17 December 2019

"Municipalities for Sustainability": innovation in municipalities of all sizes

It is sometimes asserted that big cities are the front-runners in innovation, and that only they have enough capacity and budget to take on new initiatives. Extended urban environments can be seen as the places where culture leads to innovation. Although this is true, it is often smaller municipalities that can surprise by pioneering innovations for sustainability.

With support from the PROSEU project, for which ICLEI Europe is a partner, the municipality of Santorso has become a key example of a smaller city taking initiative. Santorso is a municipality with a population of only about 5,500 inhabitants, located in the Vicenza province in northern Italy. Innovation there has played out thanks in large part to the dedicated commitment of a motivated group of citizens.

Everything started with an informal group of residents with an interest in sustainability, consciousness of its urgency, and some technical skills. Their aim was to raise awareness, especially around sustainable energy sources, among fellow citizens and to provide them with professional information and support. To do so, they set up a “help desk” that, run by volunteers, became the reference point for local initiatives, engaging also with schools and claiming their space in local events.

It did not take long for the municipality to recognise their excellent effort and to understand the need to support this initiative, which responds actively to a demand close to Santorso inhabitants' hearts. This was particularly timely, as efforts began at a moment when the energy market was undergoing a structural change. Since the municipality came on board, the helpdesk has been officially recognised and its management assigned through a public tender, so as to implement the dissemination activities through institutional channels, as well as enlarge the range of themes covered.

But the initiative's success did not stop there. Neighbouring towns started to show interest in what Santorso was doing and in the guidance that they were providing to their citizens. At first there was the idea to make a “moving” helpdesk that would open one day per week in two other municipalities. But, soon local administrations understood the potential of instead starting their own helpdesks, and building synergies among them. This way municipalities could join forces to set more ambitious targets.

Three years ago, the project “Comuni per la sostenibilitá dell’Alro Vicentino” (“Municipalities for Sustainability”) was kicked off. The initiative first engaged 11 neighbouring municipalities that decided to together allocate capacity and a specific part of their annual budgets (personalised according to factors like municipality size and capacity) to activities that foster the sustainable development of the area. The group now sees the participation of 13 municipalities covering an area of 224 km2 and providing services to around 80,000 citizens.

The PROSEU project is helping the initiative and its innovative participating municipalities to scale-up their efforts and find inspiration for new projects. This is happening in the framework of PROSEU’s Living Labs, taking place in nine European countries, where project partners are working with similar groups and initiatives. These groups span prosumer-produced renewable energy cooperatives, a cooperative for ethical financing, an island movement for sustainable development, local sustainable heat providers, a transition town, and positive energy communities.

For more information about the PROSEU project, please click here.