Some of the most promising innovations for sustainability are starting to emerge not in the form of new products and services, but in governance structures. With new ways of making decisions, new economic models and ways to manage increasingly limited resources are also emerging.
What is ‘governance innovation’? How we govern is really the sum of how we organise, communicate and cooperate with each other. When there’s a decision to make, who listens to whom, and who gets the final word? Here’s one working definition:
“Governance innovation indicates the continuous search for new paradigms to resolve social conflicts and strengthen cooperation across different sectors and among people. In a word, to achieve better decisions in an era characterized by complexity and a holistic understanding of well-being”
And where are we seeing it?
Mexico City is crowdsourcing its constitution using Change.org in the biggest experiment of its kind, while in Barcelona civil society groups are involved in defining public policies that help promote the collaborative economy as a form of social organising. At the same time, the Finnish government is experimenting with opening up its processes through the ‘open government’ programme. It’s developing an experiment fund for civic innovation, as well as 20 other experiments from vouchers to multilingual school, digitalisation and innovative procurement routes for public service provision. In Italy, the LabGov initiative has achieved to pass a framework for public collaboration for urban commons as regulation adopted by the city of Bologna.
These experiments are challenging the status quo of the typical top-down nature of governance and testing the boundaries of participation, collaboration and co-design. Interestingly, most experiments happen either at neighbourhood, or city level, opening up the potential for quicker, more agile and iterative experiments to happen. Given that scale is such a crucial factor in determining the speed at which these experiments are happening, we think we are spotting the beginnings of place-based systems change.
Neighbourhoods, towns and cities are the locus where our key systems (energy, food, mobility, health, education and finance) intersect. They offer an opportunity for rethinking governance based on the particular needs of a group of people living in a shared place. Given that today 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, it is also where sustainability challenges such as inequality, food security, climate change and water scarcity are felt. This integration challenge underpins the urgent need for a systemic and imaginative approach to governance, reimagining the ways in which we organise and relate to each other.
Because places involve many constantly evolving, interrelated systems, siloed approaches are not enough to solve their challenges. Complex transformations are required for societies to operate within global environmental limits while tackling the deep social inequalities that the current operating model is producing.
Instead of recognising the state and the market as the sole forces shaping societies, we are seeing hyperlocal communities and regions coalescing towards common goals. Examples range from self-sufficient energy provision to participatory budgeting.
A lot more needs to happen to create coherent ways for taking the best processes to scale and connecting these innovative communities so they can learn from one another. Is a new social contract emerging - one where citizens are becoming more aware and willing to deploy their agency?
Read more by Corina on how cities are becoming theatres for innovation.
Image Credit: Unsplash / Seb Zurcher