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New Publication: “Beyond Cockpit-ism: Four Insights to Enhance the Transformative Potential of the Sustainable Development Goals”

February 9, 2015 in Geen categorie

Beyond Cockpit-ism: Four Insights to Enhance the Transformative Potential of the Sustainable Development GoalsSustainability, vol. 7, pp. 1651-1660. Co-authored with: Måns Nilsson, Kate Raworth, Peter Bakker, Frans Berkhout, Yvo de Boer, Johan Rockström, Kathrin Ludwig, and Marcel Kok.

Abstract: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) have the potential to become a powerful political vision that can support the urgently needed global transition to a shared and lasting prosperity. In December 2014, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General published his report on the SDGs. However, the final goals and targets that will be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 risk falling short of expectations because of what we call “cockpit-ism”: the illusion that top-down steering by governments and intergovernmental organizations alone can address global problems. In view of the limited effectiveness of intergovernmental efforts and questions about the capacity of national governments to affect change, the SDGs need to additionally mobilize new agents of change such as businesses, cities and civil society. To galvanize such a broad set of actors, multiple perspectives on sustainable development are needed that respond to the various motives and logics of change of these different actors. We propose four connected perspectives which can strengthen the universal relevance of the SDGs: “planetary boundaries” to stress the urgency of addressing environmental concerns and to target governments to take responsibility for (global) public goods; “the safe and just operating space” to highlight the interconnectedness of social and environmental concerns and its distributive consequences; “the energetic society” to benefit from the willingness of a broad group of actors worldwide to take action; and “green competition” to stimulate innovation and new business practices. To realize the transformative potential of the SDGs, these four perspectives should be reflected in the focus and content of the SDGs that will be negotiated in the run up to September 2015 and its further implementation.

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Europe needs ‘smart urbanism’, not ‘smart cities’

August 31, 2014 in Visioning

Everywhere we hear the discourse of ‘smart cities’. It promises an era of innovative urban planning, driven by smart urban technologies that will makes cities safer, cleaner and, above all, more efficient. Efficiency seems uncontroversial, but does it make for great cities? I would argue for a ‘smart urbanism’ instead of uncritically adopting ‘smart cities’ [… read more]

Choose or loose?

October 18, 2013 in Dutch reflections, Reflections & views, Visioning


It was in the mid 1990s. On our way to a family holiday in the Alps we made a stopover in Salzburg. Salzburg, the city of Mozart, of the fortress and, of course, of The Sound of Music. Parking signs guided us to a parking house, which happened to be built in a massive rock, right near the city centre. We entered with the car on one side and left as pedestrians on the other side. At once the whole environment had changed. It was like a jump in time. The old Burgerstadt of Salzburg was stripped of all modern artifacts. In its place caleches, young men with wigs and in livery, violin music. In actual fact the city was readied for touristic consumption to the full. And the flocks of visitors clearly liked it. It made me exclaim: Salzburg is Europe’s answer to Disneyland.

Where is Amsterdam in all of this? Nothing as radical as the Salzburg remodeling could take place in the canal zone, fortunately. Even if the authorities would wish so. The canal zone comprises many layers. It has the touristy side to it, the local neighbourhoods, it functions as beloved area for small scale businesses in the service sector. That layering is also its quality. No single sphere is dominant. That is why the canal zone, with its many different spheres, locations and places, really feels like a public domain: an area which people from many different social backgrounds rejoice to be part of. Of course it has a hang towards the elites, old and new. But the vibrant debates that accompany the developments within its vicinity buffer against iconoclasms.

But somehow I also feel unease. Is it not time to choose? Time to disentangle some of the many flows in the canal zone? Why do we tolerate so much car traffic in this UNESCO heritage site? Who benefits? What quality of living could we generate by freeing the canal zone from motorized traffic, with its inherent unrest, bizar spatial footprint and negative health effects?

I know, Amsterdam is not a city of big decisions. So why not smuggle the quality of the city back into it? Start with car free canals in certain zones of the centre during the weekend. See what happens. Allow for pop up shops at parking lots during the day. Celebrate the freedom. Everybody will rejoice, citizens and tourists alike. Accident rates will go down, sales will go up. Conviviality will dominate. Let’s celebrate Amsterdam as the true European answer to Disneyland.

Smart Move

September 23, 2013 in Reflections & views, Visioning


Ik ging naar Amsterdam om de toekomst te zien. Een grote internationale conferentie over smart cities in de RAI; wellicht de meest efficiënte manier om er achter te komen wat we hier van kunnen verwachten. Wie zich in smart cities taal uitdrukt heeft het oor van de bestuurder. Technologische oplossingen, grote lokale politieke ambities (‘Copenhagen Carbon Neutral in 2025’), en het bedrijfsleven dat zich presenteert als grote compagnon van wethouders die de wereld willen helpen redden.

