Climate change is the most pressing challenge we face. More and more cities are declaring climate emergencies, many countries have incorporated climate targets into their policies, and public pressure on governments is mounting.
To meet the scale and urgency of the climate emergency, business-as-usual in government won’t suffice.
The IPCC report, which sets out what we need to do to keep global warming under 1.5°C by the end of century, has made it clear that we no longer have the luxury of time—change must happen now, across multiple sectors, and governments must adapt too. This climate challenge demands that we rethink the institutions, norms, beliefs and values that underpin our current governance structures and approach to policymaking.
Rather than continuing to place our hopes in incremental improvements to the work done by governments and public authorities, we need to foster a rich culture of innovation and experimentation within government. And we need to work with communities to bring them along on the journey.
To stand a chance of responding to climate change, policymaking must become innovative, inclusive, radical—transformative.
How can we make this happen? Over the past year, I’ve been part of a team at EIT Climate-KIC, Europe’s largest climate innovation agency, that has been addressing this question. Funded by the EU, EIT Climate-KIC is pioneering the fast action needed to keep climate change under 1.5°C.
We believe that multiple systems need to change simultaneously if we are to achieve a just, climate resilient society founded on a net zero-carbon, circular economy, and we have set up testbeds to put this into practice.
Our Deep Demonstrations are just that: Eight large-scale pan-European initiatives made up of a coordinated portfolio of projects designed to trigger systems change. These initiatives—from Just Transformations to Resilient Regions and Long-termism—follow our systems innovation methodology, in which we collaborate with design partners on ambitious systems-level challenges that are identified by “challenge owners” such as city mayors, regional leaders, government ministers, citizen leaders and CEOs of major companies.
While most of the Deep Demonstrations are in the early stages, the work we have done with Slovenia shows what we can accomplish. The Slovenian government has embraced the radical, holistic approach that underpins our Deep Demonstrations, and their parliament has passed a motion adopting our proposal to become a fully circular economy. This collaboration is a part of our overall vision for the Deep Demonstration model—to trigger rapid decarbonisation and enhanced resilience across Europe.
Policy and governance innovations are a crucial component of the Deep Demonstrations. Collaborating alongside cities, regions and national governments that are interested in experimenting with a variety of innovative policy and governance approaches, we are moving from ideation to implementation.
In preparation for designing these experiments, we have actively sought those at the coalface of policy and governance innovation for the climate challenge. Over the last year, we spent time in conversation with a diverse group of practitioners, including a forward-looking UK city councillor, a young political activist working within a progressive US think tank, a leader from the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change, several European academics, a pioneer of regulatory sandboxes in a national regulator and a policy expert involved in citizens’ assemblies.
We wanted to find out how they define policy and governance innovation—what is it, and what is it not? Are there barriers to success and, conversely, are there key characteristics of a transformative climate policy innovation? Several themes emerged from the interviews, and drawn together here they outline the features of a successful policy innovation initiative.
Community needs—driving transformative policy
Every single person we interviewed told us that it is essential to centre the needs of the whole community (and not just the most politically engaged sections) when developing policy experiments.
The negative effects of climate change will be greatest amongst the most vulnerable, and low-income populations, young people, immigrants (and others) in our communities may be overlooked during policy design. Interviewees spoke about the richness that comes from welcoming new opinions and collective intelligence to the process, and they emphasised how much governments can benefit from this cross-pollination. By starting from a place of “doing with” the community, rather than “doing to” them, real and lasting transformative changes—with representation at the heart—are possible.
Innovative approaches that foreground how policy is made require us to meet people where they are, creating a space for discourse and engagement in the rigour of the design process. The end result is that the policy output will be capable of facing the complexities of real life. Our conversations really underscored that bringing the community along the journey as holistically as possible is directly proportional to the success or failure of an initiative, so it is crucially important.
The community focus also links to how innovative policy must respond to concrete problems with an approach that is deeply in sync with the cultural, historical and sociological context of the area.
