City talks on sustainable energy: the silent majority speaks

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Main actors

City Government, Community / Citizen Group, other

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

Icons use case study duration


Ongoing since 2014/01

Utrecht initiated a democratic experiment to share and broaden responsibility for creating an energy plan to help it become climate neutral by 2030.

Energy affects everyone, but Utrecht found that discussions on an energy action plan usually only attracted those citizens with a special interest in the subject. Instead, the city wanted to reach people who aren’t normally a part of the discussion. So Utrecht invited 10,000 citizens, chosen at random, to help draw up the city’s new energy action plan. The plan will map out Utrecht’s journey to carbon neutrality by 2030. Of the 10,000 citizens, Utrecht selected 166 to help set out the city’s energy transition, together with experts and stakeholders. 

Entrusting this task to citizens has shaken up traditional thinking, generated novel ideas and created ambassadors for sustainable energy.

Originally published by EUROCITIES, the network of 130 European cities - PDF:

Sustainable Development Goals

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels


This project was shortlisted for the 'EUROCITIES Awards' in 2015 in the following category: Participation.

Utrecht, Netherlands

Size and population development
330,772 (as of 2014); fourth largest city in the Netherlands

Main functions
University city; transportation hub

Main industries / business
Healthcare, ICT and financial services

Political structure
The city is governed by a mayor and a city council. The mayor is appointed by the national government for a renewable six-year term

Administrative structure
Utrecht is part of the Utrecht Province which includes 26 municipalities

As part of its healthy city concept in which sustainable and affordable energy is a high priority, Utrecht has set ambitious renewable energy targets. By 2020 it aims to increase supply of sustainable energy to 20% and fit solar panels to 10% of its buildings. The city recognised that these goals required the overthrow of existing systems and structure and support and changes in behaviour by residents and firms. As a result, it became convinced that its new energy plan must have democratic legitimacy.

After deciding to hand over responsibility for the drawing up of its new plan to citizens, the city undertook a random selection process. As well as ensuring a mixed representation in terms of age, area, gender and income, this process also overcame a problem common to participatory projects: people with a special interest tend to put themselves forward. If the plan was to fit the city and deliver results, it had to be developed by those representative of the "silent majority".

The city initially contacted 10,000 people from its database. Around 1,000 of these said yes to taking part and another lottery reduced this number to 200. In the end, 165 citizens attended all three sessions of the City Talks. They were compensated for their time and could choose between vouchers worth €600 for energy reduction measures or €300 gift certificates. Revealingly, as the participants gained a better understanding of the city’s energy challenge and their responsibility to rise to it, many swapped their gift certificates for energy reduction measures.

Over the course of three Saturdays the group took part in discussions and workshops, facilitated by the city and led by an independent moderator. An ‘information market’ helped them understand and make choices about the city’s energy options. Energy experts were on hand to explain the practical realities of their ideas. And representatives from energy companies, social housing associations and the local university were also involved as speakers, advisors and, in a ‘fish bowl session’, as participants.

The first Saturday was a knowledge-sharing day during which participants were encouraged to dream and think creatively. Components of their ‘dreams’ ranged from a smart plan for energy prices that rewards ‘leaders’ with financial benefits and ‘loafers’ with high costs, to a maze made of solar panels designed as a tourist attraction. In the second session, experts introduced two scenarios based on the dreams. Experts were called on to answer specific technical and cost queries and the measures were ranked based on constraints and time.

The resulting draft plan was reviewed and refined at the final City Talk. The city council then worked through the plan, assessing what is possible legally and what action can be taken by the municipality itself. This contributed to the learning process for all contributors. Both the energy plan and the plan for municipality action were presented to the city council for formal agreement.

The city of Utrecht has invested €400,000 in the project.

What has already been broadly agreed is that residents have added value to the process. By thinking afresh and in an integrated way about energy from the user’s perspective, they have generated ideas that the city council would not have thought of itself.

The plan also benefited from the enthusiasm and commitment of participants. Most have become ambassadors for sustainable energy and some implemented ideas generated during the City Talks in their own homes and neighbourhoods. Their resulting energy plan also includes proposals the city would not have dared suggest, such as forcing entire areas to switch to alternative fuels rather than renovate existing gas pipelines. Participants have even drawn up actions for implementing behavioural change among fellow citizens.

Council departments are now working together in a more coordinated way and it has stronger connections with the city’s energy players. For these partners, experiencing citizens’ perspectives and the plan’s development has given them a sense of ownership that can only be positive as they play their part in its implementation.

A formal evaluation revealed that 97% of participants were happy with the organisation of the City Talks. This success has encouraged Utrecht to involve citizens in decision making in a similar way in other policy areas. In the meantime it has 165 citizen ‘ambassadors’ ready to help implement their energy plan and another City Talk to set up in early 2016 to look at early results and next steps. Utrecht has been asked by several other interested cities in the Netherlands to run workshops so they can learn how to hold their own City Talks.

- Cities in action - Utrecht’s City Talks on Sustainable Energy, Creating an energy plan together - EUROCITIES, March 2016.

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