The Innovator Citizen

Sustainable Technoscientific Development and the Innovator Citizen – Way Out or Deeper into the Crisis?

Academic Article

Abstract: Sustainable development could provide a critical foil for individual and especially collective reflection on the normative direction, ends and means employed by societies, particularly around the economy, its technology and resource intensive orientation and configuration with ecosystems. However, although sustainable development is a constitutional objective of the EU, its implementation in strategies and policies reveals a much narrower meaning. By framing sustainable development as ecological modernisation on the basis of technoscientific innovation, and by imagining citizens as entrepreneurs in a knowledge-based European economy, openings for democratic experimentation and social innovation are limited and even forestalled. In addition, the disruptive and transformational potential of citizenship is stymied. Still, sustainable development has resonance within citizenship and human rights discourses that provide important resources for the fashioning of common understanding. These are valuable supplements to the repertoire of European citizenship that could help to embed sustainable development in the social fabric and generate alternative imaginaries and futures of a sustainable Europe.

European citizenship

Citizenship is an essential element to all modern democratic societies since it constitutes the terms and conditions of membership and comprises the institutionalised relations between the members of a society and its institutions. These relationships between citizens and their polity consist of inter alia rights and duties, participation, modes of belonging and access to public goods and resources provided by a society (in the broadest sense). Together these comprise the vertical dimension of citizenship; but there is also a more horizontal dimension, through influences on the relationships between citizens, for example, and through regulations of education, marriage, or employment policy (Pfister 2011). As such, citizenship is a key source of legitimacy for the exercise of formally accountable power by all democratic polities, including transnational ones like the EU.

Yet citizenship is not a static order among homogenous groups. Every historical formation of citizenship also creates outsiders and defines their relationship to the political community. Moreover, diverse social movements have criticised legal and practical exclusion and inequality among formally equal citizens, for example, on the grounds of gender, race or sexual orientation. Therefore, citizenship is not only bestowed top-down, but is also always partly the consequence of bottom-up engagement and contestation, when actors claim inclusion, rights and participation as citizens (Isin 2008), ensuring it is dynamic and constantly evolving.

…citizenship is not a static order among homogenous groups

EU citizenship was introduced by the Maastricht Treaty (1993), and amended with the Amsterdam Treaty (1999) through the extension of the civic rights of Union citizens and the clarification of the link between national citizenship and European citizenship. This act of creation was a much-debated conceptual, political and legal innovation (among many others: Bader 1999; Jenson 2007; Magnette 2007; Shaw 2007; Bellamy 2008).  Some have suggested that citizenship could foster the Union’s development towards a more closely-knit and legitimate political community (Wiener 1998). Others hope that it could be a template for a post-national order where the exclusionary effects of the close coupling of citizenship with nationality could be overcome (Kostakopoulou 2008).

A chief role of EU citizenship is its function as a powerful resource to contest, override and reshape member state laws and practices that are, for example, discriminatory on the basis of nationality, undermining of free movement, or not in compliance with human rights (Craig & de Búrca 2011). The latter is particularly important and found in the (post-Treaty of Lisbon (2009)) EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention of Human Rights, and the general principles of EU law (a combination of legal principles drawing on national constitutional traditions, the European Court of Human Rights and other international treaties to which the member states are signatories).

Sustainable development is another significant innovation of the Amsterdam Treaty, which made it a fundamental, long-term objective of the EU that must be promoted, although potentially narrowed through its concretisation as “[e]nvironmental protection requirements [that] must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Union’s policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development”.

Although legitimation of the wider integration project is a key function of EU citizenship and human rights, the EU’s legitimacy crisis seems to only worsen, especially in the face of the current and ongoing economic crisis. Indeed, EU-level and wider transnational attempts (especially by the troika consisting of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank) to solve the crisis have had immediate, tangible and often adverse effects on citizens in the worst affected member states, principally in the south of the continent. Many European citizens reject extra-national interventions as illegitimate and call for stronger national frames – and a retreat away from European-level solutions.

Interestingly, in this context, sustainable development is neither mentioned as a frame nor related to extant citizenship repertoires, including human rights. In particular, the latter does more than provide a set of legal principles and norms; it is also a discourse and social movement that has been hugely successful in claims-making in diverse sites and fora, including the EU (Flear & Vakulenko 2010). As we go on to show, sustainable development resonates with the wider references to citizenship and human rights found in the EU’s legal-constitutional architecture. It is these resonances that might be used to foster attention and reflection around the current framing of European governance and its attendant distribution of scarce resources and production of vulnerabilities.

Sustainable development – reflexive rewriting of social relations?

The indeterminacy and potential of sustainable development becomes more apparent through reference to the Brundtland Report, the final publication of the major UN-created World Commission on Environment and Development, which introduced the concept on a global level and is certainly the most influential source.  This defined sustainable development as “that [which] meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987: 41).

