How to engage citizens in a just transformation process

With climate change, we are facing one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime – one that cannot be solved through technical solutions alone. The right individual and collective decisions will limit global warming to 1.5 C. The wrong ones will put that goal out of reach forever.

The Democratic Society, as a design partner of the Healthy, Clean Cities Deep Demonstration at EIT Climate-KIC, wants to highlight how solutions to climate change need to be designed and executed with citizens at its heart, ensuring that this transformation process is adaptive, democratic and fair, for the whole population but particularly for marginalised groups in societies.  

In times when the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that urgent, far-reaching measures can take place on short notice, many have wondered why we haven’t approached climate change with similar resolve. Although understandable in its well-meaning tone, this sentiment echoes the fact that finding a solution to one of the most pressing concerns of our time is a daunting task in its own right. A complex challenge, thus, requires a carefully thought out and implemented solution. At the Democratic Society, we believe that the citizens need to be at its very core.

Climate change touches people’s lives in very concrete ways: clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter are all at jeopardy. A 2019 WHO analysis showed that through flood, heatwaves, drought and fires, climate change has a considerable impact on human health, including undernutrition, mental health, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and vector-borne infections, while limited access to drinking water and to health services are jeopardising the health of women, especially during pregnancy. Therefore, climate action requires us to act with people in mind. In the plethora of ways in which it touches people’s every area of life, climate change comes both as a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge can be daunting, as there is a lot to coordinate; the type of complexity and interconnection and the sheer scale of it pose a major requirement to any response. However, the opportunity that it presents allows for multiple ways to make a difference.

It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suppose that, if the citizens are at the very centre of climate change work, citizen involvement is the first logical step to finding a solution. However, this hasn’t been the case – neither always, nor everywhere. Even the most elaborate attempts in the past have shown that some of the more technocratic solutions fail to address what is, in essence, a matter of a much more inclusive approach. 

Citizen participation is often a point-intervention. A vote at an election every few years, a consultation process on a new town square, or a bypass, the occasional protest movement or letter to the mayor. Challenges on the societal scale, so dependent on personal behaviours, and with such huge impact on the life of individuals, cannot be handled in such a way. We need a longer-term, more conversational approach, that allows for changes to be planned and delivered with people, and strengthens the civic and democratic infrastructure that can allow that to happen – and which in too many places has been thinned out rather than strengthened over the years. We need to make sure that everyone in Europe, not just the eloquent and the sharp-elbowed, can access those opportunities, and that their voices are heard in a fair balance.

For instance, the marginalised communities around the world are especially affected by the impact of climate change. Just one 2016 estimate by the United Nations showed that in the two decades prior, 4.2 billion people were affected by weather-related disasters, with a significant loss of life felt the hardest in the low-income countries. Yet simultaneously, some of these communities are at risk of having to bear the highest costs of climate solutions. The affluent family will be disappointed if flying to the Caribbean becomes a luxury rather than an annual affair. Those who live with scarcity will be unable to live if policies increase their heating bill by ten per cent.

Thus, we are risking further polarisation in society if we do not tackle climate change with a just approach that includes the marginalised and under-represented groups in a society. Europe and its citizens still bear the scars of industrial transformations that took place without thinking about the social and economic structures in place to support people through. Any initiative that has just transition as its starting point is thus particularly important, because some areas are historically deeply dependent on high carbon industries: whether it is the coal mines of Poland, or thermoelectric power plants of the Western Balkans, technical tools risk to be developed without the involvement of communities they affect.

Together with EIT Climate-KIC, the Democratic Society want to ensure that climate change is not a technocratic, but a democratic issue, by fostering citizen engagement work. Participation and engagement have different meanings in different context, and are sometimes used interchangeably. Engagement does not mean communication, or only changing people’s social norms. The goal of engagement activities is that authorities provide information and options to people to allow them to make decisions themselves.

We cannot hope to solve the challenges of climate change without the wholehearted participation of citizens in action and in decision. Too often, however, citizens are involved as an afterthought or a box-ticking exercise, whereas the changes needed require buy-in across society. Our approach, working across multiple Deep Demonstrations, seeks to bring the best citizen participation theory and practice and develop them further in the context of the essential role that public involvement has in solving climate change. By working in a way that responds to the individual needs of each Deep Demonstration, but also in connecting across them, we ensure that citizens’ voices, ideas, and action in the Deep Demonstrations can be accessed readily where required.

