This summer saw the publication of the European Commission’s take on circular economy as a model for sustainable growth in the EU. In a move to emphasize its focus on job creation and sustainable growth, the Commission published the roadmap to a more resource-efficient Europe based on the guidelines of the Ellen MacArthur’s oft-cited model of circular economy.

According to the EC's definition; “circular economy represents a development strategy that entails economic growth without increasing consumption of resources, deeply transform production chains and consumption habits and redesign industrial systems at the system level. It relies on innovation being it technological, social and organizational. It requires a new portfolio of skills and knowledge as well as new financial instruments [and] multistakeholders’ involvement.”

It is not difficult to argue for the EC’s choice of framing its upcoming strategies under the encompassing umbrella of circular economy, given that the overall savings potential for the European industry by improving the use of resources is worth EUR 630 billion per year, boosting EU’s GDP by up to 3.9% and reducing material input needs by 17%-24% by 2030. Nor is it far-fetched to expect an immense ecological potential in the transition towards a re-use model, which could be able to respond to the greenhouse gas emissions challenge, and to increase energy efficiency, among other things.

Having sketched the context for discussion, this article will set up a short exercise of imagination as to how the transition can be achieved, from the point of view of citizen governance. Therefore it refrains from assessing or analysing the EC’s roadmap to a more sustainable Europe, however tempting that may be, and focuses on “multistakeholders’ involvement” as a necessary item in the toolbox for transforming European society. Citizens and consumers can play a significant role by siding with other stakeholders at the discussion table, e.g. government representatives, civil society actors, businesses, researchers, and innovators.

CITIZEN ENGAGEMENT- GOVERNING FOR SUSTAINABILITY?

Governance has been addressed by numerous scholars as a complex issue in implementing change for the better, especially in the matter of sustainability. Worldwatch Institute’s 2014 State of the World edition is discusses governance for sustainability, highlighting the power imbalances that affect natural resources and people’s equitable access to them, as well as the need to increase the role of citizens in the decision-making processes affecting their well-being. As authors Michael Renner and Tom Prugh emphasize, “In the face of governmental inertia and corporate capture of many decision-making processes, strong and persistent bottom-up political pressure is needed more than ever” .

Even so, it would be unfair to limit our imagination to illustrating citizen engagement as flowing numbers signing online petitions to stop corporate or governmental activities, or as groups campaigning in the streets. These forms of engagement are only useful to some extent, as they tend to burn-out in intensity and consequently, they decrease in numbers, fading their campaign’s message. This is not to say these movements are obsolete, on the contrary, they are very much needed when societal mechanisms to protect the common wealth e.g. natural resources, fail. But on the long term, we need to stop thinking of citizen engagement in silos, separate from official governance representatives and separate from empowered decision-makers e.g. industry representatives. Citizens can govern as well, by siding with other societal stakeholders. If this statement seems uncanny, then we need to discuss what is meant with "governance".

GOVERNANCE

The State of the World 2014 edition offers a very simple definition to start with: “Governing means drawing up the rules by which society functions” , or “the processes by which any complex activity or system is coordinated” . Then why do we associate governance only with political leaders, and why can’t we imagine other stakeholders partaking in this process? How can we govern by employing the approach of “multistakeholders’ involvement”?

In 1978 Michel Foucault was lecturing on the “problematic of government” at the Collegé de France; the transcript of that lecture was to become seminal for various strands of research, political theory in particular. Governmentality was the concept Foucault used to define the state of art in modern-day government. By looking back at European centennial history and analyzing classic literature on governance issues, he argued that modern society had stopped being governed centuries ago, when power and ruling decision of one sovereign had been overruled by the overwhelming responsibility of coordinating the state of affairs of a growing, ever more demanding population. According to Foucault, what we’re exposed to today are in fact technologies of government, an ensemble of institutions, procedures, bodies of knowledge and strategies to steer that knowledge. Therefore, one cannot preclude governance and government functions strictly to public servants and their institutional structures.

CITIZEN GOVERNANCE AS SOCIAL INNOVATION

It seems that there is a relative consensus on what governance is. This does not, however, necessarily imply who should be involved in governing. To some extent, we all govern; our home affairs, our financial income, our work projects and so on. At a macro level citizens are limited to participating in their role as consumers, conscious consumers at best, and very few choose to be engaged in civil society activities.

Zooming out from this short depiction of governmentality, and turning back to EC’s initiative of implementing a model of circular economy in Europe, this article argues for an increased role of citizens, indeed, but a role where they are truly empowered to engage in dialogue and actions, alongside other stakeholders. Social innovation is one area of research where investigation is on its way to discover the synergies of multistakeholder cooperation on matters of sustainability transformation, such as EC’s model for circular economy.

Rethinking government and governance in such a way as to blur the restricting lines betweenwho decides and who acts is the way forward to start involving European citizens in issues that are not only national, but also regional and global. One such strategic issue in many Danish municipalities is climate change adaptation, given the unprecedented amount of floods occurring in the past five years.

We need to engage citizens to address issues of urban zero waste targets, urban zero carbon footprint, urban recycling targets, as the EC envisions in order to put in place a circular economy system; reframing business models and encouraging the formation of the market for sustainable products and services, as well as addressing supporting policies at EU level. While all the aforementioned are necessary actions, we should not overlook the potential impact of the wider mass of urban citizens in Europe.

Ecoliteracy is not necessarily the answer to raising the participation rates of citizens, but rather, the methodology of reaching out to them and involving them in working together with other stakeholders. Business model innovations responding to social challenges could be developed, researchers could disseminate crucial information and knowledge and testing models in the real world, NGOs could plan and structure activities for a wider scale impact, and even policy-makers could converge various, different interests to benefit entire communities, reach consensus and ensure transparency and legitimacy of different political decision

Social innovation expertise is at an incipient phase , and time is needed for projects to run and for community-led initiatives to develop the much needed tools and methods to inspire citizen engagement in governance. The circular economy model is the only alternative we have at the moment, given the dire effect of over-industrialization and climate change effects, and we do need “multistakeholder involvement” to fulfil the expectations of this roadmap for a more sustainable society. To do so, this article suggests looking at citizen co-governance as a social innovation method.