On climate action, cities need a way to learn from each other’s mistakes

To speak of failure around publicly funded projects is a taboo. But how else can we learn from the inevitable pitfalls of dealing with the uncertainty inherent to climate change?


Climate change is a wicked issue. A multitude of actors and interests is affected, making it impossible to define a single clear pathway by which to deal with climate change and its consequences. For this reason, it is vital to change the global mindset from one that sees climate change as a problem to which a single solution can, eventually, be found. Instead, we must move toward understanding that addressing climate change will be an ongoing process of change.

As in every system, those who engage in this process will need to get better at doing so over time. In short, we need to learn. And for a problem as complex as climate change, the learning of high-level politicians will need to be seen as of equal importance as the learning of practitioners on the ground. In analogy to a common term from the COP 21 climate negotiations that start this week in Paris, we need common but differentiated learning.

The international community has to learn how to find common ground within the global negotiation processes. National policymakers need to learn how to translate these decisions for their domestic actors and set up appropriate support mechanisms. And local actors are tasked with finding implementation solutions according to their specific conditions and within the frameworks created at international and national levels.

[See: Climate pledge by local governments attracts national commitments, too]

In this process, it is vital that learning takes place not only “horizontally”, among decision-makers or practitioners at an equal level. This learning also needs to take place “vertically”, across the various layers of governance. Mayors must learn from stakeholders who must learn from international experts — and vice-versa.

In all of this, local administrations play a pivotal role in addressing climate change, as they have to mediate between civil society and higher levels of government. At the same time, it is in municipalities where international ambition on climate action is confronted with the needs of local citizens.

[See: City climate decisions could determine a third of global ‘carbon budget’]

Likewise, it is in and around local administrations where applied knowledge is being created, where theoretical concepts of climate action are put into practice. If their role as experimental “living labs” is truly accepted, local administrations can produce invaluable insights on the nitty-gritty of implementing ambitious targets.

Local administrations also have great potential for organizational learning. They usually operate in smaller units addressing specific issues, which makes the sharing and transfer of knowledge within their organization not only a necessity but also easier to administer.

Failing forward

So how can we foster mutual learning, between and among all levels? In order to engage multiple actors effectively in dialogue, we need to go well beyond simply talking to each other. Getting people who normally don’t even sit at the same table to work together for a long period requires creating situations that enable people to both speak freely and listen to each other.

[See: Habitat III can galvanize city-business collaboration on sustainable urban infrastructure]

“We must establish an organizational culture where it is acceptable to have failures — if you are trying to do what hasn’t been done before.”

Lykke Leonardsen
Climate chief, City of Copenhagen

At the same time, we need to be aware of constraints due to specific roles that different actors play. Through the application of appropriate methods, we need to create spaces where people can move beyond such boundaries, at least for a time.

While open spaces may nourish the exchange of ideas, safe spaces are also needed to speak about uncertainties, crises and mistakes. As local climate action is often unknown territory, efforts at coming up with solutions are bound to fail at times. Yet failure is also an important opportunity for learning — and “failing forward” can be used as a format for crucial knowledge exchange.

At this year’s International Conference on Climate Action, held last month in Hanover, Germany, the inventor of the “Fail Forward” approach, Ashley Good, facilitated a session on climate action among small island nations. Participants exchanged stories of crisis and failures and discussed key lessons drawn from these — for instance, the chance to learn and begin anew, to re-learn to work together, and to take responsibility for failure in order to learn from it effectively.

[See: Will Habitat III note the unique urbanization of small island states?]

Often, it is particularly difficult for city authorities and other elected officials to admit to the failure, even in part, of a government initiative. They may be worried that such failures will reflect poorly on their reputation or even their competency, while concerns over misuse of taxpayer funds is always in the background.

Yet honesty, courage and modesty are required in order to transform crises and failures into learning opportunities. To start with, establishing a common set of protective guidelines (for instance, Chatham House rules) helps to create the necessary safe space for a Fail Forward session.

While little can be said about previous sessions because they were held under such guidelines, they have touched on a spectrum of issues. These have included missing funds, cities stripped bare of all protection by natural hazards, and a small municipality that set up a wind-power station on its local school grounds — only to have it hit by lightning soon after.

Pioneering initiatives such as this latter example are still important if cities are willing to learn from and share those experiences.

Broadening success

How can we apply the Fail Forward approach to climate policy more broadly? First, it is important to allow sufficient room for knowledge transfer, exchange and networking. This needs to be reflected in support mechanisms that provide the appropriate time and funding to pursue learning activities between city authorities and others.

