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Recherche et développement régional durable

Corinne Larrue


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1This symposium provided an opportunity of looking at the issue of the spatial dimension of sustainable development. Territorial issues are telling signs of the difficulties of implementing sustainable development, and particularly of the need to adapt institutional, economic and social mechanisms to local and regional levels, ensuring coherence with national and European level. In fact, it is at the local and regional levels that the contradictions and effects of non-sustainable development can be most clearly seen. It is at these levels that change can be measured, that actors must be mobilized effectively, and that institutional innovations and incentives to act can be developed. However, the difficulties of implementing change remain, as shown by the experiences described at this symposium.

2There are a number of lessons to be learnt from the presentations and discussions which took place at the symposium:

3Sustainable regional development is not a model but a construction: Regional development policies should be responsive to the issues of sustainable development. The presentations describing systems which have been set up, as well as more general discussions, highlighted the processes, mechanisms and procedures which are involved in sustainable regional development. However, sustainable regional development cannot be brought about by decrees alone. An act of will is required, backed politically and using specific tools. Some of these were described at the Tours symposium: collaborative spatial planning, assessment and monitoring indicators, industrial ecology, a charter for sustainable development linked to specific areas, notably vulnerable zones, etc. But above all, it is based on a political will and on the mobilization of all players in a shared project. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt from the experiences of the DG Regio pilot projects for sustainable development, and confirmed by the experience of the Nord Pas de Calais region, is the need to develop a common language, a common understanding of sustainable development, which goes beyond words. Only then can common objectives be defined, and programs and concrete actions shared.

4Finally, the conflict between sustainable and regional development brings to the fore the organization effect of public regional action produced by this issue. What emerges from the experiences and ideas presented is that sustainable development at a regional and local level brings about a shift in the issues and priorities of public action. Sustainable development can therefore be seen to bring to the fore the environment, risk management, and participative democracy, as well as the use of space, and regional support networks. By introducing a long term view and the notion of horizontality, sustainable development therefore appears above all to provide the opportunity to rethink public action methods.

5The analysis of the European pilot studies of sustainable development which were presented highlighted the notion that sustainable development is not a destination but a pathway. In other words, it involves above all ways of action, funding piloting, participating, awareness-raising, training and research.

6The role of research is indeed important in this process. Here again, the research findings which were presented at the symposium highlight the topics tackled and the paths to be developed. First of all, in terms of identifying the contradictions which exist between current development methods and the demands of sustainable development at regional and local levels. A key point here concerns the question of indicators, which requires further development. New indicators are indeed clearly needed, rather than juxtaposing those which already exist for environmental, economic and social factors. Designing indicators for horizontality, the interaction between different territorial levels and sectors, remains difficult. However, it is clear from the experiments conducted that defining indicators of sustainable development is an exercise of co-production, and not something that can be imposed from a sectional, national or even international viewpoint. Finally, the priority given to identifying methods of non-sustainable development seems to offer a pragmatic, educational approach which can gradually help all actors follow the path to sustainable development.

7Next, in terms of “operational rules”: implementing sustainable development at regional and local levels inevitably involves defining operational rules. However, as shown throughout this symposium, these appear to be particularly difficult to establish. Current interpretations at local and regional levels need to be looked at closely in order to establish some continuity and perhaps recommendations. However, a number of possible lines of approach were suggested: first of all, the importance of encouraging decentralized development initiatives, enhancing the complementarity of economic, social and environmental objectives (active subsidiarity) ; This reinforcing of local and regional action must however be accompanied by a systematic assessment of the policies and action of the State and of Europe in terms of the risks of non-sustainable development. The implementation of sustainable development also requires setting up a “constitutive” legal framework, based on serious legal foundations, to provide a basis of clear and stable rules within which negotiations between actors can take place in the long-term. Such a framework would allow institutional innovations to be developed, on the one hand at local and regional level, and on the other hand to provide greater coherence between the different levels of action, from local to European.. Moreover, sustainable development should be accompanied by an assessment process before and after public actions, allowing greater interactivity within and between different participating institutions. However, these assessment procedures must be adapted to the problems and complexity of sustainable development. Finally, the spatial planning procedure can be a tool for putting sustainable development into practice, as long as it is not limited, as too often was in the past, to imposing compromises and a power relationship with regard to land use.

8Finally, in terms of transferring knowledge: Knowledge which comes from scientific research, or even the researchers themselves, contributes increasingly to “mediation” in decision-making processes. It is important to strengthen this trend, while being aware of the specificity of different functions. Research, transfer of knowledge and popularisation each require different skills, methods and timing. Pathways between them are necessary but they must not lead to research becoming over-dependent on serving action, at the risk of losing the detachment required for quality research work.

9In any event, it is clearly necessary to improve the chain of transferring knowledge from researchers to practitioners, and especially to help identify in return the questions confronting practitioners and their translation into research terms.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2002

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