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Is informed engagement in cities key to sustainability?

Is informed engagement in cities key to sustainability?

Every year since 2008, the United Nations has sponsored the International Day of Democracy on September 15. This year, the IDD is tied to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in particular to Goal 16, which “addresses democracy by calling for inclusive and participatory societies and institutions” and aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”It’s hard to quarrel with these aspirations, and there is no doubt that national and international institutions and governments have important roles to play in achieving progress toward their fulfillment. But there’s a case to be made that the prime motive force will have to arise from the deepening engagement of hundreds of millions of people in how their communities and cities are run.
Ordinary people will have to make it happen, not wait for it to be handed down to them from above.
Put another way, to ensure the accomplishment of Goal 16 or any of the others, ordinary people will have to make it happen, not wait for it to be handed down to them from above.
There’s a “fierce urgency of now” feeling about this. We are living through the development of two megatrends—climate change and the eventual decline of fossil fuels—that are likely to spell big changes in how we live. There may be a third such trend as well: the faltering of global economic growth. It’s early days yet for that one, but after decades of taking growth as the natural order of things, even mainstream economists are beginning to talk about “headwinds”—declining rates of innovation, demographic factors, globalization, wealth and income inequality, vast government and private debt—in seeking explanations for Japan’s long stagnation and the globally weak recovery from the 2008 crash.
The end of a stable climate, along with the end of the unique and extraordinary period of cheap energy and the possible end of economic “normalcy,” together could spell the end of political normalcy.
All of these trends are worrying, but their convergence is truly scary. The end of a stable climate, along with the end of the unique and extraordinary period of cheap energy and the possible end of economic “normalcy,” together could spell the end of political normalcy. If the U.S. election season is any guide, we may already be witnessing the early stages of a political sea change, as nativist protests against immigration and globalization in the United States and in Europe—fueled in part by the failures of economies to deliver jobs and rising standards of living—have flummoxed establishment leaders.
Maybe the usual governance just isn’t up to the job of adequately addressing these disruptive problems. Maybe they are too “wicked”—a term of art applied to problems in which different stakeholders define the issues in different terms, understanding of the problems changes over time, there may not be any clear “right” solutions, and what appears to be a problem may be just a symptom of something deeper.
At least in the United States, the current political system seems almost designed to reveal and widen the fault lines in society. But the problems looming ahead demand more and better collaboration than ever, and there is an urgent need to build governance systems that can adjudicate what are likely to be increasingly contentious disputes over how to address them. For a forthcoming book, my colleague Matt Leighninger, of the nonprofit group Public Agenda, and I contribute a chapter discussing the strengths of a form of governance called deliberative civic engagement (DCE) that might help us to cope with what’s ahead.
DCE invites ordinary citizens to free themselves from the political prison of mere voting. It brings them together in an environment that encourages and supports calm discussion and decision making about the issues that affect their communities. It’s engagement politics, carried out collectively and rationally—the opposite of the sound-bite-driven, demogogic, divisive, shouting-match politics that so dominate things today. DCE works best when it provides guidance to public officials or, even better, actually dictates specific policy outcomes, so that people have a much stronger hand in shaping their own futures.
DCE works because deliberation changes minds, helps viewpoints evolve, and improves the quality of collective decision making—processes that urgently need to be promoted with respect to sustainability issues. Deliberation is also tailored to local concerns and interests, which, according to political scientist Adolf Gundersen, “dictates environmental watchfulness and, when problems arise, a deliberate search for solutions,” as well as helping to resist private interests whose actions may be contrary to sustainability.
DCE initiatives have sprung up around the world—in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, and in Europe and North America. Successful ones tend to share certain characteristics:
They bring together a large and diverse group of citizens…
in structured and facilitated small-group discussions combined with larger groups focused on action, plus they create…
the opportunity for participants to consider a range of arguments, information, and policy options, and…
they focus on concrete outcomes.
Many DCE exercises are one-time events, but there are examples of sustained deliberative engagement as well. Particularly in Brazil and other parts of the Global South, deliberative engagement has been built into the way that many cities operate. These instances of sustained engagement include citizen-driven land-use planning exercises in India, local health councils in Brazil, ward committees in South Africa, “co-production” in the Philippines, and annual “participatory budgeting” processes in hundreds of cities. In some of these cities, tens of thousands of people take part every year.
It’s a happy accident that this flowering of DCE is taking place even as cities and local communities are stepping up to address the challenges of sustainability. As Worldwatch has documented in Can a City Be Sustainable? (State of the World), cities of all sizes and on every continent are committing to specific greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and are developing and publishing plans, strategies, and timelines to achieve those targets and to make progress toward other sustainability goals. They are developing standards and protocols by which progress can be tracked and assessed. And they are banding together in organizations for mutual support, consultation, and peer-to-peer engagement that together constitute a vast stratum of activity humming beneath the high-level but sluggish international diplomatic processes.
While it may be pure coincidence, the convergence of deliberation and localism in the sustainability movement is a good thing. Precisely at the time when cities and communities are charting their own ways forward into a warming and transforming world, deliberation is blossoming into a proven and potent means for those communities to harness the insights, commitment, buy-in, and action of ordinary people everywhere.
It’s about time. Millions of us have become heartsick and cynical about the generally impoverished character of popular political discourse. We are appalled by the demagogic, sound-bite-driven, corporate-funded, lowest-common-denominator election campaigns that typify politics in so many countries. Deliberation allows people to think and talk about the issues that concern them collectively. Interesting and positive things can happen: views shift and evolve, and people learn new things. Sometimes they change their minds. They become less susceptible to the kinds of one-dimensional and emotion-driven arguments that characterize contemporary public politics, and less willing to accept the outcomes delivered by the hidden machinery of back-room governance.
While there might be less theater in a world with more deliberation, can anyone doubt that our political lives would be better?
(Tom Prugh is senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of the State of the World project.)