How might we supercharge the local government to build thriving communities as we enter a decade of social and ecological change?

Over the last twenty years, the internet has changed everything. “Digital” captured our imagination as we began to answer how we design 21st-century organisations and human-centred public services, fit for people’s raised expectations and fit for the future. For the last ten years, we’ve witnessed the power of digital and design-led approaches firsthand in shifting hearts, minds and ways of delivering public services, acting as the platform for more rapid and radical change to come, have no doubt.

Undeniably, the internet will continue to be one of the most disruptive forces in our society in the coming years. But another force, one that despite its world-changing importance has remained comparatively intangible and lacking the urgent attention it needs, has at last moved front and centre this year — the climate.

The speed at which digital has shifted the world (communications, relationships and expectations) and the speed at which we now have to adapt to climate change is a striking parallel. The impact and adjustment to both will continue to be exponential. As we enter a new decade of unprecedented social, systemic and planetary change, we’ve reached an important juncture in our history. What can we learn from a decade of digital disruption and the ways in which organisations and society have adjusted to its demands as we now consider the best ways in which to respond to the same exponential demands to climate change?

Local is the future

Last year, people across the UK called on the government to take environmental action seriously at every level. In what represents an unprecedented political opportunity, two-thirds of local councils, motivated for change, have now passed climate emergency motions. But many are struggling to know where to begin. The scale and speed of change needed are daunting by anyone’s measure.

We know we have to cut carbon emissions. But this isn’t just about a battle against greenhouse gas emissions, where all roads culminate in “net-zero”. It is about the opportunity to redefine our future and start to think about how we bring a climate lens to everything we do.

We need to stop asking ourselves “how can local government take climate action” and start asking: what is the role of our public institutions in shaping the future of place?

Our public institutions are uniquely positioned to be catalysts for change. In the climate era, as we face one of the most challenging decades of our time, let’s use the full power of councils to strengthen our local communities and create a true sense of place and purpose.

We need institutions that shift away from policy and service provision as their only levers of change to fundamentally understanding their part in a wider system, finding their unique contribution, working alongside citizens to amplify the work of the wider community, connecting dots, educating, enabling and building on the assets and culture of a local place.

Power of councils in climate era

Embracing uncertainty

Over the past 6 months, we set ourselves a task at FutureGov of considering this response and figuring out how we can support councils to find their solutions to the climate emergency, support the revitalisation of public services and build responsive organisations and regenerative communities. Using ourselves as an experiment, we’re trying to characterise the behaviours of the organisations we want to help create. What we thought would be a starting contribution of practical, tangible actions quickly morphed into a changed way of thinking about the problem.

In the way that digital captured our imagination and we were compelled to change, we need to embrace the uncertainty and complexity of the climate emergency and allow it to spark within us the same kind of passion. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity at a time of peak public interest to develop compelling and inspiring visions of places fit for the climate age.

With a shared vision, owned by the council and the community, we can begin to think more creatively about the role of local government to influence differently. Together, we can figure out how we build stronger, more resilient communities, how we mitigate the worst effects of extreme and unpredictable weather, how we ensure our planet gets more stable and how we build the capability and infrastructure at a local level to cope.

Our biggest change journey yet

Now more than ever, we need a mindset that embraces uncertainty. We need to work in the open alongside colleagues, friends and neighbours with the humility to share our failures and learnings. We need to experiment with new ways of decision-making, putting more power in the hands of local people. And we need to work at pace, learning and improving through real-world experimentation. Sound familiar?

This is our chance to use everything we’ve learned from a decade of digital to focus on organising for change. With true 21st-century approaches, tools and mindsets, we can empower staff and citizens alike to navigate uncertainty, learn by doing and work together to ensure that the next decade has an exponential positive impact on institutions and communities alike.

It’s 2020 and it’s time to go above and beyond climate action. It’s time to use the full force of our public institutions as platforms for change.

We’re building a community of people working in local government on all things climate emergency. If you’d like to join the Slack channel to share ideas, challenges and lessons learned, let us know on [email protected].

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