Learning from Nantes: organising a city-wide debate on climate neutrality

Photo by Simon PALLARD on Unsplash

In February 2020, the pilot cities of TOMORROW (Nis, Dublin, Brasov, Brest and Valencia) gathered in Nantes to participate in a training with the aim to learn more about theories and practices of “Transition Roadmapping”. As part of this training, they met multiple people that have been involved in the city’s “Grand Debat” (The Great Debate in English), a participatory process to co-create the energy transition roadmap for the region.

Nantes hosted the debate “The Energy Transition is All of Us” during 200 days, starting from September 2016. During this time, the 24 municipalities of Nantes Metropolitan area held a series of open debates and citizen-feedback sessions for developing the vision of the energy transition of the region.

“Le Grand Debat” engaged more than 40 thousand inhabitants! Five thousand of them were more actively involved. Prior to the launch in 2016, there was one year of preparation, and a commitment to invest 630 thousand Euro, approximately one Euro per citizen, for the organization of the process.

A project team of five civil servants facilitated the overall process together with an independent commission of four volunteer citizens. The team of citizens was responsible for guaranteeing the openness of the debate and producing the final Commission Report.

When the Great Debate was publicly launched, citizens and local organisations were invited to participate in workshops and other activities. Local actors were also encouraged to submit suggestions through social media, using the hashtag #NantesTransitions. A huge pink container was moved around the region, so that citizens could walk in and share ideas and suggestions.

One of the main results of the initiative consisted in the development of experimentation activities by 500 citizens to accelerate the energy transition in Nantes’ region. These activities resulted in the launch of 10 crowdfunding campaigns, the development of 5 new projects, the evaluation of 12 projects led by the Nantes Metropolis and the creation of an “energy conservation” guide.

In September 2017, the final report of the debate was published. The report suggested the Metropolitan Council and local stakeholders to produce a shared roadmap, which was adopted unanimously by the Council on February 16, 2018. The roadmap considers an energy transition that provides benefits to all the inhabitants: it specifically focuses on mobility and housing issues, valorises 100 percent of local renewable resources and promotes social equality. It includes 15 ambitions and 33 commitments representing the starting point of a series of actions developed then with the inhabitants and actors of the territory.

This process represented a great opportunity to raise awareness on the energy and sustainability transitions in the region. It supported discussions and enabled the creation of new collaborations and synergies among a diverse group of stakeholders.

Credits: City of Nantes
Credits: City of Nantes

During our TOMORROW visit in Nantes the participants and organisers of the “Grand Debat”, were very open to discuss the pitfalls and challenges encountered on the way. The following lessons learnt should be considered when planning and facilitating a participatory process.

Set aside resources to sustain the activities over time

One of the main challenges of the “Grand Debat”, and participatory processes in general, regards the financial sustainability of the actions and activities after the project’s end. When a project is handed over to participants without having considered its viability with no external funding, the people involved often cannot find resources to maintain the activities. Therefore, over time some of the active groups can dissolve (this was the case in Nantes).

At the beginning of a participatory process, it is important to set resources aside and to consider a budget for the maintenance of the activities after its official ending. Additionally, it is crucial that the facilitators know when to step back in order to allow for the process to be shaped by the participants themselves. The participants need to start feeling a sense of ownership and responsibility for the actions developed and they need support to build capacities and find resources to maintain the projects over time.

Use the ‘momentum’ carefully

In participatory processes you could reach a momentum in which participants feel engaged, enthusiastic and will develop multiple ideas. The facilitators of these processes need to use very carefully this momentum and support the participants to start experimenting, develop the capacities needed and put their ideas into practice.

Quality or quantity?

When designing a participatory process, it is key to think carefully about who to involve and why. Is it more important to involve many people that would just read a social media post? Or is it more important to engage a limited group of people that would engage more deeply and would play a key role in the process?

Think about the roles of the different stakeholders

The “Grand Debat” process opened up a discussion on the roles of the different stakeholders taking part in the process. Local authorities play a key role in facilitating sustainability transition processes towards low carbon and resilient cities, but they cannot do it alone. That is why citizens were so actively engaged in the process and four of them had leading roles. It is key to make citizens play a leadership role but, at the same time, it is also important to consider how to define these roles in a fair way. If citizens are taking key responsibilities in shaping a process and they are devoting a certain amount of time and resources into it, it might be better to formalize their role and go beyond the volunteer engagement.   

Involve different target groups

When organizing a participatory process at city level, one of the aspects to take into consideration is how to make the process more inclusive by engaging a diverse group of participants in terms of geographical and personal backgrounds and gender. To this end, it is important to use different communication strategies. Some of the participants of “Le Grand Debat” said that the way the process was promoted scared away some people that considered it “too fancy” and not close to their needs. When involving diverse target groups, we should consider how to engage each of them and develop some creative ways to attract “unusual suspects” or marginalized groups.

Snapshot - Grand Debat website
A snapshot from the Great Debate website

“Le Grand Debat” is a good example of building a shared roadmap for accelerating the energy transition at local level. The participatory process laid the foundations for future citizen participation and stakeholders engagement initiatives in the area. By learning from the challenges encountered by Nantes, we hope that the pilot cities of TOMORROW project will be able to facilitate even more successful and inclusive participatory processes for co-creating more sustainable and resilient cities.

Read TOMORROW’s factsheet on the Great Debate

More info at https://www.nantestransitionenergetique.fr/

This blog is part of a series of energy diaries, tracing the TOMORROW pilot-cities around Europe to learn about roadmaps for decarbonisation: from Leuven (BE), Nantes (FR) to Heerlen (NL). Watch this space for more updates...