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…The magic in the middle - Social Innovation Konferenz in Wien…

Some of the headlines concerning the terror attacks in Paris, mindless bombing campaigns in the Middle East and the ongoing controversy around refugees suggest we’re living through a season of insanity. We cling on to each straw of hope, such as the most recent global climate agreement. And yet we know: business as usual cannot possibly be an option.
What then, are the alternatives? Revolution? Technology? Philantro-capitalism? Another EU-summit?

At a social innovation conference I attended a few weeks ago, speakers suggested that we need to pay attention to the wave of bottom up innovations spreading around the globe. Think about alternative currencies, co-working studios, makers’ spaces, urban gardens, transition towns, crowd-sourced initiatives for refugees and so on. These ‘laboratories of hope’ are credited with the potential to boost local economies, generate solutions to our toughest problems and in the process revitalise democracy. Unfortunately, the evidence is thin. And critics suggest that such efforts only reproduce or tweak the status quo.

At the City lab Graz, we believe that the much-needed magic is in the middle: between bottom-up and top-down, between governments, markets and citizens, between big dreams and concrete action.

A case in point is the mobility lab Graz that we’re designing with our partners of the Holding Graz and the Technical University. Granted, challenges around mobility are of a different calibre than, say, the refugee crisis. Yet, the underlying dynamics are quite similar in nature and the effects are very real. The environmental and health effects of 120.000 cars driving into this growing city every day defy business as usual. The potential of smarter connections between car-sharing schemes, bicycle paths and the public transport system does not come alive through another major master plan.

And yet, as we’re learning about the causes of Graz’ mobility challenges, we’re finding out that we need the planners more than ever. After all, tramlines, railway-tracks and roundabouts are expensive and quite irreversible investments. But we also need courageous entrepreneurs developing mobility markets. Think of car-sharing platforms such as Car-sharing 24/7. Think of ‘Fahrradboten’ (cycle messengers) as alternatives for the transport of smaller goods in and out of the city. We need artists and activists, to mobilize public attention, win hearts and minds and to change the climate of ideas that ultimately enables what is and what is not possible in politics and planning. We need the ideas and networks of scientists and mobility experts to learn from good practice elsewhere, to keep on asking the right questions and to develop a solid evidence base.

All such forces are already present in society. But they do not necessarily produce the changes we need. It's not anybody's particular fault. Therea are no specific politicians we can blame, no magic fixes to be expected. What we CAN do is to craft spaces and processes where new combinations and connections can emerge, where ideas can be catalysed into action, where state-of-the-art knowledge is available for anybody willing to develop new mobility initiatives. Until the end of February we're submerged in the messy nature of the middle, to find entry points to the magic. Stay tuned to what we're finding out and let us know what you think our mobility lab should do.