Featured People: #RDgrantee Paul Currion

Throughout the summer we accompany the launch of our new Idea Camp call with highlights on the works of former Idea Camp participants showing the depth and breadth of our grantees’ networks. You can apply for the 2017 Idea Camp until 20 September 2016. 

We talk to Paul Currion about the right to housing, living and working in Serbia, on new finance models for communities and how the R&D grant has impacted on the development of his idea. 

Paul Currion at the Idea Camp 2015. Photo by Julio Albarrán.

Paul Currion at the Idea Camp 2015. Photo by Julio Albarrán.

Paul, you travel around in different regions of the world talking to and working with people, why are you asked to go?

I previously worked in disaster response and post-conflict reconstruction, which meant I travelled a lot – now I work as a consultant, I try to travel less! Next to humanitarian work I was always interested in urban issues, and now I combine those interests to work on urban resilience. I'm not an expert though – I'm always learning from others!

So what is your central focus, why are you working on these issues?

I'm part of the group Ko Gradi Grad, which means “Who Builds the City?” in English, and we believe that the right to housing is one of the critical struggles of the 21st century. Like most countries, Serbia suffers from a housing crisis that neither the government or the private sector seems to be able to address. We want to find new ways to solve this old problem.

What brought you to Belgrade?

I decided to live in Belgrade because I like it – it's a great city with great people. It also has a lot of social, economic and environmental challenges – including urgent problems like the 2014 floods and the current refugee crisis – and I wanted to get involved in addressing some of these. It's important to get involved with these issues in your community, even if you're a foreigner.

Tell us a little more about the waterfront project, who is funding the development?

It's been difficult to get a clear picture of the budget because of the lack of transparency. The original claim was that this would be a $3bn project over 4 years, but contract details presented by the Mayor suggest that the Emirati company Eagle Hills will invest €150m, while Serbia will need to take out a loan of €280m to pay its costs – and the project will now take 30 years!

What do local people want in Belgrade?

I can't speak for the people of Belgrade. The protests are focused on getting answers (and resignations) regarding events on one night in April, when masked men demolished several buildings and allegedly beat up citizens in the Belgrade Waterfront area. As more people realise what is happening, the street protests have grown from a few hundred last year to 20,000 this June.

Does the protest against the development lay bare other divisions in Serbian society?

I think there is a general sense of frustration in Serbia, which suffered through wars, then sanctions, then the global financial crisis! However this frustration is also matched by exhaustion – people here are tired and it's difficult to mobilise them for positive social change. The government was recently re-elected with a clear mandate, but they are not delivering the change that Serbia needs.

How is the Rockefeller Foundation involved in the local governments planning?

I have no idea! Belgrade joined the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities initiative last year, but as far as I know we have not appointed a Chief Resilience Officer. UNDP has been doing some resilience work with local government in areas that were affected by the 2014 floods, but apart from that – we don't hear anything. I'll let you know if I can find any answers!

What has the ECF R&D grant allowed you to do?

Last year we realised that raising finance was the “missing link” in our project to develop an alternative approach to affordable housing, Pametnija Zgrada (“Smarter Building”). The grant has allowed us to research this field, hold a series of workshops (on topics such as crowdfunding strategies and complementary currencies) and develop a new model for housing finance.

Why was this an important topic?

Housing is the single biggest cost for most of us, so if we can develop a new model for Serbia, we can really change the situation for people. We have focused on developing the idea of the “community economy” - the variety of ways in which communities can take more control over their own economic situation, instead of relying on government institutions and private companies.

What have you learnt during the project period?

Our initial focus was on new financial technologies, including the potential of blockchains, but also including the fintech revolution that is hitting the banking sector. Technology by itself is not the solution, so we have shifted to focus on a more holistic approach that combines these information technologies with older social technologies, like co-operative businesses and savings pools.

How will this have an impact on people?

We've introduced some of these topics for the first time in Serbia, and workshop participants have expressed their wish that we keep trying to push them. We need to invest in communications – so that more people are discussing these alternatives and coming up with their own ideas – and outreach, to make sure that communities realise that those alternatives exist for them.

What’s next for Ko Gradi Grad?

That's the difficult part! We've committed to support existing initiatives in other parts of Serbia – including a local complementary currency – but we'll be expanding our own focus to try to put the model into practice. We clearly need to engage local communities, so I think that will also be a focus in the next year. Our model is very ambitious, so we need to have a long-term commitment.

What advice would you give to someone applying for the next Idea Camp, based on the theme ‘Moving Communities’?

Don't be afraid to explore new ideas! We feel that housing doesn't receive enough attention – public space seems to get most of the publicity – so Idea Camp was an opportunity to promote and discuss this agenda in a wide group. We weren't sure if our work would be appropriate for the Idea Camp, but I discovered that a lot of the other participants were very interested in what we were doing.

Thank you Paul!