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Meet Amalia Zepou and her award winning platform for the citizens of Athens

Amalia Zepou was an elected member of the Athens Municipality City Council in May 2014 and since September, she has been the Vice Mayor for Civil Society and Municipality Decentralization. In April 2013, she became advisor to the Athens Mayor Mr Yorgos Kaminis and created the platform “synAthina” which was further developed into an idea that won one of the five Mayors Challenge awards from Bloomberg Philanthropies in September 2014. 

Prior to the Municipality she was working as an independent documentary producer since 1998. In 2007, she got involved in several neighborhood projects and was awarded as «Eco-hero» by the Athens Municipality in 2010. She has a B.A. in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and an M.A. in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research in New York in 1991. 

SIE recently interviewed Amalia for our Women in Social Innovation series - a series of interviews of interesting women working on great social innovation projects across Europe. 

Tell us a bit about your project and what inspired you to do this work.

The initial idea did not come up as an “idea”. I was myself involved in activities around my own block, as a citizen, at the time thinking of making a documentary about the abandoned city, and also as a mother of three teenagers wanting to understand and protect them from the rising criminality in the city centre where we lived. Then I got involved with more people at other people’s neighborhoods, and it seemed as an omission that the Municipality did not have a mechanism to embrace all the spontaneous and positive dynamism of the community. We have a great Mayor who said “yes” when I went up to him to ask to do it for the Municipality of Athens. So synAthina at the beginning was an on-line platform developed to respond to public-spirited citizens’ dynamic activities around neighborhoods of Athens.

Since September 2014, after winning one of the Mayors Challenge Awards by  Bloomberg Philanthropies, synAthina unfolds into the proposal its team submitted:  It facilitates citizens’ creativity to modernise local governance to improve citizens’ lives and strengthen the democratic process.

SynAthina has now become part of a social innovation unit of the Municipality of Athens under the sector of Civil Society and Municipality Decentralisation. Our Mayor, Mr. Yiorgos Kaminis was luckily re-elected and gave political priority to all initiatives which enhance civic participation, citizens’ involvement and the support of community activities.

Can you tell us about a defining moment where you could see the impact of your project?    

One of the most popular community groups is called the “atenistas”. They have no legal entity but they have very imaginative members. In 2010, they had the idea of covering abandoned historical buildings in Athens with paper banners on which they wrote the buildings’ history.  Then, later on, some other community groups took the idea and made the banners smaller. Then, in 2013, the synAthina network managed to find a sponsor after the atenistas came back to ask to print the text on small discreet plexiglass banners for 15 buildings in the city center.

The “defining moment” comes now: Both the Municipality legal service and the technical services came up (a) to change the regulation and facilitate permission for placing the banners and (b) to adopt the idea as a Municipality service and do it on more buildings for the city. That’s impact. Instead of the usual negative response, city officials are now more open to new practices. That’s culture change.

What kind of organisations or people would you like to connect with that could further benefit your work?

In my mind, the term “innovation” is about doing things differently because old models do no longer work. Innovation, as such, cannot be planned. You plunge into what you are convinced might work better than before, you take risks and innovation might or might not occur. You need organizations that support people who take risks, and are not afraid of the consequences. 

Read more interviews here.