Polish citizens power Just Transformation of Europe’s biggest coal region

180 in-depth interviews held, 2800 arguments mapped, and together with citizens 93 innovation ideas created. These figures alone show how dynamic the last year was for the Rybnik360 project, the Polish light at the end of the tunnel on Europe’s path of phasing out of coal.

The Rybnik360 project is a part of the Just Transformation Deep Demonstration programme, where EIT Climate-KIC, together with partners from many European countries, initiates a system innovation approach aimed at tackling the biggest climate challenges Europe is facing.

Heart of the coal-producing region

Triggering social, economic and energy-supply change means paying close attention to citizens, which is why researchers even went underground to hear and understand the perspectives of different Polish people.

Rybnik is in the heart of the largest coal-producing region in the European Union, which today faces the challenge of energy transition and struggles against enormous air pollution.

In the difficult process of shifting away from economic, energetic and social coal dependency, where different stakeholder groups have different and often conflicting interests and expectations, it’s pivotal to find ways to become one of the successful transition cities. It is also crucial to avoid the dangers of shrinkage and economic collapse of the city, and its neighbourhoods. That is why Rybnik authorities, together with many stakeholders and EIT Climate-KIC, decided to face this challenge and, as part of the Deep Demonstration, design a prosperous future city that is resilient to climate change, free from smog and has a plan for the post-carbon era, as well as design pathways to achieve this vision.

On the path to transformation

Rybnik360 is more than just a project. It is a long-term process working towards the just transformation of this Silesian city. The vehicle is a new development strategy for Rybnik based on systemic innovation. This strategy will then be implemented together with the city’s stakeholders. The process in Rybnik began in the last months of 2019 and despite the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, has not lost any momentum. Over the course of the past challenging year, the city has consistently inched closer to a more sustainable, prosperous future.

“We have identified four thematic areas as our main challenges within the project. These are air quality, quality of life, the future of work and the future of mining,” says Wojciech Kiljańczyk, Chairman of the City Council of Rybnik.

“Collaboration with EIT Climate-KIC is very important for Rybnik because we can learn from other cities and regions both in Europe and in the world, at the same time focusing on creating tailor-made solutions for our city. Innovation here is that we reverse roles. The city authorities are focused on listening to the citizens. In other words, it is not about imposing a certain perspective, but rather listening to the citizens and other stakeholders of the city to identify the pathways of this transformation,” says Kiljańczyk, who is also the leader of the Rybnik360project with EIT Climate-KIC’s partner SPIN-US, the main initiator of the collaboration between the city and EIT Climate-KIC.

Residents are the ‘beating heart’

It is a unique initiative on a national scale, as citizens and other city stakeholders are involved in planning the city’s development strategy and then implementing it together.

As the residents are the beating heart of this transformation, the Deep Listening method, brought from the Mondragon Valley in the Basque Country, was used to co-create a long-term vision of Rybnik’s future with them. This method involved a series of in-depth interviews with residents and a complex process of analysis. Deep Listening is a key methodology to foster more effective collective action for social change.

“This is a unique opportunity to look at these processes, to explore them and to take decisions based on data and not on what we imagine,” says Piotr Masłowski, Vice-president of Rybnik.

“This project is about the transformation of mining and energy. We are focusing on setting the city on a new path for the future. This project is a huge chance to develop a new vision for Rybnik, for how it will look in the coming years,” he says.  

Researchers talked about Rybnik’s past, present and future with residents, entrepreneurs, the non-governmental sector and municipal activists, as well as with local government and many other institutions, to gain the knowledge needed to plan further development of the city.

Sometimes gaining trust and understanding different perspectives meant the researchers were working in difficult conditions, for example when they spent time underground in the mine speaking to miners in their daily working environment.

Rybnik360: The power of a portfolio

EIT Climate-KIC team established a tailor-made approach for Rybnik, which involves working with local specificity while laying the groundwork for systemic innovations done in accordance with the Deep Demonstrations methodology. The three key pillars identified as main enablers are Future Literacy, Futures of work, and Policy Innovation. However, there are many more leverage points.

“Identifying and understanding all the blockages, gaps, as well as assets and opportunities, together with potential synergies and feedback loops is essential,” says Aneta Skubida, the main orchestrator of the project from EIT Climate-KIC’s side.

This approach is designed deliberately to be much more effective than old-fashioned, single-point, unconnected solutions that don’t always answer the real, systemic needs. According to Skubida, it’s based on constant learning and refining, and the courage to do things differently. “Rybnik is currently among the most ambitious cities in Europe, taking up the challenge of just transformation with use of systemic innovations approach and a broad cooperation with the city’s inhabitants and stakeholders,” she says.

A key element in the city’s transformation is creating a portfolio of strategic solutions that are interconnected to strengthen the impact on the whole urban ecosystem of Rybnik.

Based on the knowledge of all participants, a map of the city’s current system has been co-created, systems of interconnected resources and challenges have been identified, and points in this system where interventions should be carried out to induce the desired effect have been selected. For example, how to support entrepreneurs and encourage future entrepreneurs, or ways to catalyse the replacement of coal-based heating systems in residents’ homes.

This map forms a precise and deliberate city-acupuncture to heal its systems and assure its vitality. This method also means there constant learning – and further development of the portfolio – after the early implementations.

In order to stimulate positive feedback, the partners involved in the Rybnik360 process have created this portfolio of innovations that respond to the most important needs of the inhabitants and Rybnik’s path to greener Europe.

“Positive Momentum”

The future of Rybnik depends to a large extent on the decisions of the authorities concerning the so-called hard factors of development, where the pace of withdrawal from mining, which depends on the national government, is one of the key ones.

Nevertheless, Rybnik’s local government proves how much can be done without waiting for the big decisions: finding ways for “positive momentum” in the city, empowering local entrepreneurs, attracting new types of investors (other industries, Renewable Energy Sources, Business Process Outsourcing, medical or IT sectors), finding new strategies used to fight smog.

It is also conditioned by soft factors, in which the vision, courage, imagination and hope, as well as finding new ways to collaborate with the whole community to create a better future together, are not of less importance.

Read the full report

 
Location
Poland
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