By involving citizens in the decision-making process, we ensure that approaches are developed for and by people at its heart. The process itself will:

  • Increase community acceptance of the outcomes and whatever is designed
    By working with citizens and other stakeholders, we can help the city representatives understand how citizens think and act, and how they value different climate action approaches – including ensuring that the transition to carbon neutrality is just and fair. We can’t decide the approach in the Berlaymont, or even in national capitals. They can set targets, set priorities, but the impacts have to be handled on the ground, by communities and people involved. This is why citizen participation is so essential, on a scale and in a way that we have not generally done such things before.
  • De-risk the investment in climate action
    Climate action requires significant investment from governments at all levels. Ensuring that the community resources invested in climate action are ones that will pay dividends and contribute to healthy, clean cities of the future is important. Embedding citizen participation helps to ensure that opportunity costs – whether financial, effort or interest – is managed. That’s why it’s essential even as money is flowing in increasing amounts into climate transition, that the choices on how to move forward are made with citizens, in the places where they live, and that those voices are joined up at regional, national and European scale
  • Gain the public will to create a better and just future for all
    While climate action is a challenge that cities are facing, it is not the only one. Climate action issues touch on fundamental questions about what our communities ought to be like, and how we ensure justice and fairness in the future. Making citizen participation part of the approach ensures that people are able to have a voice in understanding how they will enjoy living, working and playing in their city in the future. Policy and decision-makers are able to build on the legitimacy for certain measures by setting aspirations for climate action together with citizens.

As we have seen in places like Cambridge, UK, where a Citizen Assembly carefully selected to represent the communities living in the wider city area worked on creating recommendations on how to reduce congestion, improve air quality, and provide better public transport in the Greater Cambridge region, the interest is already there. A key and repeated message that arose during the Citizen Assembly was “be bold, be brave, and take action”. And more importantly, the Citizen Assembly demonstrated the role that residents from all walks of life can play in developing a local approach to tackling difficult issues.

In Jarva, a neighbourhood of Stockholm, what originally was a contested retrofitting plan by a housing company of grew into an energy transition project of one million homes by the simple act of involving the citizens. The Järva Dialog took place in the form of open meetings, which saw 10,000 residents participate and provide 30,000 responses about the advantages and challenges of the area. This then expanded into what can be seen as a wider case of empowerment. A different picture has emerged whereby local residents feel empowered enough to actively participate in local decision-making processes, both inside and outside of the project. In particular, migrant women, who were previously absent in any local dialogue were now voting in local elections and exercising their democratic rights, which was not the case at the start of the project.

Krakow, one of our Healthy, Clean Cities has seen citizen engagement take centre stage of the Deep Demonstrations work, with the city on the brink of having a mass movement, all with the involvement of key stakeholders from the public administration (both local and regional), citizens, civil societies, academia, and local businesses. Exploring solutions for green mobility in Krakow, for instance, included a hackathon, attended by nearly 1,000 people. The workshops saw students, think tanks, CSOs and housing associations all sign up to participate in analyzing trends and proposing future scenarios and alternative futures – showcasing a keen interest by the city in establishing direct collaboration with actors from the civil society in the city – while an online consultation game involved middle- and high-school students. All of this has shown that massive cross-sectoral collaboration is not only possible, but works best when it has the citizens at its core.

Then there is also the collaborative governance work, that is elementary to what we do. In the southeast of Belgium, the German speaking community has created a system of political participation in addition to the existing parliament. The permanent Citizen Council is to decide each year on what it is that requires consultation, and then debate the issues in an independent Citizen’s Assembly in order to come up with concrete policy recommendations. The key part of the process lies in the fact that the Parliament of the Germany-speaking community as its official body works on the implementation of the recommendations in one of the most-far reaching democratic innovation models to date, only proving the point that the people’s voices and opinions can and must become elementary in any future decision making process.

This is the work that we are undertaking at the Democratic Society in partnership with EIT Climate-KIC. It’s not easy, no one has done this sort of thing at this scale before, but we’re lucky to be starting with a strong partnership with cities and the other design partners in the project. A process of experimentation, but with a single goal – building up a long-term democratic and participative capacity in the places that we are working, with greater skills and confidence in public institutions and among citizens, denser and stronger civic and democratic networks, and a structure of deliberative and participative methods that allows everyone voice to be expressed and to be heard. In this way, we hope to solve the greatest connected problem of the 21st century – how to reimagine and reconnect democracy for the networked age, and how to save the planet – together.

 
Location
Articles you may be interested in
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Boosting climate adaptation with innovation, an Opinion by Dr. Tom Mitchell

Opinion Tom Mitchell, EIT Climate-KIC Chief Strategy Officer Innovation...

Boosting climate adaptation with innovation, an Opinion by Dr. Tom Mitchell
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Teaching others how talk about climate change made easy with new guide

The EIT Climate-KIC supported #TalkingClimate Workshop—The Trainer’s Guide by...

Teaching others how talk about climate change made easy with new guide
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Green Invest from Stuttgart and Start Park from Florence win Climathon Awards ...

A total of 140 teams of citizen finalists applied...

Green Invest from Stuttgart and Start Park from Florence win Climathon Awards 2020
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
PlenEat, a project that boosts the rural-urban virtuous circle

On their website they define themselves as a project...

PlenEat, a project that boosts the rural-urban virtuous circle
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
EIT Climate-KIC’s Open Accelerator: collaboration, not competition

It is no secret that to tackle climate change...

EIT Climate-KIC’s Open Accelerator: collaboration, not competition
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Circular economy as the best short-term solution to boost the sustainability o...

