Energetic society

The Dutch urban developer Dirk Frieling noted that ‘rather than a densely populated country, The Netherlands is more like a sparsely populated city’. His words are still reason for pause for thought. Cities do not end at their municipal limits, and, in fact, they often spread out over regions. This is significant, especially because people who interact with each other, face to face in business districts, universities or city centres, often commute on regional scales. CEOs seldom live on their companies’ doorsteps. These kinds of cities are constructed from a kaleidoscope of places and experiences. A city’s diversity, the activities that take place within it, and the mutual relationships between its inhabitants often determine that city’s strengths or weaknesses. A city is not only morphology: it is also about connections and spatial structures. Strong cities have energy, which cannot be attributed to the actions of local government. Yet, government has an important role to play in engendering such energy. The task is to determine what kind of governance philosophy would fit such a city, to generate a new form of energetic urban society.

The resolution of big issues is conventionally thought to require large government decisions. In this case, however, thinking big may not be the answer to today’s problems. We have left the era of Le Corbusier behind. For the twenty-first century, the strength of the city must be sought in new relationships between government, citizens and the business community. All too often, government agencies alienate themselves from citizens, taking the moral high ground and intervening in a top-down manner.

In the ‘energetic society’, city governments can make more and better use of the energy embedded within a society, shaping its policies through positive and negative incentives, and setting medium- and long-term public goals. Sustainability is one such goal. Between now and 2030, the world must find a way of decoupling human welfare from the use of the earth’s resources and its environmental effects. The relationship between the residential environments and global issues is abundantly clear to anyone tracing the origins of our food, transportation or home furnishings. The urban hinterland covers the globe and includes a huge variety of services, goods, materials, as well as flows of money, people and information. Every day container ships from around the world enter the port of Rotterdam to deliver flat screens, smartphones and the latest fashion items to cities and surrounding areas. The production and distribution of food, for example, involves a meticulously planned global logistics chain. Our daily lives are local in perception, but global if we take the logistics of production, use of resources and resulting emissions into account. Both citizens and public administrators seem to realise that liveable, clean cities are likely to be the champions of the future; not only because of the size of their share in the use of physical resources, but also because cultural change must begin within cities, in order to continue along the road we are on.

The fossil fuel era will not end because of a lack of coal, just as the Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones. Literature on ‘the history of the environment’ shows that major breakthroughs were often attributed to a reorientation of values, with city dwellers always playing an important role. Such shifts in values can be seen today in societies where citizens want to generate their own power, and where companies that base their business cases on green operational models are the leaders and frontrunners in their field. However, government policy is lagging behind. When urban civil society adopts these new values, a new perspective on the future of cities will emerge.

Just as ‘high carbon’ could soon become synonymous with ‘high risk’, conversely a low-carbon profile could boost a city’s image. The idea of a liveable, innovative city with a good air quality that makes efficient use of increasingly expensive resources is a visible leitmotiv for many urban administrators. But even so, the question is how to harness the energetic city to achieve a sustainable world. The answer will not come from large-scale governance delivering a masterplan, but will require individual administrators channelling societal energy in the right direction.

A society of well-educated and articulate citizens places large demands on public administration. Attempts to ‘capture and store’ CO2 emissions underground in empty gas fields, has proven difficult and controversial in the Dutch town of Barendrecht, and the main reason is that its citizens were treated as if they were objects. The debate was framed in technological terms, with little consideration for their desires and fears. This emphasis on technology is also apparent in the thinking around sustainable cities. Solutions that regard the inhabitants of cities as objects are likely to be met with resistance, irrespective of whether those solutions come from a top-down government, or from a top-down technocratic perspective. Moreover, around 70 per cent of European cities that will be in existence in 2050 are already here. Over the coming decades they will merely be expanded or retrofitted to varying degrees. The main challenge facing these cities will be to improve and restructure existing urbanisation. With respect to the future, it will, therefore, be today’s cities that lead us into the next phase.

The examples show that the transition towards a sustainable society cannot be achieved by government decree or technology alone, and certainly not without the participation of urban citizens. Increasingly, citizens, businesses and local governments are taking the initiative, obtaining their information from online networks. A scenario in which public administration focuses on governance, instead of being a government agent, must be created through collaboration between citizens and government. Only then can both parties approach each other in a positive way, resolving disagreements and facing challenges such as urban agriculture, local energy generation, and the setting of climate-neutral goals. In the business community this can be observed in the strategic reorientation of companies like DSM, Unilever, Tesco and the Van Gansewinkel Groep. The key feature of these initiatives is the evident shift in values, not the change in CO2 emission levels. These changes put the government into a somewhat awkward position; society, in these cases, is more involved in the complex difficult transition than the government itself. Although this concerns only a small part of society, it could also present an opportunity for policy to play a role.

