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, they 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.

Related Focus Area
Urban Transitions
Related Goal
Goal 2: Nurture nature-based resilience for cities