September is normally that time of the year where you get back to your heavy routine after having enjoyed a relaxing holiday break. In my country however, we have this past July experienced one of the worst heavy rainfalls in our history. Once again, deadly floodings have broken all records showing us how extreme weather events could become the new normal everywhere in the world and the latest IPCC report has issued a stark warning that the window for action is irrevocably closing.
As President of Energy Cities, a network of over 1000 European cities designing their own transition, I however see glimpses of societal “renaissance” happening everywhere across Europe. I say “renaissance” and not “resilience”, because I think it is about time we ditch our old-world dictionary and dare to put everything into question. I no longer think we should be “resilient” if this means temporarily adapting to crises in order to go back to what was before. Scientists are telling us our current socio-economic development model is no longer sustainable. We are being told to run against the clock to invert the most damaging effects of climate change but paradoxically, in order to run we need to learn to slow down. This is what our member cities are doing: taking the time needed to convene everyone around the greatest brainstorming of our time. Because the future will not be based on competition but on cooperation. Because we need not only to restore the balance of our natural ecosystem, but of our societal ecosystem too, which can never be sustained if it is based on social disequilibrium.
The just transition is an objective our members have been working on long before it was conceptualized by European institutions. On the energy field, we are organising “cooperation labs” between local authorities and citizen communities to learn how joint projects can deliver energy savings as well as renewable heat and power with the greatest financial and social returns. In Porto, the first citizen energy community was set up in a social housing neighborhood and will involve some 180 dwellings and an elementary school. It is also part of a greater circular economy programme, as the project will include repair centers for electronic equipment.
This is how we are revolutionizing our energy system in the same way than our food supply: producing and consuming local. We just created in Heidelberg a consortium and campaign for promoting regional products. But to go beyond piecemeal, incremental change, we need to reform our economic model on one side, but also the entire administrative and organizational architecture that goes with it. We are used to administrations working in silos, with their own budgets, vocabulary and priorities, but we need more permeability. In the metropolitan area of Brest in France, which is part of the EU Tomorrow project, a wide-ranging partnership strategy has been initiated on the local 2050 roadmap with all the socio-economic players of the territory and a local transition team has been created, in addition to 8 dedicated coalitions. The examples of such local co-construction processes are so numerous that we have just published our first, non-exhaustive collection of them.
At EU level, I am hopeful that the New European Bauhaus movement, of which Energy Cities is an official partner, will help us build bridges so that we all speak the same new language. As an organisation, we are also re-inventing ourselves, now basing our vision on a new charter which acknowledges all the interdependencies between energy, food, land and materials systems.
For centuries, our centralised techno-industrial model has made us blind to the potential of our territories. But this was before the Fridays for Future movement. Passive consumers are turning into active citizens again, and dynamic SMEs are ready to team up with local communities to reap the fruits of our common wealth. We, local elected leaders, are not going to let them down.
This article will appear on the Portuguese magazine País Positivo in October
Dr Eckart Würzner, Lord Mayor of Heidelberg
September 15, 2021