This definition has been quoted widely by political institutions worldwide, including the EU. It makes an explicit link between current activities and future prospects for more of the same. In doing so, the definition centralises concern over whether future generations can meet their needs in light of the choices made today, especially over the current organisation of society and its consumption practices, and as such it immediately queries whether those need to change. In theory, at least, sustainable development could be a powerful normative foil enabling critical reflection of established institutions and practices as well as opening up spaces for experimenting with new relationships between citizens and their social, political, economic, technological and ecological environments. Most prominently, the definition promotes a notion of equity that extends to future generations. Moreover, some further – but often overlooked – points are mentioned in the second part of the definition:

“It [sustainable development] contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987: 41).

By demanding that priority be given to the needs of the world’s poor, sustainable development promotes not only intergenerational, but also global justice. This links to human rights discourse, perhaps especially the idea of interdependence and connection between economic, social and cultural rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other. This is in contrast to the idea of a hierarchy where the latter are often placed and promoted above the former. The concept of sustainable development, thereby, also promotes a cosmopolitan rewriting of social relations of justice, which were otherwise mostly addressed by national welfare institutions. Moreover, with its emphasis on respecting ecological limits, Brundtland promotes a more dynamic and reflexive standpoint that subordinates ecology, technology and economic growth to justice.

Democratic participation, another core element in the political history of citizenship, was less strongly emphasised in Brundtland. Nevertheless, the report made clear that the kind of equity it was advocating “would be aided by political systems that secure effective citizen participation in decision-making and by greater democracy in international decision making” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987: 16). In addition, Brundtland performed (rather than formally claimed) democratic participation by devoting much space to quotes from several public hearings held across the globe for its preparation.

In the process, democratic legitimation of (global and local) sustainable development policy, particularly direct participation of citizens and nongovernmental organisations, became a central element of the normative discourse and the political institutionalisation and practice of sustainable development. In short, sustainable development, at least as defined in Brundtland, provides resources for the centrality and reconceptualisation of citizenship, and for the use of human rights-oriented discourse in the debates around, and the organisation of, sustainable development.

Scrutinising sustainable development in the EU: innovator citizens and technological fixes 

Fragmented and imbalanced governance

Although sustainable development provides many openings, the indeterminacy of the concept suggests that its realisation and potential for focusing attention and prompting reflection on the current framing of European governance – who benefits and who is hurt – requires consideration of the concrete techniques and practices through which it is implemented. The European Sustainable Development Strategy (EUSDS), which was launched in 2001, is especially important.

Although the EUSDS is presented as an overarching, long-term political strategy, its capacity to promote reflexive scrutiny and potential rewriting of the social, political and economic relationships among EU citizens and institutions, technology, the economy and ecology seems rather limited. Indeed, the EUSDS is effectively designed as a complementary process to the Europe 2020 strategy for Growth and Employment (and its predecessor Lisbon Strategy), adding an environmental and a (much slimmer) development policy dimension. In other words, the EUSDS is merely an add-on to “business as usual”.

The main thrust of Europe 2020 is not the realisation of the constitutional objective of sustainable development, defined as intergenerational and global equity based on human needs and ecological limits, but rather boosting growth and employment by modernising economic and social policies in the mid-term:

“The Europe 2020 strategy is about delivering growth that is: smart, through more effective investments in education, research and innovation; sustainable, thanks to a decisive move towards a low-carbon economy; and inclusive, with a strong emphasis on job creation and poverty reduction”.

In the process, economic and social development in Europe is reframed as smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Furthermore, the resulting complementary and mainly environmental character of the EUSDS implies not only that sustainable development is seriously underrepresented at the strategic level of governance, but also that its comprehensive view on social, ecological and economic processes and relationships on all levels is too often reduced to a perspective on environmental policy (with a small developmental element).

Although sustainable development provides many openings, the indeterminacy of the concept suggests that its realisation and potential for focusing attention and prompting reflection on the current framing of European governance – who benefits and who is hurt – requires consideration of the concrete techniques and practices through which it is implemented.

Added to this marginalisation is the low visibility of the EUSDS. For instance, the most recent Annual Growth Survey, the central coordination instrument for Europe 2020 at the EU level, focuses on economic priorities. Beyond the formula of “smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth” (European Commission 2013: 4, 15), and with the exception of “sustainable jobs” (European Commission 2013: 14), sustainability is only used to describe long-term financial stability such as in “sustainable resumption of credit growth” (European Commission 2013: 8). This limitation of sustainable development excludes references to, for instance, ecological limits, social justice, participation, and so forth. That is, key aspects and dimensions of sustainable development are effectively written out or erased through the EU’s institutional implementation.

The democratic potential of sustainable development and its capacity to stimulate critical reflection are further inhibited by the concrete measures and instruments, which undermine the scope for public participation and contestation. From this perspective, the EUSDS not only transports a very limited meaning of sustainable development, but it is also a closed arrangement of technocratic policy-making by experts, where progress is monitored in a formally non-political process. Rather than regular reports from political actors or even direct participation of citizens and civil society, EUROSTAT reports on certain sustainability indicators are the central governance tool in the EUSDS. Further, in the context of Europe 2020, the scope and extent of this participation is limited and subject to variation. There is no formal EU-level participation in the major strategies determining EU economic, social and environmental policies.

