Kaj Embren

The unprecedented success of the London 2012 Olympic Games has once again shown the global role that cities now hold.The opening ceremony focused on work and health as it celebrated the community spirit at the heart of the Olympic ideal. Over the two weeks that followed, London emphasized the importance of cooperating around a joint purpose built on professional engagement, leadership and selfless voluntary contributions.

In doing so, the overarching goals of the Games ticked every box with regard to the challenges posed by climate, energy, water and waste. I believe that London 2012 can inspire a leap forward for sustainable development that will give Rio de Janeiro something powerful to emulate in the preparations for 2016.

London showed us how the mobilizing power of sport can help us cope with the huge challenges we face today. But perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away from the Games is that, even for the most global of challenges, the best solutions can be forged at a local level.

National governments have proven that they do not have what is required to meet the global challenges of climate change and the unsustainable use of our planet’s resources. The shortcomings of the latest Rio summit acts as testament to this. With the burden of recession and austerity, short-sighted national governments have thus far shown themselves unable to handle sustainable development issues.

Within the arena of sustainable development, the boundaries of responsibility are undergoing a monumental shift. This allows new actors to take pole position in the creation of new opportunities. Old infrastructures are being replaced by new ones that are better designed to cope with the challenges facing cities and regions.

We should stop directing our attentions and frustrations towards impotent governments. Instead we must focus on more localized models that simmer from below but come to influence and inspire national actors to greater action.

Better levels of engagement and the development of local and international networks have prompted a wider range of actors to become involved in sustainability, from both within and outside the market. The umbrella term for this is usually ‘Sustainable Cities’, but as we say in Sweden, ‘a loved child has many names’.

Over the past five years we have seen several strong international networks emerge from municipalities and regions. To get a wider understanding of this phenomenon I undertook some research that shows just how many locally-focussed organizations use their involvement in these networks to bring about sustainable solutions that can have a real impact. I must say that I was impressed by what I found and you can read the full report here.

Following on from my research, allow me to present six ingredients for local solutions to global problems:

1) All governments should appoint a minister for municipalities who is involved in international negotiations

Cities and regions have the potential to be powerful instigators of change. They should be given a greater role in talks with the UN and other international forums in which nations must reach agreement.

To do this, national governments each need to appoint a Minister for Municipalities and Regions that can help meet global targets by coordinating parallel processes within cities and regions. But as well as being responsible for local interests, these ministers should be encouraged to take part in international negotiations on sustainable development and climate change.To ensure that long-term sustainability emerges from the growing networks between cities and regions, municipal leaders need more investment in local participation and local engagement than they presently enjoy.

2) New meeting places

One important question is whether local authorities are currently organized in a way that allows them to take on new challenges. Are there sufficient political forums to attract the interest of local people?

Local politics in many countries is characterized by disinterest and social exclusion. People’s interest often lie outside or beyond traditional local politics, which weakens the recruitment base for positions of trust.

Renewal work will be held back if a role of social responsibility can not be established within this localized political sphere. If it is not, new democratic forums, committees, boards and administrations will lose their impetus and pave the way for corruption and poor control of local decision-making.

3) Local examples and social

Outside the established political parties there are forces that can breathe new life into municipal democratic organizations. The Green movement, cooperatives, small companies and other voluntary movements all have a vital role to play in this work.

Some of the organizations that I find most inspiring include: Fryshuset in Stockholm City, local community centre associations like those found in Nacka, a municipality outside Stockholm Boo Folkets Hus and Söråkers Folkets Hus, near Sundsvall. Both local neighbourhood that have been named in the international exhibition Hard Rain/Whole Earth as best in class practise. In Copenhagen, Denmark you will find Socialt Boligbyggerie’s affordable housing scheme (FSB) and Kaospiloterna (Chaos Pilots). In the UK The Big Issue Foundations, and many other cooperatives in Japan and around the world.

All bear witness to how voluntary work can effectively integrate with professional leadership. These are just a few examples of course, but their experiences are worth sharing. Their work puts greater emphasis on the type of local leadership that can pave the way to meaningful change.

4) The Mayor, hand in hand with green purchasing, can provide more holistic leadership

Sustainable development work requires a control system that puts green and sustainable purchasing at the forefront of planning.

Local leadership should strengthen the functions and powers of mayors, as they have proven themselves hugely affective at laying the groundwork for stronger, more holistic governance. They can inspire the birth of new organizations in which stakeholders become truly engaged in local initiatives.

5) Twinning between cities and rural areas, between the developed and developing worlds

International cooperation that works on a local level can be strengthened by establishing twinning systems between developed and developing countries. These relationships also have the power to improve the flow of information and resources between cities and rural areas, enabling greater interplay and cultural diversity.

6) Local planning monopoly

One major problem that often arises in local town planning discussions is the lack of power in the processes and decisions that govern land use. The Swedish model of a municipal planning monopoly has always been of huge importance for local autonomy and has contributed to the development of systemized thinking and sustainable urban development.

Politically controversial perhaps, but a practical necessity for the development of holistic, sustainable, systemized thinking in local government.


Kaj Embrén


Author :