Kaj Embren

My belief that Bilbao is a stronghold of sustainable city developments is growing immeasurably. Why? Because after visiting for a week of creative dialogue between 800 participants from 200 cities, I found myself inspired by the city’s culture of social change.

Further out from Bilbao (which recently hosted a series of events entitled New Pathways for Cities and Towns) I found that the entire Basque Country is channeling its strong sense of local identity for social good. In fact, the strong traditions of the cooperatives in this region form the basis for my reflections on the gap between the movement’s leadership and future innovation.

The cooperative movement – and the economic and social values it encompasses – has had a huge impact on post-war Europe. This is no more evident than in Basque Country. Here, we find the town of Mondragón, which is still home to the world’s largest worker cooperative. At the end of 2014 it employed 74,117 people in 257 companies and organizations in four areas of activity: finance, industry, retail and knowledge.

But are cooperatives like this able to meet the challenges facing today’s societies?

The values of the cooperative movement have arguably never been stronger, although they are now more likely to be interpreted through the prism of capitalism, rather than as an alternative to it. As a vehicle for social activism, however, the movement has lost its clout in recent times.

One reason for this weakness is poor leadership during the financial crises that characterized the 1990s. Distance was allowed to grow between the generation that built the movement into a force and the younger generation that will carry on its work. This, in turn, has stalled the flow of ideas between local ownership and management. Like any growing organization, the cooperative movement can easily lose its value-base if it does not adapt to new times and requirements.

The Paris Agreement and the recently adopted 17 Social Development Goals (SDG) have clarified the principles and new economic models that can help bring new sustainable solutions. This work continued at the Bilbao conference, which was the first major meeting of European cities since the Paris summit. Ambitious talks, practice and policy interacted with scalable tools for action. With a renewed focus on local urban solutions – including cooperatives – and with strong demands on participation, the commitments that are emerging grow ever more powerful.

The discussions in Bilbao were wide-ranging. A major topic of interest was how the Internet of Things IoT can do more to facilitate dialogue and disseminate solutions through new social venues. My inspiration coming out of California the last year when I met James Hanusa

This dialogue can be developed – both horizontally and vertically – through the growing role of city mayors (a position which, incidentally, is increasingly being held by women – a welcome change to the usually male-dominated world of city mayoralty – In Bilbao I met Åsa Karlsson Björkmarker,Deputy Mayor of Växjö are also a new member of ICLEI Europe board

The concepts of social innovation and impact investment were also discussed. My interview the last year in California with Kevin Jones, Co-founder of SOCAP inspired me to take on the issues in Bilbao when we went deeper into financing and investing issues. These are factors that can affect both the cities and the cooperative movements within them, while ‘green bonds’ open up new hybrid financial instruments that can be accepted by both municipal organizations and cooperatives.

It is through values like these that we can develop circular economies in sustainable societies. In such economies we can mix elements of volunteering with market solutions. It is when we’re talking about crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and social investment that the cooperative movement should feel most at home.

The discussions in Bilbao touched on core questions for our societies. How do we develop democracy and increase participation? How do we develop the urban quality of life with fewer resources? Can smart apps help us embrace new low-carbon behaviors? How can we develop mobile transport with biofuels? What about bike lanes? Can we eat smarter through new city farming? Can we shape urban eco-systems and change the way cities interaction with nature?

In hearing answers to these questions, I encountered a powerful variety of solutions that have become part of both the social market economy and public impact investment.

So my reflection on the cooperative movement is also a call for new forms of social leadership that capture the social trends now characterizing the discussion across the world – from China to India, Japan to the US or Europe.

The cooperative movement has already demonstrated its ability to transform societies and social welfare. Whether it can reform its leadership to meet the challenges of today – and whether cooperatives’ management and grassroots can reunite – remains to be seen. But what I saw in Bilbao gives me cause for hope.


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