Implicit complications

The narrow meaning of sustainable development is also apparent in the values, meanings, and orientations that are – often implicitly – transported by the strategies and policies. The Innovation Union, one of the flagship initiatives within the Europe 2020 strategy, is particularly illustrative. Indeed, the Innovation Union seeks to promote and harness innovation by turning research and development into marketable products. This requires, inter alia, significant public research funding, a strong science system, a highly skilled labour force, and market institutions supporting the needs of knowledge intensive businesses, for example, with regard to intellectual property or the transnational mobility of skilled experts. Horizon 2020, the forthcoming €70 billion framework programme for research and innovation, is explicitly named as the financial instrument for implementing the Innovation Union.

The Innovation Union is particularly well suited to extract a notion of “sustainable development in practice” that is dominant in the EU. Indeed, the focus of the Innovation Union suggests that the knowledge-based economy is not interested in critically reflecting on potential limits of resource use. Nor is the Innovation Union concerned with prompting consideration of the implications of the liberal market economy and the effects of its financial crises on social justice. Rather, the most urgent task is overcoming the widely diagnosed “innovation emergency” by unlocking the potential for green growth through sustainable technoscientific innovation.

The Innovation Union also constructs European citizens through imaginaries of them as living and working in the knowledge-based economy. In this setting, European citizens are not imagined as members of a political community sharing rights and duties, participating in deliberations about the values, goals, processes and leaders of this community, or even sharing a common sense of belonging. Rather, citizens contribute to the sustainable success of integrated Europe-as-knowledge-society, but as innovators, skilled knowledge workers or consumers of technoscientific innovations (Flear & Pfister forthcoming).

Overall, sustainable development is reshaped and deployed for economic optimisation. At the same time the transformational potential of sustainable development is largely narrowed and constrained through its implementation. Despite attempts to create its citizens as rights-bearing members of a political community, through its implementation of sustainable development the EU actually seeks to constrain them. Likewise, by preferring market-oriented language and largely ignoring the terms of needs, equity and justice emphasised in Brundtland, the EU also constrains the discursive space within which its citizens might feasibly operate in order to reveal and contest the extant framing of European governance.

A way out or deeper into the crisis?

In light of this analysis, could sustainable development, citizenship and human rights be combined to provide a way out of the crisis? It might well be that a strategy of ecological modernisation based on technological innovations could at some point lead to an economy where growth and resource use are decoupled to a large extent. It might also be that this could allow European societies to readjust welfare levels and decrease their negative ecological impact without causing larger disruptions of the prevailing socio-political order. However, scepticism seems not just reasonable, but necessary. Indeed, although technically induced efficiency gains imply resource savings, they also produce financial savings, and history shows that these are then used for increased consumption.  In short, cleaner technology alone is unlikely to reduce the pressure on natural resources (see for example Sorell 2007; Jackson 2009).

Furthermore, the imagination of a sustainable integrated Europe that is based on sustainable technoscientific innovation undertaken by innovator citizens, as well as the framing of environmental policy as a complex technical area only accessible to experts, limits and forecloses potential gains from the reflexive potential of sustainable development. The focus is on cleaner and more sophisticated products in order to bring the economy back on track. The narrow technological and market-based imagination of a sustainable Europe stymies the kind of experimentation and innovation needed for finding alternative ways of living. Some of the most important examples of these alternatives include the innovation of new forms of community and social organisation, new economic relationships among citizens and societies, as well as new interactions between people, technology and ecology based on needs, equity and justice – rather than growth.

Nevertheless, against the background of an ongoing legitimacy crisis that has not abated despite recourse to citizenship and human rights at the legal-constitutional level, resonances between these and sustainable development offer the potential to resist a retreat away from the common institutions of the EU back towards the national level. Indeed, by looking across sustainable development, citizenship and human rights, and making links between what they have in common, it is possible for citizens to reflexively reimagine and recast themselves as innovative political actors who share in power. They might do so by and through teasing out and fashioning the conceptual and discursive resources – especially around common notions of needs, equity and justice – that help them to highlight, politicise and contest the transnational constitution and source of ongoing socio-economic malaise, inequity and injustice. This is essential if ongoing economic globalisation is to be maintained and its consequences for who benefits and who is hurt are to be identified and (more hopefully) addressed at source.

Indeed, the latter in turn opens up space for alternative views and options and creates the potential of not just transnational responses, but also a (re)framing of them in ways that are different from what has hitherto been adopted. In fact, citizens are already engaging in diverse projects and practices, envisioning and seeking to realise societies that are socially and environmentally sustainable. These experiments range from transition towns to commons based peer production; from community gardening to collaborative consumption and cooperatives producing renewable energy. Yet, these experiments are largely absent from the strategic policy debates at national and European levels, perhaps because they are living examples of alternatives that are contrary (and even threatening) to the officially sanctioned imagined future of Europe.

Still, these diverse kinds of engagement with sustainable development might help to increase and develop its substance and value beyond and in relation to the exercise of formally accountable power. As such sustainable development offers much to the EU and the institution of citizenship, while at the same time providing the scope for the productive unsettlement of Europe’s institutions and economy towards a genuinely equitable, just, sustainable future for all. In this way, at least, sustainable development provides scope to overcome and move beyond Europe’s current crisis.


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