LOOP-Ports circular economy project, coordinated by Fundación Valenciaport and...

Circular economy as the best short-term solution to boost the sustainability of European ports
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Open Call: Climate Innovation Leadership Programme

EIT Climate-KIC has opened a call for the new...

Open Call: Climate Innovation Leadership Programme
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
A Snapshot of EIT Climate-KIC’s Innovation Portfolio

Societies worldwide are waking up to the need to...

A Snapshot of EIT Climate-KIC’s Innovation Portfolio
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Why should countries and regions look to a circular approach?

By 2050, the world will consume resources equivalent to...

Why should countries and regions look to a circular approach?
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Madrid, Amsterdam and Milan: Three cities putting citizen participation at the...

The Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future global actions...

Madrid, Amsterdam and Milan: Three cities putting citizen participation at the heart of climate action
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Partnering with EIT Climate-KIC on the New Accelerator: Call for Expressions o...

We are looking for new and existing EIT Climate-KIC...

Partnering with EIT Climate-KIC on the New Accelerator: Call for Expressions of Interest
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
EIT Climate-KIC leads collective efforts to accelerate Madrid’s transition t...

A cross- KIC (Knowledge and Innovation Community) initiative is...

EIT Climate-KIC leads collective efforts to accelerate Madrid’s transition towards carbon neutrality
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Young Innovators organiza dos talleres para profesorado en España

El programa Young Innovators de EIT Climate-KIC en colaboración...

Young Innovators organiza dos talleres para profesorado en España
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
New online magazine Branch explores the sustainability of the internet

his week saw the launch of Branch magazine, a...

New online magazine Branch explores the sustainability of the internet
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Four EIT Climate-KIC innovators nominated for EIT Awards

Four EIT Climate-KIC innovators have been nominated to win...

Four EIT Climate-KIC innovators nominated for EIT Awards
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
A LOOP-Ports project Workshop identify and characterise the areas of interven...

Fundación Valenciaport has organised, in the framework of the...

A LOOP-Ports project Workshop identify and characterise the areas of intervention on Circular Economy in Ports
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Cassetex from Bangladesh, Sosei from Uruguay and Carbon Craft Design from Indi...

More than 3,000 entrepreneurs from 56 countries participated in...

Cassetex from Bangladesh, Sosei from Uruguay and Carbon Craft Design from India win the seventh edition of ClimateLaunchpad
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
EIT Climate-KIC participa con Promálaga en la 11ª edición de Greencities

EIT Climate-KIC junto a la empresa municipal socia Promálaga,...

EIT Climate-KIC participa con Promálaga en la 11ª edición de Greencities
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
bound4blue’s innovative wingsail technology gathers recognition across Europ...

The Spanish start-up Bound4Blue is unstoppable in 2020. Cristina...

bound4blue’s innovative wingsail technology gathers recognition across Europe
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
World’s biggest green business ideas competition now fully digital, free and...

The three-day Grand Global Final of the EIT Climate-KIC supported...

World’s biggest green business ideas competition now fully digital, free and accessible to all
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Commitment to ensure ‘systematic and structural cooperation’ between the E...

A Letter of Intent was signed today setting out...

Commitment to ensure ‘systematic and structural cooperation’ between the EIC and the EIT
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Three cities building back better: Madrid, Milan and Amsterdam

EIT Climate-KIC will host a session at the 18th...

Three cities building back better: Madrid, Milan and Amsterdam
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
EIT Climate-KIC to work with Google on Impact Challenge

EIT Climate-KIC is delighted to announce that it will...

EIT Climate-KIC to work with Google on Impact Challenge
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
EIT Climate-KIC’s case studies on innovative land use set the stage for tran...

EIT Climate-KIC launches ‘Innovations in land use,’ a collection...

EIT Climate-KIC’s case studies on innovative land use set the stage for transforming whole systems
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
What role can finance play in the green recovery? EIT Climate-KIC and UNEP Fin...

EIT Climate-KIC, in partnership with the UNEP Finance Initiative,...

What role can finance play in the green recovery? EIT Climate-KIC and UNEP Finance Initiative ask leading thinkers to weigh in
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
The City Finance Lab calls on urban leaders to help build back better

Organised by sustainability expert South Pole, the competition for...

The City Finance Lab calls on urban leaders to help build back better
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
EIT Climate-KIC supports European green recovery with €4 million for start-u...

EIT Climate-KIC is investing €4 million in nine climate...

EIT Climate-KIC supports European green recovery with €4 million for start-ups affected by COVID-19
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
Innovate as if the Future Mattered

  Interview with Kirsten Dunlop written by Alssandra Mazzai...

Innovate as if the Future Mattered
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
How public servants can engage unlikely allies to deliver climate policies

This article is written by Juan Azcarate, Deputy director...

How public servants can engage unlikely allies to deliver climate policies
CLIMATE-KIC NEWS
How public servants can engage unlikely allies to deliver climate policies

This article is written by Juan Azcarate, Deputy director...

How public servants can engage unlikely allies to deliver climate policies