Barcelona, Athens, Stockholm, Kirklees, and Warsaw won with high- and low-tech innovations that address pressing urban problems.

The best-run cities of the near future will use social media and apps to strengthen communities and pool city-owned resources with nonprofits. They may also convert green waste into a water-purifying carbon store to improve their soil quality.

That's part of the takeaway from this year’s Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge 2014, whose winners were announced Wednesday. The Mayors’ Challenge’s first European winners were pronounced following a two-day coaching and pitching boot camp in Berlin this June, where the 21 European finalist cities were gradually whittled down to one overall winner and four runners up. Beyond the expertise and guidance provided to entrants by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the prizes themselves are not to be sniffed at: Winners get €5 million of development money, while runners up get €1 million apiece.

The final projects turned out to be evenly spread across Europe’s four corners. In keeping with an overall trend among this year’s European entries, the winning projects reflected pan-European concerns—tackling aging populations, social exclusion, and energy inefficiency. This is in contrast to previous U.S. entries, which tended to focus more on improving government efficiency and customer service, and tackling urban sprawl and blight.

This year’s five winners all seem like worthwhile projects that could well improve citizens’ lives and influence future choices of other cities. The shadow of Europe’s recent economic troubles seem to have shaped some of the solutions being explored, as three of the five winning projects are partly about ways of overcoming gaps left by austerity-driven budget cuts. Here's a roundup of the successful entries.

Barcelona, Spain: Collaborative Care Networks for Better Aging

The Project
The Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge’s overall winner for 2014, this project will create networks to provide better care and support for Barcelona’s seniors. The idea is to forge better integrated “trust networks” that mesh elders’ friends, family, and neighbors with social workers and charity volunteers to provide more joined-up help. Using social media platforms and more low-fi solutions (such as, perhaps, shared visiting calendars), these collaborative care networks will enable state bodies and individuals to coordinate better and work out where there are gaps that might be letting the elderly Barcelona's down.

Why Barcelona?
Like the citizens of most European cities, Barcelona’s residents are aging fast. By 2020, over 15 percent of its citizens will be over 75, while the city’s birth rate is 20 percent below Spain’s average, which is already one of the lowest of any country in Europe. Not only is Barcelona’s population distribution at risk of becoming top-heavy, its age distribution is changing in a period where, as elsewhere in Europe, austerity measures are slashing holes in the state safety net.

If this is a crisis in the making, it’s not one that Barcelona hasn’t seen coming. In 2009, it signed up to the World Heath Organization’s Age Friendly Cities Network, kicking off a public consultancy project that asked local seniors about their needs and worked on key areas such as housing, mobility, and civic participation. Even with projects like this, it’s clear that younger family members will be obliged more than ever to step up for eldercare, a necessity that the winning project aims to tackle.

Athens: Synathina, a Public Platform for Engaged Citizens

The Project
Following Greece’s economic crisis, there’s been a boom in proactive community groups in Athens recently. The current obstacle to these groups is that the many different players at work don’t necessarily have ways to network with each other and share solutions. The Synathina Project aims to create an online platform— a sort of virtual community power grid that will connect groups working on everything from neighborhood safety to community arts. The online platform will also enable local government to consult with and engage directly with some of the city’s most active and committed public citizens, making community organizing more of a two-way street.

Why Athens?
As Greece has strained and struggled under the weight of the country’s massive debt crisis, people have often turned to informal self-help rather than the beleaguered state for assistance. This is partly because the state’s resources are severely stretched and partly because many perceive it to have high levels of corruption. Facing unemployment, wage cuts and tax hikes, Greeks have tended to band together as families and friendship circles to tide themselves over through the lean years. The silver lining around this large cloud is that Athenians have been exploring ways to pool resources—time, space, and expertise as well as money—to make it through in tough times. Making the work of these strengthened community projects more systematic could expand their scope and, if it goes well, even provide an alternative model with which to revitalize the city.

Kirklees (U.K.): Kirklees Shares

The Project
Faced with budget cuts, the Northern English metropolitan borough of Kirklees has come up with a novel plan: letting private individuals commandeer the borough’s unused resources. Specifically, Kirklees is creating a joint pool for both the local government and the area’s non-profits to share both actual tools—such as trucks, for example—as well as volunteer hours and expertise. When the project gets off the ground, both government and nonprofits should be using their resources more efficiently and creating better-integrated help for local users.

Why Kirklees?
Across Britain, austerity measures are forcing local governments to cut essential services. As the real value of both welfare payments and working-class wages falls, many Britons are now turning to privately funded solutions like food banks as a way of trying to keep themselves from dropping further below the poverty line. Cuts mean that local authorities now have facilities they can’t afford to use, while nonprofits are also being stretched beyond their capabilities. A former industrial powerhouse whose manufacturing base has shrunk (though far from disappeared), Kirklees is likely feeling these strains more than most.

Stockholm: Biochar—for a Better City Ecosystem

The Project
Sweden’s capital plans to put its green waste to the best use possible. Collecting waste from parks and private gardens (of which the city has many), this project will transform wood and plant cuttings into so-called Biochar. This form of charcoal acts as a way of sequestering carbon rather than releasing it into the air through full burning. This Biochar will then be redistributed throughout the city to improve soil quality and strewn across unpaved earth to help promote tree growth and to purify stormwater runoff in parks and on tree-lined streets.

(Reuters/Stuart McDill)

Why Stockholm?
Stockholm has good reason to worry more about rising sea levels than an inland city might. A harbor town scattered across an often low-lying archipelago, it stands to face acute problems when sea levels rise significantly—one reason why reducing the collective carbon footprint is given high priority there. The city’s Biochar project is also particularly attractive to locals because it can help mitigate the effects of flash floods. The city already has a highly developed recycling system, so a productive, environmentally safe process for dealing with green waste is a logical next step.

Warsaw: Virtual Warsaw—Urban Information System for Visually Impaired

The Project
Poland’s capital intends to use mobile apps to create a citywide navigation system for the visually impaired. Users will be directed by thousands of beacons (pictured) placed across the city that will send messages to a personal handset. This will enable users to find their way around more easily, potentially cutting hours of daily travel time for the visually impaired.


Why Warsaw?
This sort of system would be equally valuable in most cities, though Warsaw’s ongoing success at providing extensive, efficient public transit may mean it is more likely than most to move on to ambitious projects aimed at broadening access. Their plan also has some virtues for any city with a tight municipal budget: Rather than simply being a socially generous way to help the visually impaired live more independently, this is also a hard-headedly pragmatic way of reducing their dependence on the public purse. Following a similar pilot project in Stockholm, initial users were able not just to navigate more easily, but found their independence so greatly improved that many were able to enter the workforce and become more financially self-sufficient.

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