Deze discussies kunnen van een ongelooflijke eendimensionaliteit zijn. Je hoort mensen bekende dingen zeggen, met steeds het adjectief ‘smart’ of  ‘slim’ erbij. Onder leiding van een Amerikaan met ruitpet (vermoeiend) werden allerlei varianten van deze stupefying smart city gepresenteerd. Bijna zag ik mijn vooroordeel bevestigd. Teveel betaald voor een gehaas in elkaar gehesen programma. En toen, terwijl ik bijna wegdoezelde op de te rijke lunch, kreeg ik alsnog allerlei behartigenswaardige inzichten voorgeschoteld.

Een ambtenaar uit Gent die in Vlaams Engels verklaarde dat Gent geen smart city maar een ‘wijze stad’ wilde worden, die billijk was, en genereus. Een vrouw van consultancy-gigant Accenture die benadrukte dat het succes van smart cities feitelijk vooral draait om goed bestuur en niet om technologische gadgets. Paul Bevan van Eurocities die aannemelijk maakte dat het draait om de relatie tussen bestuur en burgers en liet zien welke kansen er schuilen in een open datapolitiek. Maar toch vooral Vicente Guallart, de nieuwe stadsarchitect van Barcelona, die me de overtuiging gaf dat deze door Queen al eenmalig vereeuwigde stad (‘Barcelona!’) ons wederom vooruit is in het denken over de strategieën voor een vitale stad.

Centraal in het verhaal van Guallart stond de relatie tussen onderwijs, stad en burger. Barcelona start een netwerk van techlabs voor kinderen om deze tijdig geïnteresseerd te krijgen in techniek. De stad ziet niet het bezit maar het delen van producten, inzichten en diensten als de planologische uitdaging van dit moment. En hij liet zien hoe belangrijk het is dat steden zelf aangeven welke nieuwe ‘standaard’ ze als maatgevend zien voor de betrokkenheid van bedrijven.

Ik kreeg er weer zin in. Laten we inderdaad eens nadenken over hoe we de kansen van nieuwe technologie kunnen inzetten voor de toekomst van onze Europese stad. Europese steden zijn voor tachtig procent al gebouwd. Barcelona en Amsterdam zijn geen Songdo, de Koreaanse stad die recentelijk in een keer werd neergezet en van alle mogelijke ‘smart technologies’ werd voorzien. In Songdo weet het stadsbestuur (en de industrie) akelig veel van haar burgers. Te veel.

De middag gaf mij de overtuiging dat smart cities een belangrijk onderzoeksonderwerp zijn voor PBL. Guallart had er een mooie kreet voor. Internet heeft alles veranderd. We weten alleen nog niet hoe het de stad zal gaan veranderen. Ik voelde me betrapt hoe conventioneel ik over de stad was gaan denken. Het was een heerlijke middag.


Shifting Gear – The Politics of Sustainable Mobility

October 12, 2012 in Reflections & views, Research, Visioning


Mobility is the elixir of modern society. Man has been a travelling species for longer, of course. The quest not only for food, power and wealth, but also for ideas has inspired people to travel for ages. But during the modern era, we have perfected the mobility system. We now have a global economy that is not only functionally highly integrated, but celebrates this interconnectivity as well. This cultural celebration of the sheer endless opportunities is symbolized by the intercontinental holidays of middle class families. Sending images and story lines from faraway places and bringing insights and paraphernalia have become an indicator of social success. Less discussed but increasingly significant: Modern society thrives on the fuels, food and other resources (from rare earth to phosphates) that we extract or grow at faraway places and ship between different continents.

This era of ‘hypermobility’ has long been known to be unsustainable.The metabolistic dimension, the flows of resources and environmental effects, from oil drilling to CO2 to spillage of phosphates into the seas, are the flip side of our progress and are something we now urgently have got to come to grips with. The knowledge of ‘limits’ dates back to the 1960s but is now finally giving way to knowledge that focuses on potentials, on transformations and on transition. Interesting is what this shift in emphasis could also mean for the debate on (car) mobility. After all, it was in the 1960 that the initial idea of allowing as many people into the world of car mobility (a car for everyone) started to arouse feelings of discomfort, something Phillip Larkin describes so well in his bleak 1972 poem ‘Going, Going’ (Larkin, 1972).The new post-war generations grew to matu- rity holding ‘post-material’ values (Abramson & Inglehart, 1995) and eloquently stated to raise question about the price of progress and growth.

While the occasional faraway holiday is a symbolic marker of success, it is the everyday reality of ‘auto mobility’, which has become the comfortable basis of Western day-to-day life.1 This article focuses on this cornerstone of the system: the car. Cars are no longer a luxury belonging to the middle classes but are within reach of nearly everybody. What is more, the car can no longer be regarded as an individual technological artefact but has evolved into a ‘large technological system’ (Summerton, 1994) that has been perfected to include multilane motorways with giant petrol stations, parking houses in the inner cities, out of town shopping malls and also much of our urban fabric and form, from the cul-de-sac to the very idea of a suburban life styles as a blend between city and country living. This large technological system also comprises a powerful ‘car industrial complex’, that is crucial component of the economy, for instance, in terms of jobs, knowhow and innovation.

