The past six years, the unfolding of an international economic crisis and growing concerns for the high environmental risks posed by the Western lifestyle, have shaped the discourse on multi-stakeholder engagement for sustainability in light of the bleak perspective scientists all around the world are forecasting for our future generations.

How can we sustain urban growth?

As many of us are already accustomed by now, sounding the alarm has not led to drastic measures for resolution on climate issues threatening society’s development, and many point to weakened governmental structure and omnipotent business organizations as culprits in slowing down the process for atonement: the industrial era started in the 19th century has taken its toll on environmental resources and can affect human well being.

Moreover, urban emigration rates are rising steadily, with studies forecasting at least 70% out of the global population to be living in cities by the end of 2050, thus adding even more weight to an unsustainable mode of living. According to the Fifth Assessment Report 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, urban and economic growth have been the main drivers for increases in global fossil fuel CO2 emissions. A growing global population needs urban growth and development while resources are getting scarce and innovation cannot yet steer the needed changes for a sustainable economy .

The obstacles in shifting to a more sustainable social model range from societal culture of governance where roles are strictly different to the economic model in use, a model which uses up a pool of limited resources, makes short-lifespan products and discards them afterwards with limited possibility for re-use, if any.

Leaving aside the austerity conditions we are irresponsibly offering as legacy for our slightly younger generations to come, the main issue seems to be the lack of governance structures capable of effectively addressing all these sustainability issues. When the economic crisis hit the markets in 2008, the world realized that in a contingency situation, the invisible hand of the market was just that –invisible – and that the self-regulatory behavior of the market did not prevent outrageously expensive corporate bail-outs. National governments did not escape criticism either, many accusing them of insubstantial application of regulations on the matter of sustainability concerns. The main critique brought to official governance structures has been that of insufficient resolve to do what governments are expected to do, namely to ensure that rules are in place to specifically address and lead to redressing action on a specific matter.

From passive observers to engaged actors?

A sensible solution to be explored would be a holistic perspective of the citizens’ role in the life of their community. A holistic perspective – as opposed to a single-angled view of citizens as consumers, as electors or as democracy enforcers – embeds all of these and builds on various perspectives in order to redefine the roles of traditional societal actors. In theory at least, the goal would be to shift the citizen from his/her position as idle by-stander to an engaged, active individual sharing in the governmentality philosophy of our 21st century society, that is, to co-participate in the governance process despite the “stick-or-carrot” mechanism in place. An act of volition, where the state and individual have outgrown their top-down hierarchical relationship.

The 2014 edition of State of the World proposes that urban citizens’ engagement counteracts the opposing forces for effective solutions for sustainability. Referencing the Arab spring example, the authors build a plastic representation of potential forces for change: “Call it the first law of political physics: a body at rest will remain at rest until a force is applied to it. […] And when governments themselves are unable to muster that force and other actors, such as corporations, are pushing in the wrong direction, an opposite vector can come only from the people.”

The creation of social innovation communities has been discussed for years at EU level, where Horizon 2020, the biggest research and innovation programme, was created to finance innovation research in Europe that would lead to economic growth and job creation. According to EU officials drafting and defining the framework for social innovation communities, social innovation should support green growth by addressing sustainability governance at a micro-level, but also in cooperation with current governance actors. A multiple stakeholder perspective on paving the way to a more sustainable living includes citizens as active participants in the process. Scaling up incipient initiatives led by urban citizens’ movement poses many challenges, however. In lack of effective communication and dissemination of technological innovations, communities become floating islands where random initiatives cannot reach their full potential.

What are the challenges with responsible citizenship?

A multi-stakeholder governance perspective will have to take into consideration not only the rationale of developing new, exciting technologies supporting a green urban growth we all desire, but also the social interactions shaping the effective application of these technologies; preventing public boycotts despite a sound solution to an existent problem is indeed a reality. The complexity of these interactions is tremendous, as the economic and political rationale are often few dimensions of the overall debate; a citizens’ movement opposing a wind-mill project based on the argument of preserving the current landscape untouched, despite the potential for job creation, is one example where subjective perceptions, opinions and even feelings become part of an ad-hoc governance framework.

Urban citizenship can and in some instances, does play a role in governance. The question is, can it play a role in sustainability governance? Can it steer the wheel in the direction needed when everybody else is pushing the brakes?

However, despite the romantic take on united individuals enforcing just measures when everything else fails, studies point to the deeply ingrained consumerism underlying the rationale and behaviour of urban population. According to a Tertium’s study performed in 2013 regarding the concerns of citizens in relation to the bio-based economy - more or less an assimilated concept to that of circular economy - citizens are unlikely to take a leading role in a bio-based economy. Rather, they see the government and the business sector more likely to take the lead, whom they would be willing to support in their capacity as consumers and employees. A case in point is their referral to growth in taxes as a strong incentive towards behavioral change for sustainability. Even though citizens cited in the study agree that attention is timely concerning raw materials, recycling and waste reduction, a “lease” economy, in which goods are leased instead of owned, elicits split opinions among respondents. In a similar vein, respondents admit that the product’s price and their sense of fashion can be at odds with sustainability issues, e.g. when thinking about purchasing a product containing sustainable raw materials.

Extrapolating on the study cited above, it would seem that eco-literacy is not the main factor in leading individuals’ behaviour towards sustainability, but rather their self-branding as a weak player in the marketplace, compared to industry and traditional governance institutions.

Given the scale of challenges our society is facing today, such as the fight against climate change, resource scarcity in a growing, busy urban environment and stagnating economic growth, a multi-stakeholder approach to innovate for sustainability is not a bad idea. However complex and incipient, this approach is meant to empower responsible citizenship, for people’s well-being and with the people.

But are enough urban citizens aware of this to make a difference?