Christos Karras is a member of the communications team of SynAthina. He oversee the development of the digital platform of the SynAthina and writes articles for it. He is holds a bachelor degree in Mass Media and Communication (University of Athens) and a master degree on Multimedia and Audiovisual Business Administration (Haute Ecole ISCHEC – ISC Saint Louis, Brussels).
Q: Could you please briefly describe SynAthina?
SynAthina is a platform within the Municipality of Athens. Though mainly online, there is also a physical aspect to the platform. If you go to the site, you will find a map of the Municipality of Athens on which are placed initiatives and actions put forward by citizen groups to increase the quality of life within the City. They upload a description of their activities and can use the platform to give out up-to-date information on their projects, and use it to connect to other groups, foundations, sponsors, or volunteers.
At the same time, the platform is a tool for the Municipality itself to gain knowledge on its citizens’ priorities and discover their ideas on solving issues within the City. It is a great way to keep City Hall in touch with the reality of its citizens.
Because of Greece’s current financial situation, the City doesn’t necessarily have the necessary funds to undertake all the projects it should. Thus, SynAthina is also a way to help projects develop differently from a traditional top-down approach.
Q: Actually, this brings me to my second question. How do you think the crisis affected your work? Was it a driver?
I haven’t been in the SynAthina team since its inception, but I can only assume that the platform is a product of the crisis since it was created post 2009. Until SynAthina was launched in the summer of 2013, there was no observatory of citizen activity in our city. The reduction of the City’s resources has meant that citizens have decided to take over and care for each other and their urban environment themselves.
Now this is not to say that citizens are only doing this as a reaction to the Municipality’s reduced activity. People always wish to use their creativity, start their own initiatives on important topics like solidarity, health, the environment in which they live. But the crisis has definitely inspired a more do-it-yourself approach to problem solving.
Q: I think you were about to do so, but can you give me a few examples of the themes Athenian citizens are most interested in?
On the website, we upload statistics about the projects and there is a pie chart representing the projects group by some large categories. Solidarity is probably the strongest theme we have at the moment. By solidarity we mean projects that aim to help the underprivileged, foster social integration, going around and helping the homeless, developing activities for refugees, etc.
Another interesting trend is alternative distribution methods, both for goods and knowledge. There are a lot of “sharing platforms” for clothes, food, knowledge, also quite a few specialised timebanks.
There is also a tendency to combine the common good with the need to solve the pressing problem of unemployment, thus we observe a strong tendency towards social entrepreneurship within the network of teams participating in SynAthina.
Q: How do you measure impact? What are your personal indicators within the SynAthina team?
First and foremost, we look at the level of trust within the community. We currently have 250 active citizen groups on the platform. We also have an open-door policy so that every Monday, those who wish to meet with us physically or meet between themselves can. This enables us to have a very direct and transparent relationship with the community and to get a good idea of the community’s pulse.
You are in our offices at the moment, and you can see that we unfortunately can’t welcome representatives of 250 groups every Monday, but there is a good rotation amongst the members and as in every community, we have a very active core of about 30 to 40 groups who we see regularly.
Another way we measure our impact is through the international network which is getting bigger and bigger. SynAthina has received a lot of interest from abroad taking active role in the City Makers movement as well and a leading role in the Creative Citizenship working group of the Eurocities network. Moreover, many cities, both in Greece and abroad are asking us for help to replicate the platform over there.
Finally, some of our Flag Projects are successfully getting implemented right now and represent good indicators of our impact. To give you an example, we started a consultation process to know what local citizens wished to do with an old municipal building in Kipseli - the former market building - and we also made a call to local communities to manage the building in accordance with the results of the consultation process. For Athens, this was quite a novel way to manage public property.
The citizens wished to turn the market into a mixed space with a focus on education and culture and the team from ImpactHub Athens will be the ones to administer the transformation and the running of the building. We feel very confident about this project and hope we can apply this “Place Making” process to other municipal buildings in the future.
Another Flag Project I can mention, is our campaign to improve the image the City by removing tagging in a viable manner. SynAthina created and coordinates a network of inhabitants, business owners, sponsors and of course the City services to remove graffiti in a durable way. We are trying to create an environment where everyone cares for the image of the City. We created pilot streets and are now trying to expand it to the whole City centre and it seems that this collaborative model where the City takes the role coordinating stakeholders is working.
Q: We talked about the themes of projects you are seeing, but I am also interested in the trends are you noticing. If I can say it in another way, could you describe what an ideal Athens look like to today’s Athenian citizen?
