Active democracy

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet

I remember a speech by Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, addressing participants from all over the world at the first Fearless Cities summit in 2017. It was not so much the strong ideas she presented as the form of the speech that impressed me. The form consistent with the substance, the premise underlying all of her action: everything is political. By feminising all the grammar of her speech, she questioned the conventions of language. Of course. In Spain, citizens’ collectives elected to the head of cities strove to deconstruct these conventions that reflect inequalities. They were bold enough not to distinguish between small and large changes: they used the same ethical compass for all their decisions.

The approach of Grenoble, which has just won the European Green Capital Award 2022, follows the same line: there are no small changes and active democracy is what we need to meet the tremendous challenges ahead of us.

For Eric Piolle, Mayor of Grenoble, the municipal agenda is built around an overall vision of society implemented locally. His triptych[1] “Guaranteeing security on a daily basis, cherishing the living environment and above all, satisfying our desire for meaning” is the starting point for defining local priorities. They are both clear objectives and certain “ways of doing things”.  Grenoble is also a “fearless city”. It is a feature that the cities attending this summit in June 2017[1] have in common: placing the “how to” at the centre of the transition. Because a successful transformation towards a resilient, democratic city involves a new governance model and re-inventing our collaborations and partnerships.

On our own, very small level, Energy Cities has for some years now been redesigning its own way of working by sharing decisions and responsibilities at the most appropriate level, transforming the conventional pyramid into a series of interdependent yet autonomous circles. Long-term work that ensures that each and everyone of us can play their role and feel “empowered”. A necessity to make our organisation stronger and tuned-in to our members’ needs and give it the agility it needs to meet them. “How to” do something is as important as “what to” do.  

In the same way, rethinking representative democracy goes hand-in-hand with rethinking the economy. A local democracy that meets local challenges also involves a local, democratised economy. The current health crisis is a stark reminder of this. Well-coordinated resources are urgently needed at all levels to deal with the ecological, social, health or economic crises which feed each other. But this should not be limited to a crisis management approach, we must also rethink the local economic fabric as a whole.

Will EU policies, and more specifically the new budgetary framework for the next 7 years, allow us to move away from business as usual? Will the EU support the transitions? Will they only finance the “what to”, without investing in the “how to”, in the local players that make it happen? Our analysis of the new financial framework is somewhat lukewarm… (See here the detailed analyses of my colleagues.)

The fact that Grenoble won the European Green Capital Award 2022 shows the approach is convincing. What remains to be done is to align the European framework to promote local active democracy.



Claire Roumet

Publication date

October 13, 2020