Car-based mobility is our default option, well embedded into our routines. It is our ‘normalcy’. It is a cultural cornerstone that we cannot simply remove. Organizing mobility on a sustainable footing is a tremendous challenge. But it is one that, somehow, needs to be met. The ‘small’ agenda is one of direct environmental impacts, of health-related effects, of noise, particles and spatial impacts. There we at least know where to find solutions. The ‘big’ agenda is that of climate change and natural resources. Here many options to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport have been identified. But strategic decision makers stare the scientific facts and predictions in the face like a rabbit looks at the headlights of a car approaching.There is a scientific consensus that achieving the 2°C target is technically feasible, for rich countries this would require a stunning effort to reduce emissions with a factor 5 (Rogner et al., 2007). Unfortunately, little progress towards the ultimate goal has been made over the last 15 years. In fact, current policy scenarios predict that the share of transport (which of course is more than merely cars) in greenhouse gas emissions may rise from the current 25 to 50% in the year 2050 (European Commission, 2011a). Hence we simply have to rethink the mobility strategies in a fundamental sense.

Hence the question is not if this legitimizes government intervention but what sort of intervention can be envisaged in the first place that may be promising to bring this transition about. Here serious ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking is required, or, in this context perhaps appropriate, ‘gearbox’ thinking, as we need to urgently shift gears.

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Rio+20 as World Exhibition

June 4, 2012 in Geen categorie

Yes, I will be going to Rio. I am going to Rio to see the future. Because Rio+20 is more than a regular conference – it is a World Exhibition. Rio+20 is thematically synonymous with the future, but the meeting of world leaders takes place within the structures of the past. This means that making powerful decisions is virtually impossible.

I propose that we shed this image of Rio being an international summit doomed to fail.

Let’s regard Rio as a world exhibition instead. Here, around 200 countries and 120 world leaders will hold meetings – but also around 50,000 people will assemble. These people represent a myriad of organisations, companies and associations. And it is these people, during the many side events, who will offer insight into the world of tomorrow – the possible worlds of tomorrow.

A Dutch poet once said: ‘Look around you and you will see that everything is coloured’ (K. Schippers). So, what is the colour of our future? Science is clear: we must leave the grey world of fossil fuels. We are wasting between 30% and 40% of our food. Cities are being built on top of agricultural fields. We are pumping up more water than sustainable supplies allow. We are growing crops to fill up our cars, while a billion people have empty stomachs.

It is easy to predict that the world of 2040 will be marked by struggle and conflict over natural resources to a far larger degree than it is today. By 2040, all people will feel the consequences; most notably the world’s poorest.

It may sound incredible to you, but in our PBL study ‘The Roads from Rio’ we present pathways to an attractive future. Absolute poverty and hunger can be eliminated, even for a world population of nine billion. If we are prepared to go the distance, we can achieve the two-degree climate target as well as halt biodiversity loss. However, for the implementation of an active sustainability strategy it seems as if we are acting with the politeness of two Brits who, while standing at the emergency exit in a burning building, keep saying ‘No, please Sir, after you…’

We have the technical ability, but will need to make considerable adjustments to our current institutional operating methods.

Ladies and gentlemen, nature is a system of resources that we have been taking for granted for too long. Managing these natural resources and the environment is rapidly becoming a matter of enlightened self-interest.

Perhaps the concepts of sustainability and green are suffering from the misapprehension that they are ‘left-wing’. More than ever this is a misconception. If it is the word ‘green’ that is keeping us from making the transition, then I would suggest that we start calling this future blue: a blue future in which a successful society is using nature rather than abusing it, and with an economy that adds value. Rio is the world exposition of such a blue future.

Those who focus on the political negotiations perhaps will end up seeing a failed summit. I will not. I believe that a sustainable future is more likely to be achieved through competition than through political coordination. Close observers will see, here and in Rio, the possible new worlds. These observers will consist of enterprising societal organisations and companies of all sizes, willing to take their responsibilities.

It is time to create new coalitions of the willing, collaborations of companies and citizens as well as government organisations that are willing to stick out their necks, even in times of recession, and across borders, from North to South. This will be observed – in South Korea, in Mexico, and here in Rotterdam.

In this context there is also a role for government. It must offer clarity to ensure that this societal shift will actually take place. Only then the entrepreneurial energy within citizens and companies will be released. Financiers will dare to invest. Offer them security. Create new green accounting rules. Abolish subsidies that hamper innovation and that keep us locked in the 20th century. Exploitation of the innovative strength within society is the main key to achieving a sustainable future.

Naturally, we all hope for a sudden agreement, a ‘gestalt switch’ in the political psyche. But even then… real action will take place only if there is firm public support. In Rio as well as in Rio on the Meuse, we can see to it that this will not remain a utopia but becomes a reality.

Maarten Hajer


As spoken at ‘Rio aan de Maas’ festival, preparing for Rio+20, Rotterdam, 30 May 2012