Recalibrating a sustainability narrative

The message is not getting across and the messaging may be wrong in spite of escalating evidence about the impending climate driven crisis. How do you change peoples’ minds and shift the cultural template so that so that one-planet living feels like desirable common sense? It needs to target less the committed or ideologically sceptical and the more the un- or nearly decided, if that is achieved a tipping point may be reached.

We face an entangled communications challenge. Becoming a sustainable city is less a technological issue than one of mindset, understanding and behavioural. Too many people still believe there is no problem. How can this be overcome? Do we approach it by engendering fear, cajoling, or persuasion? By providing evidence of the threats or examples of good practices? Do we jolt people into focus by ascending graphs of problems or imagery of iconic events like Katrina or Superstorm Sandy? It is best to show how the shift is doable and already happening and that those at the forefront have a better life economically and socially. The image of the sustainable city needs to feel as emotionally satisfying as the lure of consumer culture.

The narrative needs to be wrapped into desire, which is a motivating source for action. A message needs to get across that the more you live it the better you feel as if going to a spa.

Yet there are forces against this and so all parties public, private and community need to be on board. Several steps need to happen simultaneously: blending a vision of society, a role for the different actors, a sense that everyone benefits; it needs to address people and organizations both as citizens, to engender responsibility, and consumers, to feed their needs and wants, with a clear set of steps that can be taken and how to get there. What promotes change is a picture of where to go; presenting consumers, the electorate and the media with a tangible, compelling image of what the world would look like if we unleashed the potential. This image needs to be strong enough to make consumer culture and cities driven by consumption feel old-fashioned. Without threatening it should bring across that consumerism is not a cultural pattern or paradigm that works and that it is bad for you directly and personally, because it touches your pocket, your health and your happiness.

It starts by showing it can happen, it then uses that to redefine the ‘good life’. It should show how opportunities are fleeting by for business if they do not get involved. For instance, the high level expertise, more educated people or young talents companies need increasingly choose their city first before the company or the job within it. There is an intense competition for talented people, a scarce resource. An additional lure within the narrative is to spell out the prizes to be had from engaging in the green industrial revolution and that it is about to happen. Pushing that simultaneously there needs to be vision by national governments, that most are too weak to pursue, that greening the economy solves a range of other problems, such as unemployment, economic vitality or social fragmentation. A greener society, for instance, swops resources or reuses older clothes and this is already very fashionable. It needs to communicate through fibre of its being and foster a new aesthetics so behaviour change is not suggested by hectoring but understanding how an attractive sustainable building operates.  That vision needs to trigger the right responses to make it work by rewarding those who save resources or providing incentives for others invest or change behaviour.

Cites need to promoted as the places to mobilize and harness the resources, will and motivation provided their capacity to act is broadened. Then they can more forcefully do the planning, find the finance, provide the governance and delivery required. Cities are the laboratories to tackle the difficult solutions. They have the critical mass to scale up new technologies. But their innovative drive needs to refocus by being embedding in civic values that makes a sustainable lifestyle the norm.

Underpinning everything there is the balanced flow of evidence and information that both express the urgency as well as the continuing good examples of making it work.

To help the mindset shift the important work of holistic accounting needs to be popularized and finally the limitations of GDP to be accepted (Gross Domestic Problem as Lorenzo Fioramonti so aptly puts it).[1] It served its purpose when invented under Roosevelt to assess the scope of the pre-war US economy, but now is outdated given its extensive flaws.

The most difficult problem to address is the addiction to consumption and the associated culture of entitlement that seeks to ‘make the masses happy’. This is why the counter-image of the good city must be strong. At its broadest it involves subverting the link between rising consumption and development levels. We need to remember that consumerism has been engineered and created. The cultural template for millennia was thrift.[2] Propped up by $500billion of annual advertising spend, ($16000 every second) billions in lobbying and PR spending in the name of stimulating markets consumerism has been internalized as a new way of life. There are already beginnings of counter-movements. Take food. The Veggie Thursday movement launched by Ghent and part of its public policy, where already over 20,000 take part, both does its bit and has generated new businesses and an additional tourist flow as well as help launch schemes from San Francisco to Cape Town. Similarly the Meatless Monday movement is having an impact. New York has banned super-sized sodas the fructose filled drinks, produced from corn and present also in many other foods, which lead directly to obesity given the triggers they alert in the brain so that you feel hungry. When producing an apple requires 70 litres of water, a hamburger 2400 and a kilo of beef 15 000 litres, the arguments are compelling and Ghent’s approach full of humour[3]. Take billboards. Sao Paolo has banned all outdoor billboards and intense debates are happening from Delhi to Moscow initially because of the aesthetics, but now also the anti-consumption argument. The ‘billboard liberation front’ work is an amusing counterpoint to explore.

In reviewing the qualities of cities that are as compelling as the consumerist dream we assessed the extensive range of real life examples from Copenhagen to Masdar and the sustainability portals including: the Sustainable Cities Institute; ICLEI, the Sustainable Cities Collective, the Sustainable Urban Development Network of the UN-Habitat programme, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and more. Vast databanks of best practices and how to manuals exist, but none provide a compelling narrative.

This is where the work of Sustainia[4] coming out of Copenhagen is inspiring. It has made the narrative shift. It is a real/virtual city as it shows the bird’s eye view of what has been achieved. It moves beyond sharing best practices and producing manuals to using its resources to build the alliances to make things happen. It is an innovation platform to equip decision makers, CEOs and citizens with the solutions, arguments, visions, facts and network needed to accelerate sustainable transformation in sectors, industries and everyday life. It has a tangible approach to sustainability focusing on readily available solutions with the intent to mature markets and sectors for sustainable products and services.

Sustainia is creating a vision of what a self-sustaining city could look like. Not Utopia or a distant dream as it says. It ‘demonstrates how available solutions, innovation and technologies are implemented at large scale. By focusing on possibilities and benefits, Sustainia is reshaping a new narrative of optimism and hope for a sustainable future that seeks to inspire and motivate instead of scare people with gloom and doomsday scenarios’. The annual ‘Sustainia100 and associated awards is its annual highpoint.

[1] Lorenzo Fioramoniti, Gross Domestic Problem, Zed Books, London 2012

[2] Ulrich Gruber, Sustainability – A cultural history, Green Books, Totnes, 2010

[3]  Thursday Veggie Day in Ghent – detailed information


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