How to make people passionate about the future of their cities

Four #RENNES2018 lessons learnt

If you work on the energy transition, the same word comes up repeatedly: participation. But how can local authorities make sure this is not an empty box? How to avoid this “they asked for our opinion, but it won’t change their decision” feeling? How can citizens really feel part of the process, be listened to and connect with the big picture of their city? On the first day of Energy Cities’ Annual Conference #rennes2018, Pepik Henneman, Transition Management consultant, tried to delve into these questions and to explore with the audience why they matter so much.

“To what extent does your municipality get a strong citizen participation when developing and implementing policies? Imagine a virtual line between yourself and this stage, where our transition pioneers are sitting. Let’s say the stage is the optimum level of citizen involvement. To represent your city’s efforts, at which distance from the stage would you place yourself?”. That is how Pepik Henneman, transition management consultant, kicked off the session on energy transition pioneers at Energy Cities 2018 Conference. Having taken their places in the room, the audience of public servants and decision-makers depicted a mixed European scenario: most were concentrated in the middle, some were very far away. A happy few stood very close to the stage.

Closing the suggestions box for good: participatory approaches for local policies

There is a sense of impatience at the local level that the energy transition is still too slow. So what methods and means are out there to accelerate the process? Transition Management is one of them. This governance approach, formalised by the University of Rotterdam, aims to facilitate and accelerate sustainability transitions through a participatory process of visioning, learning and experimenting. What used to be a simple “suggestions box” in former times can be replaced by real life interactions and collective learning by doing. By bringing together local pioneers (people from civil society who every day invent and experiment new ways of living, producing and cooperating), you can maximise their creativity and innovation and potentially trigger large-scale changes. Furthermore, solutions elaborated within a large group can be more widely accepted and more easily implemented.

The many successful cases of collaboration presented over the three days of the conference in Rennes resonated with participants. The cities of Ghent, Grenoble and Maastricht and also the French Bourgogne Franche-Comté Region have launched experiments in which people contribute with their enthusiasm and energy.

Placing big bets on transition management

The “When POTEs (Pionniers Ordinaires de la Transition Énergétique) boost the Energy Transition” project has just started. Managed by the French Bourgogne Franche-Comté Region together with Energy Cities, Pepik Henneman and ADEME, a network of local innovators has been set up representing different sectors such as art, energy, industry and agriculture. The main objective is to foster the exchange of experiences in order to develop new projects and ideas for the sustainable future of the region. The Bourgogne Franche-Comté Region is placing big bets on transition management with the POTEs: they are convinced that the power of transformative changes belongs to civil society.

The POTEs story is still to be written, but the project is so promising that other cities are enthusiastic about trying out the approach. 

Drawing: Pepik Henneman

Lesson learnt #1: make room for doers who are already thinking about the city of the future!

A space where policy makers meet citizens: Maastricht-LAB

In 2012, Maastricht’s city council decided to pilot a space for this purpose only: the Maastricht–LAB, linking the municipality with citizens, aimed at opening up people’s imagination and co-generating ideas for the new urban development of the city. The pilot went so well that the city decided to make it a permanent structure two years later. The LAB collaborates with individuals and organisations on concrete projects relevant to its area of work, from giving new life to empty buildings, to creating shared spaces such as parks. It does not have its own projects: every resident who cares for the city and wants to improve it can put his or her own ideas on the table and count on the Maastricht-LAB to help things flourish.

Picture: Maastricht Lab

According to Sven Cimmermans, one of the LAB’s project leaders, the success of the initiative lies in the diversity of actors participating and supporting it: this results in obtaining a clear overview of the needs and working on feasible solutions.

Lesson learnt #2: the more (different), the merrier.

Co-developing digital services for making city life better: Grenoble CivicLab

The French city of Grenoble is another innovator as regards citizen engagement. Confronted with the need to improve citizens’ digital literacy, the city organised Grenoble CivicLab a competition during which citizens, digitally-savvy or not, were able to present their ideas for innovative useful digital services. They were able to learn about the necessary tools, receive training and develop their prototypes. Thanks to this lab, the municipality financed five winning projects and it also paved the way for further collaboration between digital professionals, citizens, students, entrepreneurs, associations and public actors committed to the green development of the city.

Picture: Grenoble CivicLab

Deputy Mayor Vincent Fristot, gave a concrete example. He presented the “energy exchange”, one of the ideas originating from Grenoble CivicLab: it is well known that citizens are more willing to save energy if they know that they will save money. Engagement is even stronger, if energy savings are combined with “doing something good”. In Grenoble, an app is used to donate the money to people in need! Successful projects can be built by focusing on a common goal like the commitment to a greener future, or shared values like solidarity.

Lesson learnt #3: digital is good, good digital deeds are better.

Experiencing the city of the future: the Living Streets project

The story behind Ghent’s Living Streets Foundation is a little different from the previous two, but had a very similar outcome: it all began with a vision shared among a group of citizens. Local entrepreneurs, employees from different organisations and some city officials got together and dreamt of a city where everyone can enjoy public space to the full, not just a park or a public library but also the streets themselves. Initially the group worked using its own means, with the city agreeing to simply provide a space to experiment. For limited periods of time, selected streets were closed to traffic. Parking spaces were moved elsewhere and replaced by a green carpet signalling the “Living Streets zone”. Residents were free to choose how they wanted to use this space. Some organised public reading sessions, others installed slides connecting the city’s green areas to the streets. Between 2012 and 2014 the experiment was repeated several times. With ten living streets set up, its success went beyond all expectations. Since 2015, thanks to European Union funds (LIFE+ programme), living streets are popping up in other cities in The Netherlands, England, Croatia, France, Italy and Austria!

Pieter Deschamps and Dries Gysels from the Living Streets Foundation pointed out that city officials cannot make it alone: they need active citizens with bold ideas. Living streets created a “what if” door and encouraged people to open it by experimenting with new ways of solving common issues. No doubt, the project will inspire city planners and policy makers to design the city of the future.

Lessons learnt #4: dare to think big, dare to ask “what if?”.

We really hope you feel inspired by these active citizenship stories as much as we did when we heard them in Rennes! So what if next time we are asked about the level of citizen participation in our municipality, we can all move closer to the stage?


Publication date

May 8, 2018

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