Citizen participation takes centre stage this year in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw’s 100 most sustainable projects. Arjen Buijs of FNP expects that the response will be overwhelming. He is one of two scientists involved in developing evaluation criteria for citizen initiatives. “I am not sure if Trouw really knows what it has started,” he says. “As some of our recent studies have shown, many cities in the Netherlands have hundreds of such initiatives, so I expect many thousands of possible nominees from across the country.”
In the last ten years, Trouw has been organising an annual competition for the 100 most influential people contributing to sustainability in the Netherlands or worldwide. This year, it has decided to modernise the competition and focus on grassroots and active citizens. The competition now aims to identify the 100 most sustainable projects originated from local communities or social enterprises.
Buijs stresses the difference between local results achieved by citizen initiatives and their contributions to more transformative change. “Transformative changes relate to change in the governance or economic structure in which nature conservation take place or to widespread and fundamental changes in people’s perceptions, views and preferences. It is exactly this kind of transformative changes which appear in the most recent IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on
Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) reports. Active citizenship can contribute in several ways to such a change. For example, the innovative capacity of active citizens may result in new ways of working or promote innovative ideas about nature conservation. Innovative ways of working can also put pressure on exiting regimes. A good example of this is the burgeoning food forests and food cooperatives in many places in the Netherlands. If the trend continues, such cooperatives could influence traditional ways of agriculture, as well as the
traditional rather strict distinction between agriculture and nature conservation areas.”
Buijs says that organisations recognise that societal change nowadays does not come only from politicians, businesses
or opinion leaders. Citizens are playing bigger roles. They work in community groups, social enterprises, NGO’s and other more locally focussed groups. “Although the transformative change of these actors is challenged by some, many others see this as a step towards sustainable societies. They can be seen as a
niche in which new solutions – environmental, social and governance – can be developed”.
Several scientists at Wageningen University and Research are involved in empirical studies which evaluate the developments
related to active citizen participation, output and the processes and relationships with governmental and other institutionalised sectors.
What is active citizenship? “Active citizenship is a form of social innovation in which citizens act as voluntary producers and co-producers of a more sustainable society. It also stands for a change in governance focus for the role of citizens. While much focus has been on public participation since the Dutch government set up plans in the 1970’s, active citizenship emerges from self-organisation from individuals and communities. As such, the activities may neither be connected to wider government-led plans and policies. Active citizens are often motivated by criticism of existing practices related to agriculture, urban green management or urban developments.
They develop strategies to improve what they perceive to be unfulfilled environmental and social needs. Although values and objectives are very varied, the general focus tend to be one or more of the following: contribute to a greener and more bio-diversified society and education, as well as to increase nature experiences for the young, in particular, and to contribute to a more inclusive and healthy society."
That is the reason why Trouw has decided to let the citizen take centre stage in this year’s competition. According to Buijs,
the three main criteria for the judges could be the size of the initiative (people, area, social results), the innovative character of the initiative, and the transformative potential. Can or will these initiatives lead to transformative change towards more bio-diverse, carbon dioxide neutral or inclusive societies?
The winners will be announced at an event in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam on 10 October. - By Keenmun Poon