What can be considered an “innovative” or simply an effective policy will vary from place to place, so a rich understanding of this background is needed before you even begin designing policies. And although cities and regions do often take inspiration and learn from each other, adapting and spreading successful solutions, the solutions that stick are those that address a community’s real challenges rather than just chasing a trend.
Changing minds through storytelling
In a time of increasing disillusionment with government, and facing a need for transformation on an unprecedented scale, it is incredibly important to bring the public along on the policy-making process and to give them reasons to be involved. Their input must serve a purpose and carry weight.
New approaches to policy, if done well, can empower communities, giving citizens concrete experiences of catalysing change and demonstrating that policy can work for them and that their voices can make a difference. I was inspired by this article about the UK citizens’ assembly on climate, as it shows how ordinary people—many who weren’t originally interested in climate change—were drawn into the discussion, given tools to understand the science, and were then able to construct robust recommendations that will be fed back to government.
Several interviewees pointed to narrative building and storytelling as a crucial component in fostering changes in behaviour and mindset, helping people to imagine what is possible. It’s also a powerful way to work through the various barriers to successful policies. For example, it can be used to foster community interest and engagement, pulling in a rich variety of actors.
It could also help to build political will. This is especially important for a complex, “wicked” problem like climate change, where people may feel completely powerless to create change.
Sweden’s Viable Cities program, which helps Swedish cities become carbon neutral by 2030, has even hired a chief storyteller to build a compelling narrative around the project and to connect people to the reality of climate change on an emotional level. According to chief storyteller Per Grankvist, “to reach the program’s mission, storytelling is believed to be a key to get people engaged enough to change their behaviour and norms.”
Co-design is central to the endeavour, with stories from citizens, public servants and other stakeholders layering to create a comprehensive framework for understanding the various perspectives, needs and concerns from the groups, thus creating a foundation to engage people further.
The barriers we need to overcome
One central learning that emerged through the course of our explorations was that, if we are to create a space for policy innovation and experimentation to flourish, it is vital to innovate around governance processes and structures themselves.
While it might be possible to experiment with new policies within a traditional bureaucratic and political structure, chances are it will be a struggle.
The Vancouver EcoDensity program, launched in 2006, is an example of this. It aimed to increase density in low/medium dense urban areas along transport corridors in order to reduce urban sprawl and make the area more liveable, green and efficient, but the program’s traditional governance model and inability to respond to extensive public concerns seriously impeded the success of its original vision. So there is an exciting piece of work to be done around building new skills and mindsets in the public sector, fostering cross-governmental collaboration, new ways of including citizens and stakeholders in policy design processes, and new policy co-development, experimentation and implementation mechanisms.
Looking at current governance set-ups, our interviewees highlighted the following problems:
- Siloed working and lack of collaboration between government departments, discouraging a systemic approach
- The tendency to focus on optimising current policy, rather than tackling underlying problems
- Focus on short-term benefits, often due to political cycles and the government’s mandate for the use of public resources. The latter also leads to risk aversion
- Technocratic approaches to policy-making, ignoring systemic problems and solutions, and lacking expertise on behavioural solutions
- Potential aversion to innovative techniques due to disruption of current norms. For example, citizens’ assemblies or other radical community engagement approaches may be perceived as impinging on the rights and duties of elected officials, who have taken on a responsibility to carry out public will and can have concerns about undermining this role
Public sector innovation has of course been widely discussed in recent years, and Apolitical has some great pieces that delve into actions and solutions. I also enjoyed the ideas in this article about building internal cultures within government departments to foster innovative thinking and comfort with experimentation. It isn’t an easy thing to solve for, but as Steven Stone, chief of UN Environment’s Resources & Markets Branch, points out, openness and curiosity can be such a powerful driver of change. Talk to peers and colleagues—find out if others are curious about working differently and start to build a community to champion the change you want to see.
The effects of climate change cut across specialisations and sectors, and bringing people with varied backgrounds and expertise together can surface surprising new ideas to test.
EIT Climate-KIC would really love to hear about your experiences from the innovative policy and governance space, especially if you’ve been addressing the climate challenge. We invite you to join us on our Deep Demonstration journey—do get in touch if your organisation would be interested in collaborating!