40 strangers meet in one of Germany’s most distinctive cultural heritage sites: the Zeche Zollverein in Essen (http://www.zollverein.de/english/index.php?f_categoryId=3). It’s one of the world’s largest industrial monuments and beautiful in its way.
As I say, 40 strangers who were picked randomly from the telephone book meet for a weekend together. What for? To come up with a citizens’ declaration on the question “What should Germany’s future energy supply system be like?” Ring any bells? All my keen and loyal readers will recognise the topic: we’ve been there before. In Essen too. 20 citizens met in January/February for 3 consecutive weekends of dialogue and debate to implement one of Germany’s pioneer consensus conferences. Their result: a citizens’ expert paper, has been commented on by some of the leading researchers and scientists in Germany. It’s been admired and looked at keenly by energy experts from all areas of public life. And it’s impressed all those who may have thought randomly selected citizens incapable or unworthy of deliberating on complex scientific and contentious issues.
But I’m off track again. Let’s go back to our 40 randomly selected citizens. Some are pretty well informed and even work in the energy market. Others – most – have limited knowledge of the technologies and political complexity surrounding the various questions of energy supply, distribution, use and efficiency. Like most of us. They’re keen to give it a try, to discuss their questions and ideas with each other and with 10 experts from research institutes. This is where the 40 stop being like most of us. Because they’re willing to invest their weekend in something aimed at improving the “lot” of society. Most of us aren’t. Too busy.
So what did they do? There was lots of discussion in small groups with individual experts. Citizens focussed their attention initially on their desired future energy supply: renewable energy, better storage of electricity, atomic fusion, CO2-zero mobility, etc. Powerful images of an energy future based on economic, social, environmental and safety criteria. Next came the question of how to get there. In order to do that, it’s important to know where you’re coming from. Again, expert input was called for. This time to shed light on today’s level of knowledge and scientific research and practice. This really helped citizens come up with recommendations for science, politics and society on how the gap between reality and vision could be closed. Some answers were short-term, practical and local. Others more long-term and with global reference, calling on German scientists to work on ground-breaking research and up Germany’s export potential, for example with new technologies for renewable energy.
36 recommendations developed by the citizens in small groups on the second day were put to the participants’ critical test. Some received broad support, others less. That’s good. It shows both scientists, politicians and citizens themselves how diversified the public views the issues. But what I think is also really good, is that participants, whatever their opinion on subjects such as atomic power or public/individual transportation (just to name 2 of the big conflict-ridden topics) were a) interested in hearing and understanding different opinions, b) civil in their criticism/opposition and c) constructive in building bridges between diverging viewpoints.
This was a process that needed time to grow, but not too much time (there wasn’t that much time available). It was a valuable and uplifting process at times, in which participants supported each other, upheld the rules of play and integrated those with difficulties entering the discussion. One thing that impressed me was the way participants dealt with criticism within their own circle: a) listen to critical voices carefully and show understanding, b) draw the critical voices into the discussion (“What would you need to make our discussion good?”) and c) hand over air-time and responsibility to critical participants – to integrate them. I love critical participants. They’re vital for a process. A dialogue process can only achieve its potential if critical participants are allowed to stir it up and force it to deal with its weaknesses, limitations and difficulties. Critical participants, when integrated, will help the dialogue process to create really good results. However, that takes open, responsible and “adult” groups (no matter what the age of the participants) to draw them in.
I am, again, proud and grateful to have worked with citizens in Essen. Keep an eye on the process and discussion that’s taking place (in German) in the whole of the country. If citizens are given a voice and access to knowledge, expertise and experience, they can play an active and responsible role in shaping society’s future.