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Sustainability through local collaboration

Ilonka Marselis, DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam

There is increasing acknowledgement from EU bodies that involvement of community-led initiatives in transformation projects towards sustainability is beneficial for project outcomes. Collaboration between (local) governments and community-led initiatives is therefor promoted, but this type of collaboration is not always smooth or straightforward. Addressing this dilemma was the #collaboration4better conference held in Brussels in the context of the 2nd annual European Day of Sustainable Communities and organized as collaboration between the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European network for community-led initiatives on climate change and sustainability (ECOLISE), as well as the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) and the Transition Network. In this blog I share my reflections about the conference.

Citizen- and community-led action around sustainability and climate-change has developed into a substantial movement. All across Europe thousands of bottom-up initiatives are striving for a more sustainable world through imagining and implementing economic, social and environmental innovations that promote regeneration and sustainability. Growing evidence demonstrates that they are contributing in a unique way to achieving systemic change towards sustainability since they respond directly at the local level where challenges arise from unsustainable practices. Governments are starting to recognize the importance of citizen-led action and consequently increasingly collaborate with bottom-up initiatives. It is these collaborations that the conference focuses on, since the quality of sustainability projects is higher when civil society and grassroots initiatives are involved as shared by keynote speakers. However, there are often barriers to be overcome on the way towards collaboration between civil initiatives and local governments. Addressing these barriers was topic of the day.

Working towards sustainability in collaboration

To warm up, we were asked to describe in one word each, what our main fear was for the future and our main hope. Through an online app a participatory word cloud was made from all the words participants came up with. Representative to the theme of the conference the fears clustered around individualism, inequality and indifference, whereas the hopes around collaboration, cooperation and community. Also for my direct neighbor, her hopes lay in cooperation and a manageable scale of solutions. This set the tone for the rest of the day.

Subsequently, the ongoing project Municipalities in Transition (MiT) was put center stage: five municipalities across the world are testing a newly developed framework for collaboration between municipalities and their grassroots initiatives towards sustainability – so far with success. The framework centers around getting those involved to talk and share openly, to build trust and consequently co-design solutions with a sense of shared ownership. Important aspects to the approach are: making sure ALL relevant actors are being invited to the dialogue, bridging actors with diverse political and philosophical backgrounds and reaching consensus with multiple parties. Central is the building of trust and the establishment of connections in the form of a network. A comparison was made to the growth pattern of bamboo. A bamboo shoot takes seven years after it is planted to establish an extensive root system, only then, after seven years, will the bamboo finally start growing. But then once it has started, it grows at the staggering rate of seven meters in height in seven weeks. The MiT project is therefore actually not a project, but a process. A path is created that allows change and collaboration to occur.

Overcoming challenges in collaboration

After the introductory session, four parallel sessions allowed to discuss different aspects of collaboration between bottom-up initiatives and governments. I joined the session on sharing power and nurturing real collaboration, which dealt with the question ‘which challenges arise when municipalities enter into genuine co-creation with their citizens?’. As well as ‘which tools, processes and practices can support in sharing power and collaborating creatively across the differences?’. My break-out group came to a shared five challenges that are at play when municipalities and grassroots initiatives want to collaborate.

  1. Getting into contact as a citizen-led initiative with the right person(s) in the municipality is difficult.
  2. The different layers within a municipality have a different position; when politicians might be in favor, the administrative departments could be very conservative and oppose change. A participant remarked that these civil servants often do not know how much power they hold to help civil initiatives or to change municipal practices.
  3. For the municipality there appears to be a thin line between wanting to support grassroots initiatives and taking them over by wanting to influence too much, which can ruin the initiative.
  4. Many legal aspects form a barrier for grassroots initiatives to even come into being.
  5. Creating a sense of mutual/common ownership and sustaining involvement and participation from both citizens and civil servants has shown to be a challenge.

Other participants in this session also mentioned the different cultures of the two parties as a main challenge for collaboration. With different languages, decision-making structures, objectives, time-frames, monetary resources and organizational structures, collaboration between local governments and community-led initiatives becomes challenging.

All solutions we discussed boiled down to establishing open, inclusive & transparent communication and thereby building trust. It sounds so simple…! But how to achieve it? Some participants proposed shared trainings, where civil servants and grassroots initiative members learn together: by co-learning and co-creating in a well-facilitated, neutral setting, common ownership and trust can be created. Another participant talked about creating ‘space to be human together’: creating a setting where participants leave behind their professional function and openly talk about their fears and hopes. Others mentioned additional funds to compensate the often voluntary efforts of the grassroots movement, which would allow more equal amounts of time to be invested in the collaboration; additional trainings on collaboration for the civil servants; focusing on personal fears and values of the actors involved. One participant remarked that this last idea builds on insights from the so-called ICEBERG model. This is a model for change, illustrating that to achieve truly transformative change one has to speak to a person’s values and use co-creation methods, ensuring personal engagement.

Keynotes acknowledge bottom-up initiatives

Both keynote speakers, Rudolf Niessler, director of DG REGIO and Elena Visnar Malinovska, director of DG CLIMA emphasized that new EU policy tries to take better account of the role of cities in social change. Niessler acknowledged how crucial the scale of the city is in realizing substantial and sustainable change, because cities are so close to citizens and can adapt European measures to their own locality. Cities also have the right scale to mobilize participation and develop participatory processes with civil society. Malinovska emphasized that local communities have a big role to play in change towards sustainability as hubs for creativity, imagination and innovation. Both directors mentioned that at EU level it has been noticed that the quality of their projects was higher when civil society or grassroots initiatives were involved. By having a participatory, collaborative character from the start, less problems arose during the course of these projects compared to projects without civil participation. The EU has therefore now internalized this insight in their policy design.

Creating processes

A main topic of the concluding panel conversation amongst members of European grassroots initiatives was the fact that a systemic approach towards collaboration between bottom-up initiatives and local governments appears difficult to achieve. All panelists seemed to agree that forcing top-down solutions that do not match the locality of environmental, social and economic problems arising from unsustainable practices is not the way to go. Instead, they voiced the need to create spaces for sharing and collaborating in a trusted atmosphere. Spaces have to be created for people to imagine different dimensions of existence, rather than constantly fighting each other’s perspectives and fighting over resources. Instead, people should be able to talk openly about what really matters to them, to reach that layer of values and with that the possibility for real, systemic change. This brings us back to the very beginning of the conference when we talked of the MiT project, which is actually not about creating local projects, but about creating local processes. Concluding, a first step towards creating fruitful collaborations at a local scale is the establishment of processes for open communication and trust-building.

The conference was closed by a member of the EESC acknowledging the need for local, bottom-up initiatives and a collaborative approach to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. As main outcome of the conference, it seems that the challenge herein lies in the creation of good processes for collaboration between citizen initiatives and governments. As with many things, funding plays a part in this. Processes are much more difficult to get funded than concrete projects. When providing funds, the EU expects clear, measurable results from their funds since they also have to account for the way their funds are spent. But how can one apply for funding for something that has an unpredictable outcome and difficult to measure results? So one important insight from the concluding panel of this conference was to focus on making space for funding and creation of processes rather than projects.

Reflecting back, I was most struck by the profound interest of the European Commission for bottom-up initiatives and their acknowledgement of the effectiveness of citizen-initiated projects for change. Let’s hope for many fruitful collaborations in the future.  

Got inspired? Also read my blog on the potential of communities for global change.