While such a mechanism may not be included in the final COP 21 agreement, it could be connected to other elements and mechanisms within the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage of the COP 21 process from a cities perspective]

For instance, learning and knowledge-management processes could be supported when governments are accessing funds under the Green Climate Fund, the new pot of money being set up to support climate efforts in developing countries. Or, such a mechanism could be included in the formal guidelines on countries’ mitigation strategies (known as Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions), or receive more prominent exposure in a revised framework on measuring, reporting and verification of these actions, including at the city level.

Second, in order to make this happen, we need to find success indicators beyond the simple reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. After all, learning processes have significant albeit indirect effects on emissions.

For example, regular staff meetings linking relevant government departments could greatly improve the effectiveness of mitigation actions through better coordination. However, this effect is hard to measure and currently not factored into any emissions inventory. The United Nations’ Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) platform — the main database for emissions-reduction pledges outside of national governments — could provide an opportunity to test such indicators on a sub-national scale. These could then be discussed at higher levels within the UNFCCC.

[See: Climate pledges from cities at record high ahead of Paris talks]

Third, we must allow for failure. To speak of “failure” in relation to projects supported by public funding is a taboo. However, it makes sense to focus financial resources on building up learning structures in order to be able to capture the knowledge generated by the inevitable pitfalls of dealing with the uncertainty inherent to climate change. As Lykke Leonardsen, climate chief for the City of Copenhagen, argued during a “Fail Forward” event in June, “We must establish an organizational culture where it is acceptable to have failures — if you are trying to do what hasn’t been done before.”

How can this be done? As a start, we must figure out how to define additional indicators of what it means for a climate project to succeed — a new approach that puts weight on ongoing reporting and review, rather than a simple evaluation of total emission savings following the completion of one project. Over time, focusing on the learning process in this way will enable governments to deal better with failure, as the lessons learned can become more important than the actual mistakes.

Looking to Habitat III

It is impossible to discuss cities’ role in the current global climate discussion without looking forward to next year’s Habitat III conference and its 20-year strategy on urbanization, the New Urban Agenda.

Yet contrary to what is hoped for from the Paris climate agreement, the New Urban Agenda will not include a binding agreement. As such, we can expect significant discussion on the review of activities in line with this strategy.

[See: Shouldn’t the New Urban Agenda be a binding agreement?]

Such a robust review process provides a unique opportunity to shift the debate toward more process-oriented thinking and acting at the international level. Learning, as a central component of a New Urban Agenda review mechanism, could help create the necessary structure and openness to deal with failure, as it would shift attention to processes of knowledge generation and exchange.

It is clear that any such review process will need to be led by an institution within the international system. However, this process could also gain legitimacy if it were to acknowledge the crucial role of cities as “living labs” — as spaces for experiment and learning. Among others, the World Council on City Data has already led initiatives for cities to report on a large variety of indicators and activities.

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

While most of these activities capture “hard”, measurable facts, a NAZCA-style platform could add the required depth of “softer” pledges and activities. This could include indicators on cities’ employment of “knowledge managers”, for instance, or the number of activities related to capacity-building in a particular municipality.

These approaches could provide a base for unlocking contributions from a variety of actors with a variety of experiences — from national governments to local stakeholders, from success stories to failures. Open minds, respect and trust, as well as courage and honesty can create the environment we need to learn collectively and collaboratively.

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Kaj Fischer

Kaj Fischer is a project manager at Adelphi, a think tank in Berlin, working on various aspects of urbanization. Currently his main project is Climate Dialogue, in which he focuses on processes of transformation, knowledge sharing and the international exchange around local climate action.

Marcus Andreas

Marcus Andreas is a project manager at Adelphi, a think tank based in Berlin, where he is responsible for the issue of municipal climate action. He is principally concerned with how to provide effective support to alliances between stakeholders at the local, regional and national levels. Currently, he is engaged in the NKI’s climate action dialogue (KSD) on process, communication and mobilization, where he leads all activities related to exchange and networking. He was also a lead coordinator of the International Conference on Climate Action: Local Governments Driving Transformation (ICCA 2015).

Minu Hemmati

Minu Hemmati has coordinated the Climate Dialogue team for Adelphi since 2013. A psychologist with a doctorate in organizational and environmental psychology, since 1988 she has worked as an independent adviser for governments, international agencies, NGOs, women’s networks, corporations and research institutions. She specializes in designing and facilitating multi-stakeholder processes in sustainable development, climate change and gender equity at international, national and local levels.