Citizen collectives are doing it for themselves


From shared harvests to energy co-operatives, citizens are no longer waiting for governments, they say, to solve their problems

Taking matters into their own hands

Since the financial crisis, more and more people have been joining citizens’ collectives, also known as urban commons or co-operatives, to try to jump-start action on topics they feel require urgent change. A recent study carried out by Flemish think-tank Oikos shows that sustainability is one of the most popular areas of focus.

Not every social activity is part of a collective; the concept doesn’t include a neighbourhood barbecue, for example, or a temporary protest against felling trees. A collective targets structural results over the long term.

What is essential to these action groups is that citizens co-ordinate all the activities and decision-making, although they can call for assistance from external partners. Typical examples are energy and housing co-operatives and social grocery stores or libraries. Commons also include Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives, where consumers are closely connected to a farmer.

‘A wake-up call’

At the request of the King Boudewijn Foundation, Oikos mapped the growth of collectives in the whole of Belgium for the first time. The think-tank focused on 2015 and 2016, but for Dutch-speaking initiatives, there are older statistics available as well, showing a strong rise since 2009.

From 2003 to 2008, an average four new citizens’ collective popped up per year, which stands in strong contrast with the average of 27 per year from 2009 to 2014. In 2016, the researchers counted 77 new initiatives in Flanders and Dutch-speaking Brussels.

“It seems that the financial crisis was a wake-up call,” says Dirk Holemans of Oikos. “People realised that they couldn’t just rely on big institutions, that they had to take some matters into their own hands to achieve progress.”

Many people are tired of being passive consumers. They want to be actively involved in the production process

- Dirk Holemans of Oikos

Easily accessible digital communication tools, such as social network platforms, also made it easier to spread the message. A majority of the new commons set up in 2015 and 2016, have sustainability at their heart.

“Citizens are dissatisfied with the current policies,” says Holemans. “They feel that governments and companies don’t do as much as they could.”

The most popular areas within sustainability for co-operatives are energy and food/agriculture. “Many people are tired of only being passive consumers,” says Holemans. “They want to be actively involved in the production process. Initiatives in these areas are also relatively simple to launch, as the economic and technical aspects are quite feasible.”

Hands-on consumption

What is most notable is the rise of CSA initiatives, in which citizens sign on to the harvest of a local farm or group of farms. They can have a say in the farming methods and even participate in the harvest. Or they can just wait for the food to be delivered to them.

Consumers thus obtain a clear view of the origin of their food and can assure the eco-friendliness of their purchase. For farmers, the system provides more income security. An example is Onslogischvoedsel in Heist-op-den-Berg, Antwerp province (pictured above).

The Antwerp co-operative ZuidtrAnt, meanwhile, is all about energy, with about 500 shareholders. The initiative was founded in 2016 by a group of like-minded citizens, who set up projects around saving energy and the production of renewable energy in the southern belt of Antwerp province. The project is now expanding to towns in its northern belt.

Co-operatives also stimulate the bigger players in society to change their policies and strategies

- Dirk Holemans

“I do this for the future of my children,” says co-founder Sophie Loots, who also works as a sustainability expert in Edegem. “The organisation grew out of frustration with how slowly the authorities work and how much is decided over our heads, with often economic motives in mind. We decided not to wait any longer on governments.”

Like many commons, however, ZuidtrAnt does co-operate with local governments. Oikos’ study points out that such collaborations don’t always go smoothly.

“There is usually scepticism at first, and complicated procedures make many things difficult,” explains Loots. “But I do notice a willingness to work together once the initial hesitation is overcome.”

Much of the co-operative’s activities revolve around the installation of solar panels. Not just on the houses; the team also targets institutions such as schools, where an educational project can then also be implemented to teach about the importance of renewable energy.

The tip of the iceberg

ZuidtrAnt is furthermore a partner in the European Interreg project Deeldezon, which made available a number of shared electric cars – charged via solar panels – to residents in two towns (pictured), and in Flemish energy distributor Eandis’ project BENOveren, which promotes energy-saving renovations.

According to Holemans, such examples show the economic viability of many co-operatives. “These are not hobbies; the money involved is not peanuts,” he says. “They also stimulate the bigger players in society to change their policies and strategies, because it’s clear that there is a will to invest in good projects.”

He believes this movement is gradually entering another level, where commons organise themselves better. A sign of this is the appearance of umbrella organisations, such as REScoop for energy co-operatives.

While the study doesn’t take into account how many collectives have disappeared, Holemans estimates that there are currently about 320 commons active in Flanders and Dutch-speaking Brussels. “But we applied a strict definition, and my feeling is that this number is only the tip of the iceberg. I think there are many more such initiatives. We sometimes hear that citizens have become bitter, but there are so many people who are combining family and work with this kind of commitment.”

A weakness of the current generation of commons, according to the study, is that its initiators usually all have the same profile: well-educated people in their 30s and 40s. The researchers recommend investigating methods to involve lower-income people in these movements.

Photos: Courtesy Onslogischvoedsel (top), courtesy Partago/ZuidAnt (above)