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Arenas for participation in sustainability transitions

As we steadily approach the experimental stages of DUST, partners at the University of Strathclyde have led research exploring the different ways communities are engaged in actions relating to sustainability transitions. These explorations will be used to inform DUST’s regional design, the application, and the Regional Futures Literacy Labs in the coming months. One outcome from this research highlights the importance of considering the spaces and processes where citizens are invited to participate in decision making. This can include the physical spaces of engagement but also the structures through which citizens are invited (meetings, working groups, assemblies, etc.) 


The research considered policy strategies such as the European Green Deal where it is commonly declared that "citizens are and should remain a driving force of the transition to sustainability". This led the work to ask questions about how open transition measures really are to participation. Reflecting on the levels of participation in actions relating to sustainability transition policies, in the DUST case study regions, a number of observations were made. 


Sustainability transitions present challenges for multiple people. Strategies need to cut across government levels, between sectors, and involve the communities that they impact, which is especially difficult in regions where making structural changes is complicated. Coordinating inputs across all the involved actors can be a big challenge for policy makers. But the use of so-called ‘place-based’ transition measures, supported through EU funding (e.g. the Territorial Just Transition Plans), and national and regional development strategies offers a way forward here. This is mainly through the opening up of new participatory arenas (committees; working groups, panels and assemblies) that are closer to citizens. The question is if these new participatory arenas, organised across multiple tiers of government, really are opening up. 


Generally, within policy measures, one branch of government assumes the role of organiser. Therefore, the governmental level which yields the most decision-making power tends to host the most active arenas for participation. When this is at the national level, there’s a risk that the higher-level objectives of strategies dominate these arenas while there’s limited openness to local or community actors. On the other hand, measures organised at the local community level present risks of being too localised and are often difficult to scale up to create impact beyond a locality. The regional level may provide a promising arena where ‘top-down’ national coordination and authority can be combined with the ‘bottom-up’ local perspective.   


DUST research also highlighted the emergence of arenas created outside these institutional ‘invited spaces’, namely ‘created spaces’ that often emerge in areas where particular activities or industries are found. Unlike ‘invited spaces’ that involve different authorities reaching out to citizens and their representatives, less powerful actors like civil society or grassroots organisations often claim ‘created spaces’. Within these spaces, participants come together around shared concerns, ideas or identities. These arenas are important to promote at lower levels, to ensure that citizens can authentically express their voices in relation to policy impacts. 


From the DUST case-study regions in Bulgaria, Poland and Germany, a number of objectives were identified for promoting participatory arenas at lower levels:  

  1.  Increase accessibility for actors outside public authorities or where top-down power dynamics feature prominently. 

  2. Compliment formal participatory mechanisms by supporting local ‘created spaces’. 

  3. Provide actions and campaigns targeted at specific social groups.  

  4. Enable more inclusive and equal participation by engaging local communities in places, like museums, that are potentially more accessible, open and welcoming for them.  


Creating and promoting participatory arenas is important, to deal with challenges in sustainability across government levels and with communities. They help to increase the acceptance of actions occurring in regions undergoing structural changes and include those impacted by changes, in the decision making process. With this, a new task emerges of how to map participatory arenas and link them to existing political bodies and processes, which researchers in DUST see as essential to maximise the impacts of participatory arenas.  


Whether these arenas can play a role in creating new democratic spaces for participation depends on higher-level political support and efforts to include more local communities in ‘created spaces’.  Similarly, the level of inclusiveness is impacted by the power dynamics under which new arenas are created. This presents a need to be aware of political and power relations when introducing new participatory arenas, to understand where and with whom to create them. 


In our DUST experiments, the issue of participatory arenas will be explored in how and where we engage with communities in our case study regions. Stay tuned on our social media channels to follow this process! 


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