Two words: less bureaucracy. It is a matter of complexity and of the number of existing regulations, which often contradict one another, or services which do not work together well within the city. At SynAthina, we have feedback on this and so are able to point out some of these issues and then push for simplification. We are trying to make the Municipality more flexible and more transparent, in other words, more citizen-centric.
Q: SynAthina is part of the Municipality of Athens but you are also trying to change it from within. How would you describe your relationship with City Hall?
We are lucky because the Mayor is very fond of the program and is very supportive. Many vice-mayors use the platform to publish open calls so as to better understand the desires of their citizens and collaborate with them. Of course, there are always some people who just don’t get it. And that is part of our communication efforts within the Municipality to better explain what SynAthina really is about. Actually, we are currently planning a new communication campaign towards civil servants for this very reason.
Q: From what I understand, the platform acts as the main door for citizen projects to interact with the various departments of City Hall, which is already a huge undertaking, but do you have greater ambitions for SynAthina in the future?
I would like SynAthina to develop as an efficient mechanism in connecting citizens with Municipality employees. As I mentioned, some civil servants see the platform as just adding more work to their already full plates. I would like for the platform to help them in their work and not hinder them. I would like SynAthina to be more organically integrated within the City’s processes, which I am happy to say will soon be the case. Right now, we operate with funding from the Bloomberg Philanthropic Foundation but from 2018 onwards, it will be fully embedded in the City’s services and will be operating by the City's officers.
Overall, I would love to see SynAthina becoming the “go-to” place both for active citizens who want to strengthen their initiatives and for city servants / elected representatives of the city who are interested in upgrading the City's services and establishing an interactive and inclusive way in forming policies and regulations.
Q: Since in a way, it all started right here 25 centuries ago, do you see a change in the role of the Citizen today compared to maybe say, 20 years ago before this kind of technology existed?
There is a change going hand in hand with the development of tools which enhance, develop, communicate and connect citizen activities. The use of those tools can lead to more direct forms of democracy. Without the mapping and networking technologies SynAthina could not be possible ten or twenty years ago, but this does not only have to do with technology. I believe people are now hungrier for a community feel. There is too much passivity within the world. We consume too much passive information. People are sick and tired of waiting for someone to do it for them. Developing ways to create and implement collective solutions to pressing matters gives meaning to their lives while it creates immediate and visible impact even in small scale.
Having said that, I cannot help but observe that the participation of citizens within their city could be much more important and tools like SynAthina enables this to some extent, but I do not necessarily see a big change in the mainstream. The large majority of citizens remains quite passive and expectant of the Municipality to do things on their behalf. So, what I mentioned before is a slow and gradual change. It takes time and a lot of effort.
Q: Have you seen special interest groups use SynAthina as a way to further their agenda?
There are some big and established NGOs who are members of our platform that do have their own agenda and want to further it but they don’t use the platform in that way. “Lobbying” is something that we do on account of all citizens' groups in order to push towards regulations which are more citizen-friendly and which can lead to more participatory & collaborative processes.
 A follow up question to this point was asked concerning the unemployment rate within the City. Though he did not have the exact statistics off hand for the City of Athens, Mr Karras thought the unemployment rate was similar to the national figure: around 24%.
 I also interviewed members of ImpactHub Athens and this is how they described the space they were creating:
“We do not want to duplicate an ImpactHub there, we want to build a true community project. We wish to help the local community to self-organise and help them create a legal entity to administer the space. This is a first in Greece and so is a learning process for us as well.
Our vision is to create a self-organised and sustainable community space. This means that the users of the space will have to be part of the legal entity responsible for the space itself. Another point, is that all activities in the space must be financially self-sufficient so as to be sustainable and more than that, must be able to afford the personnel working for the space itself: cleaners or a community manager for example.
Beyond these two basic points, the building is separated into commercial, cultural and social welfare spaces. To illustrate what we have in mind for these, here are some examples:
- All commercial activities must be ethical and ecological. A “conscious mall”, if you wish.
- For the cultural spaces, we would like to have a library and an inter-generational meeting space. We have noticed that both children and the elderly spend a lot of time outside and already play together in the neighbourhood, so we would like to give them a space to do so in this building.
- As for social activities, using ImpactHub as a base and incubator we will foster the creation of social businesses based on the neighbourhood’s skill sets. For example, Kipseli has a strong African community and many members of this community know how to sew. We would like to create a clothing brand which receives pro bono, designs from big fashion houses and employs these people as workers to make the clothes.