How to change policy and practice at city level? A discussion with some influencers.

February 17, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Spent an enjoyable couple of hours last week chatting to some students doing the LSE MSc in Cities course about their group projects. These were aimed at designing initiatives to promote different aspects of sustainability and emissions reductions in major cities: Montreal (building regulations);  Bogotá (transport); Freetown (natural habitat) and Amsterdam (consumption).

We covered some standard ground that I talk about a lot on this blog so won’t repeat here – the need to distinguish between a theory of change and a theory of action; the importance of critical junctures; recognizing that your plans are unlikely to, erm, go to plan, and building in systems to adapt as you go.

But some new (for me) angles also came up. Some of these are pretty obvious, but I’ll mention them anyway:

Money: at least two aspects. If your initiative is going to cost money, then how much? And how will the city pay for it, e.g. is it allowed to raise taxes, or is that the prerogative of central government? And if your initiative will save money, how much and by over what timescale? Activists often spend much most of their time explaining why the initiative is the right thing to do, rather than exploring its financial implications, yet these are often crucial in its adoption/rejection.

Carrots and sticks: This may come down to psychology, but people often have a preference for one or the other. Take a look at your plans; if it is either all about punishing bad guys, or chucking money and praise at good ones, perhaps you should think about more of a balance between the two?

Opposed v unopposed: Some initiatives will result in people losing out, who will therefore not be happy. If they are powerful, they will use their power to block you. If they are not, they may well take to the streets or look for patrons. In either case, you need to think what you will do about this – compensate the losers or face them down?

By contrast, many initiatives (eg road safety, insulating buildings, not using child labour) are low/no opposition. There the challenge for influencers is to push your issue up the political agenda, dealing with issues of political salience and cost (see previous point). Performance league tables and general encouragement of competition between nations, cities or communities is one tried and tested method. This is also where some nudge theory can help – ‘did you know that 85% of the houses on your road have been insulated?’

How to create a sense of urgency? Especially in relation to the climate crisis, one major constraint is time. Fixing something in 3 years is much better than fixing it in 10. But if things are generally moving in the right direction, that can mean that decision makers don’t feel the pressure to accelerate action to shorten timescales, especially if there’s a cost to doing so. One option is to create a sense of urgency, eg with a summit or other deadline – I’m willing to bet the UK government will say (and maybe do) a whole lot of things this year because of November’s Glasgow Climate Summit that it would not otherwise have touched.

Is the barrier to progress political or technical? If a company isn’t reducing their carbon footprint because they don’t know how to do it, beating it up in public may be less useful than helping it fix the problem (although often, both are needed).

But understanding the politics is crucial. Is the local mayor in their honeymoon period, with a nice fat majority and political capital to spend? Or scrabbling to stay in power? What are the chances of a change in leadership, in which case your best option might be to lobby today’s opposition to adopt your policies, and then cross your fingers that they win the upcoming election. The political cycle is hardly news, of course, but it’s surprising how often influencing strategies don’t pay sufficient attention to them.

I would love to know how these topics overlap (or don’t) with all the city level work taking place at the Doughnut Economics Action Lab. But that’s another post.

February 17, 2021
Duncan Green