From What to How: Encouraging Dialogue on Municipal Climate Action

Montreal sunrise viewed from Mont Royal with city skyline in the morning
Montreal sunrise viewed from Mont Royal with city skyline in the morning

In dealing with climate change we are facing the challenge of a transformation to sustainability (WBGU 2011). What needs to be done? To combat climate change, we need to make significant greenhouse gas savings. But is this the only goal we should set ourselves? No, the transformation goes deeper than this: It confronts us with the question of how we want to live -- now and in the future. Thus, the Climate Dialogue project (KSD) of the National Climate Initiative fully supports a complete change towards a culture of cooperation in municipal climate action.

Ambitious climate targets can be achieved on this basis; "Process optimisation, communication and mobilisation in (municipal) climate action" is the subheading of the Climate Dialogue and it is through these three approaches that the project aims to realise concrete savings in greenhouse gas emissions.

One aspect of the Climate Dialogue deals with exchanges and the learning process between municipalities. Information on numerous and diverse examples of good practice is provided by a range of brochures, data bases and competitions.

Dialogue opens up potential for local climate action and cooperation

However, these alone are not enough. The usage of these informations is not self-explanatory and there are no instructions on how to transfer and apply these examples of good practice; each municipalitiy constantly has to develop and adapt. Even the "best" practice is derived from and can only be carried out in a specific context. Therefore, encouraging a direct exchange between municipalities is a key element of the approach. Dialogue not only allows the necessary information to be accessed relatively easily, but also offers new insights and opens up potential for action and cooperation.

An example is the Fail Forward method. It is used to support the inter-municipal dialogue and has proved very successful. This method is as innovative as it is simple: Failures can only be addressed and thus prevented when honestly evaluated. If failures are not included in discussions, they will inhibit progress later on. As municipal climate action is a complex field and often means venturing into new territory, it is particularly important to establish a culture where failure is acceptable. This Fail Forward method is, to an extent, about making progress through failures.

Collectively, we must face the inconvenient truth

Positively handling failed projects means wanting to proactively learn from failure. This poses a major challenge for administrations working under tight legal regulations. Learning from one another can be an important step in this context. For instance, to break the ice in a cooperation between municipalities, a municipality can take the bold step of reporting on what did not work for them. From here on out it is about moving forward together, analysing the situation and coming up with solutions.

In North America, where there is a much more relaxed attitude towards failure, Canadian Ashley Good estab-lished the Fail Forward method, which emphasises the importance of trust. Establishing a common set of rules can be useful for creating a confidential, protected environment (such as the Chatham House Rules, which state that participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s) may be revealed). However, trust thrives not just when protected, but most especially when people are courageous enough to deal with the hard facts - and to tackle the challenges associated with these together.

"We must establish a culture where it is acceptable to have failures"

In June 2015 during the ICLEI Resilient Cities Conference, the Climate Dialogue project team used the Fail For-ward method at a workshop prepared in coordination with Ashley Good. Therein, Lykke Leonardsen, Head of the Climate Unit of the City of Copenhagen, reported on notable failures that even this pioneer city had to face. Leonardsen's unit aims to transform Copenhagen into the first completely climate-friendly city.

"[Therefore] we must establish an organizational culture where it is acceptable to have failures - if you are trying to do what hasn't been done before, you are bound to have failures." Following this keynote speech, participants were paired up and gave each other an account of their municipality's experience. This was then followed by a lively discussion between all participants on their experiences and findings.

The transformation towards a climate-friendly world is a complex process and requires willingness on our part to explore new avenues, share our experiences and learn together. As Leonardsen emphasised, we have to risk taking the wrong path. We need a culture that values taking on responsibility but also accepts failures. Applying the necessary reflection and adaptation measures to project structures from the very beginning must become a matter of course.

Established measures can be taken as a basis for this. Such measures include setting mile-stones, feedback rounds once projects are over, honest evaluation and the decision to draw a line under an approach before things get worse. Alongside these tried and tested instruments, Leonardsen also made some new suggestions such as failure parties and failure diaries for the collective memory of the organisation.

Naturally, it is easier for a successful city like Copenhagen to speak about some of its "failures" - but this ap-proach can nevertheless be applied in the context of partnerships between cities, municipalities and districts.

A unique platform for the implementation of climate action at local level

The International Conference on Climate Action (ICCA) will be a particularly good opportunity for exchanging information and networking. On 1 and 2 October 2015, municipalities and key players will come together in Hanover, Germany, for intensive talks on the framework conditions needed for suc-cessful climate action.

The ICCA 2015 thus provides an important platform for the implementation of climate action at local level ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Among other topics, success factors in municipal climate action will be presented and shared. In addition, all workshops will pose the following questions: What did not work? How can we learn from this -- and find more suitable ways into the unknown? These are small but important steps in the transformation to sustainability.

"If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together." - African saying.