Fremtenkt: Laboratory for Sustainable and Democratic Futures
By Sveinung Sundfør Sivertsen and Ragnhild Nabben, Fremtenkt
Using the futures
Fremtenkt believe that using the future(s) is core to realizing the transition to truly sustainable cities and societies.
Specifically, our experience suggests that giving people the opportunity to reflect on their assumptions about the future, together with others, in a non-threatening environment, helps open up a space in which alternative futures suddenly appear possible.
When people start imagining the future as an open space of possibilities – rather than worrying about what the future "will bring" – there is a powerful experience that things could be different, and that they might actually do something to make it different.
This experience serves as a very effective push to get people over the threshold that many of us experience in everyday life, the sense that making any real positive difference in the world is next to impossible. The experience of the future(s) as an open space of possibilities changes our perception, both of what is possible, and of what we, through our collective efforts, might achieve.
With this in mind, and working with the local Office for cultural affairs, Fremtenkt has established a Laboratory for sustainable and democratic futures in Åsane, a suburb of Bergen, on the west coast of Norway.
The aim of the Lab is to create infrastructure for sustainable, local democracy. By bringing together inhabitants, students and local government officials, Fremtenkt will create a space for collaboration that affords tools and opportunities to generate visions for the futures of Åsane and ideas for specific projects to help realise these futures, as well as allow experimentation with novel means and methods of citizen—government co-creation.
Based on these experiments, we will design methods that can be implemented in other parts of Norway, and ideally serve as an inspiration to people in other parts of the world who face similar challenges.
Climate and conflicts
The case of Åsane illustrates the potential for conflicts between, on the one hand, ambitious policymakers seeking to reduce climate emissions, and, on the other, inhabitants who feel that the resulting measures impose unfair strictures on their everyday lives.
|Åsane shopping center, Photo by Arne Halvorsen|
Those opposed to the measure argued that the system put too much of the financial burden of climate adaptation on those who live in areas where they are dependent on cars for transport.
There was also a social justice dimension to the protests, since the comparatively richer inhabitants could simply circumvent the toll by buying a second, electric car.
In the local elections of 2019, a single cause party founded to oppose the toll road expansion got almost 17% of the votes, making it the third largest party in Bergen. In parts of Åsane, the party got over 30% of the vote. From the perspective of a lot of people in the suburb, the toll road debacle was just the most recent example of a long history of decisions being made over their heads in the local government offices in the city centre of Bergen.
That said, there is a widely acknowledged need for rethinking the infrastructure and land use in Åsane. Both inhabitants and the local government acknowledge that the area suffers from years of “planning neglect”, the result of which is that the purported centre of Åsane is dominated by roads, parking lots, malls and warehouses, with very little in terms of recreational opportunities or public spaces that you would actually want to spend time in.
People want to see positive change, and the local government recently gave the planning office the task of formulating a plan for the rejuvenation of the central areas of Åsane.
To ensure that this does not become another top-down effort, there must be close collaboration between the local administration and the city's inhabitants.
This collaboration should also, Fremtenkt think, not just be an extension of the existing practice of asking for people’s opinion on initiatives already planned or proposed by the local government (or private developers). Doing so leaves too much in the hands of those who frame the problems and the proposed solutions. Instead, citizens should be given the opportunity to figure out what the problems are themselves and suggest their own preferred solutions to these.
This is what Kirsten Paaby and Mikaela Vasstrøm call “reverse participation” (Paaby & Vasstrøm, 2020): Rather than citizens providing input to already-formulated official plans, citizens formulate proposals that officials then have to consider and include when planning.
Such reverse participation is a core principle in the Laboratory for sustainable and democratic futures.
The city of Bergen has the stated aim becoming the greenest city in Norway. We can only achieve this by getting everyone who lives here to work together.
Establishing the Lab is an important step in this direction, and the use of «futures» in the name is not coincidental. Fremtenkt plans to leverage precisely the resignation-busting effects of futures thinking in designing engagements for inhabitants and city officials.
