Friday, May 26, 2017

DRIFT – Imagining Sustainability in Rotterdam

We walk east along the river with the sun still to our right, past industrial sculptures and cabled bridges, into the wind and past open stretches of bike path, with only the occasional passing car. It is 9:30am and 25 degrees and we are on our way to a full day session on sustainability in the city of Rotterdam, old city walkup buildings next to jigsaw post-modern skyscrapers, the city centre uncertain and spread out around us, while the barges and their shipping containers slide by.

We arrive at Blue City, a former water park and disco with crumbling steps and broken seal windows, which has been repurposed for blue economy entrepreneurs. The space has been rented by DRIFT, a think tank founded by Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2004. DRIFT works to support transitions to greater sustainability, helping industry, government and cities through research, advice, practice and education. It's a bridge between scales, science, community, industry.
DRIFT’s researchers support transition toward sustainability in culture (social norms, values, way of thinking, beliefs) and in structure (infrastructure, regulations and behaviours). They look at the different possible pathways of redevelopment: acceleration, stabilization, lock in, backlash, and system breakage. As an example, Giorgia Silvestri, a researcher with the institute, uses the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Or a social transition from high to low crime in a neighbourhood through transformation into a livable and sustainable place.

A transition arena’s phases include exploration of the challenges, envisioning of a sustainable future through imaging and storytelling and elaboration of transition pathways. No two projects are alike, and the process, as can be imagined, takes a long time, and demands involvement and participation by all stakeholders. It’s interesting to imagine this kind of process happening in BC, where voter participation in the last election was around 57 percent. It's also interesting to see what happens when we participate in a transition exercise ourselves.

After explaining the steps for a transition pathway, Giorgia leads us through an exercise with four areas relevant to the CRD – transportation, food, neighbourhoods and energy. We look at the barriers, voice our vision and think about pathways to achieving that vision. What becomes quickly evident is what Donella Meadows (1994) has pointed out: it’s very easy to list the barriers to a sustainable world, but much more difficult to put into words a real vision, to think on a grand scale, to think in terms of ideals, in terms of what we’d really like to happen were there not constraints from government, industry or an apathetic populace. We prefer to rest in the probable, in a reasonable possibility given our current constraints, rather than voice what we really want the world to look like. In fact, this kind of thinking often leads to resistance and even anger: “That’s just not reasonable. We could never do that. Visions are fantasies.” It’s the result of a culture that Meadows says “constantly, almost automatically, ridicules visionaries.” Visioning is a skill we have as children – to imagine our ideal world where there is lots of fun, food and green space – but which many of us learn are childish, pie-in-the-sky ideas and thus discard as unachievable when we grow up.

In the end, the process of achieving sustainability might be psychological as much as practical. People will work more or less successfully with one another. They will hold one another back or encourage one another. They will allow one another to imagine or they will clamp idealism down. And it is us doing this to one another, not just those who hold the economic or political balance of power.

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