A recent report by the Dutch government on ‘The Energetic Society’ states that government currently does not utilise all of the creativity and learning capacities present within society. Concepts such as ‘Empowered Deliberative Democracy’ (EDD) and ‘information society’ give a new perspective on the political and institutional dimension of the energetic society. EDD was developed as a concept in 2001 to describe the innovative ways in which governments can utilise the energy and impact of ordinary citizens to achieve institutional reform. Combining everyday practice with communication, responsibility and deliberation, it extends beyond abstract issues (such as conflicting values, justification) and focuses on concrete issues (such as repairing potholes, improving schools and managing nature reserves). One of the basic principles of EDD is to focus on specific, tangible problems, the engagement of ordinary citizens and public administrators at a local level, and to jointly search for solutions to those problems. The technical possibilities offered by Web 2.0 to create two-way communication, as well as the increase of information available, provide the right circumstances for hands-on involvement of articulate citizens and companies in formulating sustainability and local environmental policies.

Urban citizens within the energetic society also create new structures themselves – by calling on the government to take responsibility, by focusing attention on tangible problems, and by searching for solutions through deliberation. In such cases, existing rules can hinder the development of new, previously unimagined and unconventional forms of collaboration, particularly in the field of energy. Surplus heat can, for example, be used to heat houses, flat school roofs can provide space for solar panels that generate power for their neighbourhood, and PV installations are cheaper when they are bought and installed in bulk. However, citizens are discouraged from collaborating in these unconventional ways by rules and costs, such as higher taxation on small-scale consumption, which become barriers to using innovative social sources of energy.

The twenty-first century may very well see a return to spruced up versions of former social forms of collaboration, such as cooperatives and societies – citizens’ associations, focused on incorporating sustainability into their own local environments. People who want to generate their own power, or grow their own food, are becoming united and can now make use of the knowledge and experience available on the Internet. In San Francisco, if you consider installing PV panels to your home, you can analyse costs and benefits through a website using aerial photos to estimate the size of your roof surface, after which a database will provide information on local regulations and the procedures to be followed. Should you wish to do so, you could unite with your neighbours online, and jointly purchase such solar systems (see http://1bog.org; http://zonability.com). The same applies to urban agriculture, where citizens worldwide share their knowledge and experience of innovative techniques to grow vegetables indoors, using hydro-culture techniques (see www.rndiy.org; www.windowfarms.org) and exchange practical knowledge on how to start a temporary farm on a patch of wasteland (see http://enablingcity.com/). In these cases the government would just have to stand back and watch, doing what they find most difficult: do as little as possible. Citizens must be given the opportunity to get organised, and, together with public administrators, search for solutions. Only then would the energetic information society function properly.

The core challenge for the energetic city is sustainability. Citizens and administrators are already involved in this, each in their own way. Companies consider sustainability in terms of financial returns and investment security. Multinationals consider the greening of cities, including new infrastructure, as one of the major investment opportunities of the future. Governments would do well to recognise both the value and risks of this energy, and to distinguish the physical from the cultural dimension. A clean economy is feasible, but it implies far-reaching adjustments.

The use of resources and emission levels of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, should be around five times lower than they are today. This requires government to take on a large role, starting with the commitment to seriously address the issue, by using effective, traditional tools such as pricing and regulation, and especially by identifying new revenue models. But cultural shifts need to take place as well. Initiatives taken by citizens, businesses and local administrators on their own may be insufficient to find solutions to the big problems of climate change, but they are indispensable components in reassessing the economy and the thinking on welfare and well-being. Without these cultural changes, reducing the burden on the environment and natural resources by a factor of five will be impossible.

Jointly, these initiatives within society can help create a widely shared vision of a new, stronger one. A smart, social and sustainable city creates an attractive image. Cities and the Internet, at both the local and global level, together are the breeding ground for ideas and shared visions of a sustainable society. However, to achieve the required 80 to 95 per cent reductions, we need both a local government that encourages and loosens the reins and a national government that helps to scale up promising initiatives and enables their widespread implementation.

The authors are members of PBL, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. This article was originally published in Dutch in the scientific journal Bestuurskunde, 2012.

Maarten Hajer and Hiddo Huitzing are members of PBL, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.