Multi-stakeholder partnership - policy

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Multi-stakeholder partnership - policy refers to approaches to (urban) governance that enable sustainability and climate change related transformations through the practice of connecting multi-sectoral networks with individuals and organisations on-the-ground. It deals with the challenge of bringing together public, private, and civil society representatives in ongoing processes of communication and exchange, in order to enable innovative solutions to complex problems.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Multi-stakeholder partnerships-policy as an approach motivates and embraces robust participation, especially from those who have been traditionally disempowered and excluded from city-making processes. In doing so, it looks towards how we manage information and decision-making within local democratic processes as a key to creating more just and sustainable cities. Whereas participation might not always be direct, there is a focus on empowering multi-sectoral networks to develop solutions to socio-environmental problems through robust democratic processes. One example is the establishment of university-community partnerships that embrace participatory-action research (PAR [1]) as a planning strategy. Both in Memphis and Sicily, where this approach was implemented and evaluated, researchers established partnerships with local organisations to address power imbalances (related to disadvantaged African-American neighbourhoods in Memphis, and environmental sustainability linked to the anti-mafia movement in Sicily) that affected planning and decision making in the place where they lived (See PARTES project[2]).

Shapes, sizes and applications

There are many ways into studying the challenges inherent in bringing together diverse, multi-scale, and multi-sector interests in order to generate more just, inclusive, and sustainable cities. An effort completed in 2003 (SUT-Partnership [3]) identified best practices in four European countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, and Greece) for developing multi-stakeholder partnerships, especially across public and private sectors, that generate sustainable tourism initiatives. Successful partnerships were found, for example, in countries where tourism played an important role in the economy and the public sector took a lead role in establishing partnerships. Another study, which ended in 2014, analysed two models of participatory action research across universities and community residents in the US and Italy (PARTES project). The project finds that both models successfully challenge established local power structures and gain institutional legitimacy along the way. Some of the limitations of this approach included the requirement of time and coordination from the side of a multi-disciplinary research team in order to create solid bases of common understandings and to agree on methods and approaches of data collection.

Two other ongoing efforts have demonstrated high transferability to other contexts and high potential to fuel transformational initiatives. One (P-CAN, 2019-2023 [4]) is creating place-based climate change commissions as a type of multi-stakeholder partnership-policy to solve the challenge of collaborating across local, national and international climate policy (implementation and design) in three cities in the UK (Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds). These commissions are just now being created so the impact is unknown at the time of writing. Another ongoing project (CLEVER Cities, 2018-2023 [5]) looks at how multi-scale and multi-sectoral challenges associated with adapting cities towards nature-based innovations assembles local teams of citizens, businesses, knowledge partners and local authorities in order to resolve governance challenges. It pays particular attention to the role of community-driven urban transformation (through Nature-based Solutions), for which it considers success factors such as: the engagement of volunteers, the application of targeted participation programmes to engage less powerful residents, the involvement of people with different socioeconomic backgrounds, and the combination of private and collective action.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

For the most part, this cluster of approaches recognises the primacy of the urban level in resolving the challenges inherent to unsustainable and unjust growth patterns, but also recognises that urban governance is dependent on multi-sectoral and multi-scalar interactions. In terms of justice, the efforts to create links between scientific, policy, and activist communities (PARTES) take on the challenges inherent to developing more just urban outcomes most directly and completely by challenging established power structures that perpetuate injustices. As well, the effort to adapt cities through governance around nature-based solutions (CLEVER Cities) directly seeks to address the injustices created through lack of participation of certain excluded groups. In terms of sustainability challenges, the most robust efforts are found within projects that create new governance forms and mechanisms designed to address sustainability directly. These projects (P-CAN, CLEVER Cities, PARTES) involve the creation of new and durable coalitions of interests, mobilised as part of the research to take on sustainability problems.

The more challenging and less-present aspect of these projects involves the extent to which justice and sustainability challenges are overtly linked in the approach and findings used. Only the ongoing CLEVER Cities project, through its approach of community-driven urban transformation and Nature-based Solutions, states an overt effort to link these two concepts by bringing together a socially inclusive urban governance model with ambitious efforts to meet the Paris Climate accord. Many other multi-level and multi-sectoral approaches may explicitly analyse justice and sustainability outcomes, but do not overtly link these two goals.

Narrative of change

Multi-stakeholder partnerships-policy is a cluster of approaches that collectively aim at addressing the complexity and inter-connectedness of sustainability challenges, recognising the need for new more participative, inclusive, transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral governance models. Approaches thus rely on the potential of generating more complete knowledge outcomes (including from different disciplines but also from outside of academia) which will translate into more suitable, applicable, and durable solutions. This is done through the creation of platforms, dialogues, arenas and collaborations between stakeholders from distinct scales, domains and backgrounds.

Transformative potential

The transformative potential of multi-stakeholder partnerships strongly depends on the consideration given, and assumptions carried, by the different approaches around socio-environmental justice and its manifestations, drivers and implications at different scales. More specifically, some approaches address sustainability more as a problem of economic nature (thus business and sustainable finance community are considered priority stakeholder groups for place-based climate action), potentially reproducing inequalities of access to processes that define planning decisions from non-profit driven groups. Relatedly, dominant ideas about what integrative solutions are desired and possible to address climate change remain tied to powerful institutions and are less informed by local concerns, social movements and disadvantaged groups. On the other hand, approaches that do focus on including citizen groups (and their values and respective perception of problems) are transforming existing arenas of dialogue and deliberation on city planning around sustainability, and can thus challenge dominant ways of knowing and related power relations at local and trans-local level (although not free of challenges relating to achieving such participation and outcomes).

Illustration of approach

University-community partnerships that embrace participatory-action research were studied by the PARTES project, as part of Multi-stakeholder Partnerships, and aimed at promoting sustainable socio-economic community development in two relatively disadvantaged regions in the US (Memphis) and Italy (Sicily). In Memphis this meant forcing city elites to reframe their way of dealing with poverty and social housing. In Sicily it meant forcing local public institutions to make decisions based upon values of transparency and sustainability. PAR promoters from academic institutions worked with communities and facilitated sessions with the purpose of enhancing their understanding of their status of powerlessness as a first step for social change. The approach was found to be effective in generating real effects on public decision-making (the birth of the River Agreement Initiative in Sicily, and VAC’s involvement in the Vance Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative in Memphis) and community-led projects of concrete change on the ground (a community garden in Sicily and a community-run food business in Memphis).