#Basque2016, What was it about ?

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on May 27th, 2016

> Read Ivan Tosics's articles

Try next time, before attending your upcoming conference, to predict the main message of the meeting. In most cases you will succeed: conferences on economy and innovation usually argue for the ’modernistic perspective’ in which technical novelties will dominate and solve all the problems. In a sharp contrast to that environmental conferences will present the ’biological-ecological perspective’, guessing how many decades we have left before the collapse of the world due to carbon emmissions/global warming and overconsumption. A third option is the ’social perspective’, in which the collapse of mankind is foreseen due to the ever growing social inequalities and the resulting social revolt.

From this you might understand why I do not like pure sectoral conferences. There are, however, still good examples.

In April this year ICLEI organized in Bilbao the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities – an environmental conference which was different from the usual ones. This conference delivered a very important message that economic growth and technological innovations (although important) are not the decisive factors: transformative social changes , radical breakthroughs in paradigms, beliefs and behavior are needed, initiated and supported by brave local leaders.

This conclusion has been built up in many steps during the conference, through statements of well selected speakers (of whom only a few can be quoted here).

The challenges of the future

Arab Hoballah (Director, Chief of Sustainable Lifestyles, Cities and Industry, UNEP) has hown that by 2040 there will be 2-3 billion new middle class consumers (in China, India, Nigeria…) and if all these live like Europeans, not even taking the consumption of the Americans as pattern, the world will collapse very soon. Also Jeb Brugmann (Founder, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and Managing Partner, The Next Practice Ltd.) emphasized how big challenge it is to provide these people with serviced urban land, residencies and livelihoods in a such a way that ecosystem collapse can be avoided. Hans Bruyninckx (Executive Director, European Environment Agency, EEA) argued that the original version of integrated development, illustrated by the the crossroads between economic-environmental-social aspects does not function well: economic growth is usually harmful for the environment and both economic and environmental interventions have serious negative social consequences.

Ecosystems and socio-technical systems.

 Source: Ecosystems and socio-technical systems. 

 The 7th environment action programme to 2020 – ‘living well, within the limits of our planet’ (adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union in November 2013) introduced a new type of ecosystems approach, based on sustainable systems of production and consumption and giving high importance to the changes in societal values. There is no solution possible untill everyone wants to own a car (and other up-to-date consumption goods).

The potential role of cities

Arab Hoballah

There was a basic agreement among all presenters (not only those mentioned above and not only those representing the local level) that cities can and should play key role in initiating the required changes. As Hoballah said, cities are industries of ’3/4-s’: accounting within 2-3 decades for 3/4 of the population, resource use, CO2 emmission, waste, but also for the large majority of opportunities to manage transformation. Systems’ innovation is needed, going beyond resource-efficient cities (decoupling socio-economic development from resource exploitation and ecological impacts) towards productive cities with the aim of becoming net productive systems in ecological, economic and social terms.

Bruyninckx highlighted the importance of spatial planning and infrastructure. The choices of today determine the outcomes 50-150 years from now, regarding the form, density, extend of urban development. Cities can be locked into unsustainable patterns if making today bad decisions. Equally important is creating sustainability in the changing social context, addressing the problems of growing, ageing, diversifying, more unequal societies, which need changes in values, behaviour, lifestyle, culture but also in political and economic system, institutions and legal systems.

An intreresting novelty of the ICLEI organized sustainable development conference was the acknowledgement of the migration/refugee crisis as part of the problem but also of the solution. Migrants and refugees come to Europe not only because of war but also due to the resource crisis in their own countries. They come in the hope of a better life – to which they are ready to contribute. To welcome migrants and refugees and include them into our societies as quickly as possible would be very important for Europe to overcome her upcoming crisis due to the aging of the society and the shrinking of the workforce. Because of the climate concerns the inclusion of the newcomers should be done on the basis of the existing situation, i.e. sharing instead of using more and more of the limited resources. Reducing consumption, changing to a lower level of resource-use, sharing what we have with the newcomers – all this would need transformative change.

