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Innovation in Gdynia, Poland

Connor Friesen interviews Michał Guć Deputy Mayor of Gdynia

In Gdynia’s City Hall, Michał is responsible for development policy, European projects, NGOs, councils of Gdynia districts, senior citizens activation, social welfare, archtectural administration and the science and technology park. He is Chairman of the Gdynia County Council for Persons with Disabilities and the Gdynia Council for Senior Citizens.

Michal is an advocate for social movements, for instance, he has worked to establish the Scouting Association of the Republic of Poland. He has also re-established the YMCA in Gdynia, where he worked as programming director and then president, at the same time serving on the Executive Committee of the European Alliance of YMCAs in Switzerland.

He has initiated and developed a model programme of cooperation with NGOs - the first in Poland. This novel solution, usually referred to as "the Gdynia model" and winning a prize in a PHARE municipal innovation competition, has become a model for many Polish towns and cities. He was the first winner of an award of the Foundation in Support of Local Democracy in recognition of his contribution to the development of the civic sector.

1. In some contexts, the scouting movement and the YMCA have been considered social innovation. Would you agree? Why?

Without doubt YMCA and the Scouting Movement, although established over a hundred years ago, were innovative ventures. It is, however, worth pointing out that their innovative factor is not extinct. These organisations have been developing since 19th century and they are still part of avant-garde movements involving not just the youth but also adults. They owe it to supporting the culture of innovation, accepting new challenges and projects, thanks to which their offer is still found attractive by the forthcoming generations in a dynamically developing and constantly changing world. This unique ability to smooth adaptation was also a pattern for the Polish YMCA, which was reactivated after 50 years of being banned by the communist authorities. While re-building the Polish YMCA, we were not imitating the patterns from the past but forming a completely new identity – the social innovation, which was the crucial element of its success.

2. Could you describe ‘the Gdynia model’ of cooperation with NGOs and describe some of its challenges and successes?

The main challenge of Gdynia’s model of cooperation with NGO was the issue of changing the approach to the third sector. Poland’s public administration system of the 90’s was rather hermetic – both in terms of decision-making, governing as well as task execution. In Gdynia, thanks to the openness of the authorities at the time, we managed to break this schema. The third sector was engaged into strategic planning within broadly understood social sphere, as well as into operational planning and task execution. Owing to that fact, the local authorities have gained a new perspective of looking at social problems and have involved partners who could undertake public task execution in an innovative way.

3. Gdynia is considered by many people to be one of the most the most progressive and innovative places in Poland. The recent TEDx conference was held here for this reason. What is it about Gdynia that gives the city this reputation?

It is widely known that Gdynia has a unique ‘genius loci’ – spirit of the place. While presenting our city during Shanghai EXPO 2010, I said that Gdynia owes its success to natural resources which are… its citizens. Thanks to their openness, creativity and determination, the city has developed at an enormous rate. Regardless of the fact that it’s one of the youngest cities it Poland (Gdynia was established as the city in 1926), it often competes and wins with larger and much more historic urban centres without a trace of inferiority complex. This unique feature of Gdynia’s community is indeed perfect fundamentals for developing social innovations within our city.

4. The work of Gdynia Innovation Centre - Pomeranian Science & Technology Park spans from Biotechnology to ICT. Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Park – when was it set up and for what purpose? When did social innovation emerge as part of this work? What have social innovators accomplished in Gdynia so far?

Pomeranian Science and Technology Park in Gdynia was established 10 years ago. The main aim was to evoke rapid changes in the local and regional economy which was moving from heavy industry to information and knowledge based domains. To support this process and to trigger entrepreneurship among the citizens, The Science Park in Gdynia was created. At the beginning it was purely directed at ICT, biotechnology and industrial design. As time went by, the park’s modules have extended towards automatics, robotics and multimedia, while still maintaining its focus on innovative technologies. Working close to the Park and the city’s social sector, I could observe how some of the Park’s companies interacted with social welfare units and organisations. As a result, interesting projects were born on the margins of both sectors. This year, after another wave of innovative social projects’ success, we have decided to extend the Park’s mission and have introduced social innovation module. It is currently a platform used to exchange ideas: TEDx conference organised in cooperation with UNDP and our partnership with Social Innovation eXchange (SIX) in organizing SIX Winter School 2011 – “Social Innovation in 2015: What will it look like and how can we achieve it?”, were the recent tokens of these activities.

5. What are the primary challenges that social innovators and entrepreneurs in Gdynia, and in Poland, are trying to face? You are kindly hosting the two international social innovation events in collaboration with the Social Innovation Exchange and Social Innovation Europe initiative in Gdynia in just a few weeks time. How can events like these best enhance the social innovation agenda in Gdynia and in Poland more broadly?

In my opinion the main barrier is lack of awareness that innovations are a crucial element of social sector transformation. In Poland innovations are purely associated with business undertakings, hence the need to emphasize the importance of showing  how information technologies and design can be used in social sphere. Demonstrating how designers can contribute to restraining social conflicts in poorer districts or showing how new technologies can be applied while working with the homeless or disabled, directly proves that latest technologies are not just part of the business domain. Our role is to create a friendly environment for further initiatives within the social innovations sphere. We would like to encourage people with ideas not to be afraid to present them, hence the dissemination of successful projects’ outcomes. The events, which will gather social innovators from all around the Europe in Gdynia this November, will be a great support of our efforts in this field.