiastic about green technologies. In the suburbs where I am staying, recycling points dot most street corners and I’m pleased to discover my apartment complex is heated by a communal hot water plant rather than individual boilers.

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise however, as this is a city that has never been afraid of progress. Bologna is famous for the pioneering social models that sprang from the student protests of 1960’s and 70’s Italy. Movements such as ‘Autonomism’ and the ‘Movement of ‘77’ sought to decentralise decision-making, investing more power and influence in ordinary citizens and promoting equality, diversity and community. Today Bologna remains one of Italy’s most liberal cities with a strong sense of community and a wide assortment of social groups and organisations.

This strong community focus is what brought me to Bologna, to work with a sustainability organisation that is tackling climate change from a uniquely ‘Bolognese’ perspective. Centro Antartide is on a mission to stimulate environmental action through social innovation, namely through greater community engagement, education and collaboration.

Ecosistemi Mobili

Centro Antartide aims to bring the environment into the everyday consciousness of urban populations by making eco-friendly processes more accessible and more relevant to city life. Projects such as Ecosistemi Mobili (the Mobile Ecosystem), reclaim neglected urban spaces with pop-up gardens furnished with native plants, seating and free public WiFi. Not only do these islands bring the natural environment into a city centre with few public parks, but they create nuclei for local eco-communities, coming together to maintain them, explore them or simply opting to check their emails in the presence of olive trees, shrubs and wild flowers.

Situated in the heart of Bologna’s old town, a stone’s throw from the central Asinelli Tower , Centro Antartide is also an important hub for the city network. It forms a confluence point for the hundreds of disparate organisations and services that play a part in social and environmental activities in the city, and it helps to create unusual synergies that spawn new and interesting projects.

Working with the mayor’s office, local government and regional businesses, Centro Antartide is helping to turn the tunnels beneath one of Bologna’s 13th century palaces into a modern, state-of-the-art education space, teaching children about natural ecosystems, sustainable energy and nutrition. The space uses immersive technology such as interactive projections, laboratories and huge 3D models to ensure the lessons learnt are engaging, enjoyable and most importantly, memorable.

This expertise in creating networks also makes Centro Antartide an important resource in tackling wider regional and national issues such as water management, sustainable mobility and renewable energy. By uniting stakeholders such as consumers, manufacturers, retailers, service providers and local administrators into task forces with a common goal, Centro Antartide can generate novel experimental solutions, identify barriers to progress and encourage the exchange of key information.

I am excited to be working with such an innovative organisation in such a motivated city. I’m intrigued to see how a social innovation approach can generate new solutions in other European regions, and I look forward to sharing the knowledge gained here at the European Innovation Festival in Valencia later this month. Bologna is a unique melting pot for climate and social innovation, and clearly a city to watch in future.