Innovative city examples


Jyrki Myllyvirta (Mayor, Lahti, Finland) listed the fundamental changes Lahti did regarding environmental infrastructure. In 1994 almost all, today only 5% of waste goes to land fills. Large scale district heating is replaced by small scale energy -production and -use systems. Circular economy is a holistic idea for Lahti to organize the whole city life.

Many cities mentioned the importance to build up strategic alliance with the new civic economy. Lina Liakou (Deputy Mayor, City of Thessaloniki, Greece) described, how the deep economic crisis – since 2008 the GDP/capita dropped by 30% in Greece – led to the development of new mentality among young professionals, actively creating small scale initiatives, like coops, social groceries, food growing on previous military areas, alternative tourism groups. The city turned with a new attitude to these initiatives, accepting and promoting them. Since 2010 both Thessaloniki and Athens created new types of civil-society supported services for the poor people, new models in which the NGO-s can fulfil new roles.

The case of Freiburg (Germany, 220 thousand population) illustrated the efforts to turn the refugee crisis into opportunity. Philip Bona, coordinator of the Office of Migration and Integration was migrant himself, arriving 20 years ago from Sierra Leone. This is one of the reasons that the mayor appointed him to coordinate the actions to receive the 4000 refugees by the city. The integration strategy covered accomodation, language, skilled training, labour market integration, involving much of voluntary support by the civil society. Multifunctional housing projects are being built in all parts of the city, organic wooden structures, protected but not segregated. Refugees accomodated in these units (which can later be used e.g. for student housing) get crash language courses to reach quickly a level which allows them also to participate in skill training programmes.

Barriers to limit the effects of local innovations

The listed examples are innovations, illustrating the new system approach, covering all aspects of future development in sustainable and interconnected way. However, there were also many complaints from the side of local municipalities. Many cities are hindered by their national governments to fully initiate their own sustainable development ideas. Warsaw (Poland) does not get the national permission to introduce congestion charging and parking fee system. Thessaloniki (Greece) had complaints about a very hostile environment – the regional and national level, who control EU money, are against the city’s ideas – thus no other sources remain for the city than crowd-funding (even approaching the Greek diaspora in the US).

Another line of complaints was about the EU: the new EU funds for economic development, the Juncker plan largely supports those traditional economic players (chambers, business associations who claim to represent also the new economy but these is not true) who were the reasons for the economic collapse, instead of supporting the players of the new civic economy.

Lutz Ribbe, Vice President of the Sustainable Development Observatory, European Economic and Social Committee, criticized the European Commission not being enough innovative/pushy towards more sustainable development. The Commission allows to give subsidy to new nuclear power plants while it talks only vaguely about renewable energy and in fact the competition law supports directly or indirectly the dirty energy sector.

The need for transformative changes

Innovative city examples

In his closing speech Wolfgang Teubner, ICLEI Regional Director for Europe, summarized the main ideas of the conference. It is clear that the resources of the earth are limited and consumption has to be reduced. It takes large efforts to reduce the ecological footprint, and the more reductions are needed the more important the question is, who are the winners and loosers of this process towards sustainability?

The refugee crisis contributes to the sustainability crisis and shows clearly how difficult it is to change laws and regulations. National policy makers often move just the opposite direction, away from the sustainable and inclusive solutions, towards politically more rewarding populist positions. Under such circumstances we have to go to bottom-up transformative actions which break through the old structures.

Transformative actions would mean shift from pure economic or pure environmental frameworks towards societal outcomes. Technological change is important but brings many problems, as well – many low qualified jobs are already gone and this trend will continue. As it is difficult to stop technological development the losers should be compensated from the economic gains – the unconditional basic income should be considered as a potential solution to avoid societal disasters.

Under the new circumstances co-production gains in importance. Instead of clear market (privatization) or exclusively state (government owned) systems new ways have to be found for the benefit of the whole public. New types of local leaders are needed who dare to move from being simple urban planners to act as transition managers.

The presentations, discussions and examples at the ICLEI conference have convinced me about the need of transformative changes. Moreover, I became also convinced that the local municipalities, the cities of Europe have the capacities and many of their leaders the willingness to initiate the unavoidable changes.


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