Road(map) to nowhere?

Road(map) to nowhere?

By Garth Williamsroad-to-nowhere

I attended the launch of the “Roadmap for a Sustainable City” for Brighton and Hove (B&H) (the “Roadmap”) the evening of 22 November 2016 in Brighton.  The launch coincided with the final event of the Accelerating and Rescaling Transitions to Sustainability (ARTS) project.

This was my first encounter with the project. I have a materials science and engineering background and have worked in manufacturing, as a researcher and more recently as a public servant in science and technology (S&T) policy and strategy.  After working in South Africa for 19 years I’m furthering my studies by doing an MSc in S&T policy at SPRU, University of Sussex.  These are my thoughts on the Roadmap, drawing from previous experience of using the roadmapping approach to develop five manufacturing-related R&D and innovation strategies in South Africa.

 

The above lyrics encapsulate my impressions of the Roadmap project.  A patchwork community of committed and passionate individuals who feel cautiously optimistic about the future.  But with a distinct possibility that three years of hard work may come to naught, except for a glossy publication and some academic articles.

Firstly, what’s it all about?  The ARTS Project aimed to get to grips with how environmental sustainability could be accelerated through local initiatives in five European city-regions, including Brighton.  The project was funded by the European Commission and ran for three years, closing officially on 30 November 2016.

The Roadmap was one of the products of the ARTS Project, and aspires to be a blueprint for collaborative sustainability initiatives in the B&H city-region until 2020 for individuals, NGOs, local and regional government and agencies, and presumably also for the private sector.  The anchoring themes are Open Spaces and New Infrastructure Projects.

Significant budget cuts within the B&H City Council have precipitated a rethink of how the city operates, specifically working in a more collaborative and cooperative fashion with citizens and stakeholders.  The city is also in the process of putting together a formal development plan for the city, dubbed City Plan Part Two. It appears to be an ideal environment for implementation of the strategy.  However, I’m concerned that the policy window for the Roadmap to be used as the framework for all collaborative sustainability initiatives in the city-region may have been missed.

I say this because while the Roadmap appears to have an internal converted champion in Mita Pital (the Sustainability Officer, B&H City Council), the City Plan Part Two scoping document makes no specific reference to the Roadmap or to the ARTS Project.  The period for consultation and inputs for the City Plan Part Two closed on 22 September 2016, whereas the Roadmap was launched two months later.

Mrs Pital was positive concerning the potential for making use of the Roadmap in the development of the City Plan Part Two, but it remains to be seen just how prominent the Roadmap will be in the final plan.

The consultative stakeholder workshops that informed the development of the Roadmap were in fact prompted by pending changes towards a more collaborative and cooperative approach by the B&H City Council.  The B&H City Council appears to be the logical champion or better yet the owner of the Roadmap.  So it is odd to me that early buy-in was not secured for the council to formally adopt the Roadmap as its overarching sustainability framework or strategy, or formally endorse it at the very least.

While B&H City Council officials are reportedly feeling more energised due to the council’s recent move to a new building, the opportunity to engage with them in a meaningful fashion may also be missed.  I say this because the Roadmap sketches out only high-level goals under the Open Spaces and New Infrastructure Projects themes with no concrete implementation proposals.

I feel that a partially fleshed-out implementation plan could have accompanied the Roadmap, illustrating possible resources required (minimum and ideal levels), activity areas as well as potential outputs and outcomes.  Such a plan could have been developed based on inputs during the workshops with stakeholders, and would have gone a long way in identifying potential projects for implementation by the B&H City Council and other key stakeholders based on their respective mandates and key metrics/deliverables.

As a public official myself it makes my job a whole lot easier when I get a ‘ready-made’ strategy and implementation plan that have been developed in full consultation with a representative community, particularly when it helps me to contribute towards achieving the objectives of my institution.

The local sustainability community, like most grassroots movements that are composed of weakly-linked individual initiatives in “domain silos”, may find it challenging to self-organise and engage with the B&H City Council with a unified voice.  The roadmap mentions the distinct possibility that commercial developers may simply continue to engage with the council without much community engagement.  Hence the local sustainability community may well continue to be marginalised.

Council officials may prefer to engage with commercial developers because such actors are easily identifiable and clear concerning their (financial) motives.  As such they may be ‘easier’ to deal with compared with a cacophony of passionate but disparate voices from the grassroots sustainability community.

This community also has an in-built handicap, being composed of resource- and time-poor individuals in contrast with private sector interests.  As private citizens, these individuals often are not privy to the inner workings of the public sector, nor do they have ready access to senior public officials.  As a result they often become frustrated and exasperated.

Those that are able to “figure out the rules of the game” may not want to share what they have learnt for fear that they will lose access to scarce resources.

There may also be stakeholder fatigue and disillusionment after three years of engaging with the ARTS project team without discernable or significant results.

However, all is not doom and gloom!  Having overseen several strategy roadmap projects myself, I know that the main benefit of such projects stems from the process itself, namely the shared experience between stakeholders and the strengthening of linkages at a personal and institutional level.  Counter intuitively, the actual output (the Roadmap) is of lesser value.

The ARTS project also presents a wealth of data, findings, best practices, pitfalls and lessons.  The project team discovered approximately 100 locally-based collective initiatives in the B&H city-region that seek to drive transformative change towards sustainability.  Notable successes include the B&H Food Partnership, the Brighton Bike Hub / Changing Gears, The Big Lemon and the Brighton Energy Cooperative.

As a suggested way forward, the local sustainability community ideally needs a ‘policy entrepreneur’ to undertake the following:

  • The B&H City Council should be engaged with as a matter of urgency, ideally with the objective of securing adoption of the Roadmap as the de facto strategic framework document for the council in the development and implementation of the City Plan Part Two. At the very minimum the council should endorse the Roadmap, thereby giving it legitimacy.  A mid-way point could be the use of the Roadmap to partially inform the development of the City Plan Part Two.
  • Approach MP and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas for her to publicly endorse the Roadmap and also become its name sponsor/ambassador. Having a person of her stature behind the Roadmap would greatly increase the chances of its adoption.
  • Draw up a sustainability community charter (consisting of common core values), represent the community, maintain a census of initiatives in the city-region, establish a grassroots stakeholder forum, oversee the development of implementation plans and engage with key public and private stakeholders to formalise relationships, amongst others.
  • Notable success stories (e.g. the B&H Food Partnership) need to be given more visibility. This would enhance the brand of the B&H City Region as a green city.  The key factors underpinning their success need to be identified and assess for transferability to support the growth and success of emerging or stagnant initiatives.
  • The Roadmap needs to be ‘refreshed’ regularly (every 3-5 years) to incorporate changes in local and global trends, changing actors and initiatives, and also to reenergise the community. This would again be driven by a core group of individuals drawn from the sustainability community, but funded by the B&H City Council.

Seed operational funding for the policy entrepreneur could be sought for this purpose from the B&H City Council.  Ultimately efforts need to be institutionalised, and I suggest that the B&H City Council considers the establishment of a capacitated Special Purpose Vehicle[1] for Grassroots Sustainable Development for this purpose.

Much effort has been expended in compiling the Roadmap, and a lot of goodwill has been built up within the community and with key public officials.  Yes, its launch should be celebrated, and yes it’s the end of the ARTS project.  But it should rather be seen as the beginning.

The question is where to from now, and who will pick up the baton.

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[1] A SPV is a type of sector development agency.  SPVs have been utilised with great success for many years by time-poor City of Cape Town officials with access to modest public funds.  An example is Green Cape (http://greencape.co.za).

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