We will experiment with a range of methods to help people expand both their understanding of, and ways of using, the future.
|Notes from the Åsane lab November 2020: «How does the centre of Åsane look like in the future?» Among the input we find: «no cars» , «children playing outside», «airport for electric planes», «parks» and more.|
We draw our inspiration in part from the movement in futures studies called “Participatory futures”, as well as from the pioneer of public engagement in thinking about the future, Robert Jungk.
We also introduce workshop participants to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and encourage the use of these as a framework for thinking about their own, preferred futures in a regional and global perspective, and to be mindful of the necessary interconnections between the various aspects– economic, social and environmental –of any truly sustainable solution.
Because of restrictions on public gatherings in connection with the corona virus pandemic, we moved a recent engagement with inhabitants and representatives from the local administration onto an online platform. In so doing, we also adapted the Future Workshop method originally developed by Robert Jungk and Norbert Müllert to work in a limited timeframe, and with people sitting at home, rather than next to each other.
Recreating the magic of a Jungkian Future Workshop in an online format is far from trivial, but the potential payoffs are significant.
Both in terms of the possibilities this opens for collaboration across physical distances—on the 25th of November, Fremtenkt hosted academics and practitioners from a number of countries in an online future workshop on age friendly societies. And in terms of how this could help realise the old ambition of Jungk and Müllert to create «permanent workshop», in effect integrating the radically participatory, bottom-up vision of citizenship embodied in the Future Workshop into everyday life.
Creative citizenship, creative leadership
The success of the project so far has hinged on the willingness of city officials to step outside their comfort zone and countenance the possibility of a fruitful collaboration with Fremtenkt – a recently established social entrepreneur with, sometimes, wild ideas.
We have been extremely fortunate to work closely with the Office for cultural affairs in Arna and Åsane. The idea for the Lab was developed in dialogue with Director John Kristian Øvrebø and Consultant Aida Rokolj, and Rokolj is a vital sparring partner as we continue to develop and expand the project.
Fremtenkt has also established fruitful collaborations with the Bergen municipality planning office, and the Commissioner for climate, environment and city development. The Lab has received funding from Bergen municipality and the regional government in Vestland.
Promoting citizens who are unafraid to embody a creative form of citizenship requires creative public leaders who are unafraid to meet these initiatives as they are presented, even if this means risking failure or working in untraditional ways.
Fremtenkt know from experience that this kind of creative leadership is not equally distributed in Norwegian public institutions. The government, however, has a stated ambition of furthering public sector innovation by, importantly, fostering a culture of innovation.
We believe that there is much to be learned from how Bergen kommune (the municipality) approaches untraditional collaborations with citizens and private sector entities, and we have therefore taken steps to establish a research collaboration with NIFU, The University of Stavanger and Bergen kommune on the topic of creative leadership to discover, test out and establish best practices that can be implemented in both public and private institutions.
This research is a natural extension of the work already underway in the Laboratory for sustainable and democratic futures, and Fremtenkt are therefore excited also to be part of a research project headed by Kirsten Paaby and Mikaela Vasstrøm, and funded by the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation (KMD), which will look into precisely how local public institutions handle the processes of collaboration and co-creation with inhabitants, in Oslo, Stavanger and Bergen.
Fremtenkt are also pursuing research collaborations with civil society entities in Poland, France, Italy, Austria and Germany on the topic of creative citizenship, and the use of online Future Workshop in furthering international citizen collaborations and strengthening relationships between people and countries from the bottom up.
In addition to these projects, Fremtenkt are developing a program for high schools teaching sustainability and citizenship together with Fyllingsdalen VGS (a highschool in Bergen), and working to convince the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) to bring Futures Literacy to the unemployed.
Paaby, Kirsten & Vasstrøm, Mikaela. (2020) Omvendt deltakelse i lokaliseringen av FNs bærekraftsmål. https://eduaction.no/publikasjoner
Top photo from Bergen by Sveinung Sundfør Sivertsen