"Making people's desires known helps to see the world differently"

Sylvie Landriève is co-director of Mobile Lives Forum. The research institute works autonomously on physical and social mobility with the aim of preparing the transition towards desired and more sustainable lifestyles. Convinced that people are the best experts regarding their own lives, Sylvie Landriève sheds light on the Forum, a participatory approach to involve citizens in the development of new lifestyles.

Missions Publiques: As a research institute, you pilot and sponsor many studies (university research, surveys or focus groups etc.). What do citizen forums contribute to these initiatives?

Sylvie Landriève: For the Mobile Lives Forum, mobility is a polysemic term. We are studying the place that travel takes in contemporary lifestyles so that future lifestyles can help the ecological transition. We also start from the idea that lifestyles are the product of a trade-off between what we want to do and what is imposed on us. Mobility is an extremely everyday subject, yet people’s opinions are rarely sought. There is therefore a specific relevance to organizing citizen forums on this subject. Let’s take a concrete example: since the deployment of the car, in the post-war period, cities have been organized in such a way as to leave a predominant place for the car: all public spaces are almost exclusively reserved for fast moving traffic and you can no longer let children play in the street. Today, children’s life in the city is limited to the enclosed space of the crèche, the apartment and the square. Otherwise, they hold the hand of an adult. Were the residents asked for their opinion? On the organization of the city? On the possibility or not that children can no longer play in the street? This is one of the reasons why we want to have the citizens’ opinion, because we are convinced that the territories structured by mobility would not have the same language or the same physiognomy if the inhabitants, tourists and the people who work there defined the public space of their dream.

The first reason for organizing these citizen forums is therefore relevance, the second is efficiency. Representative democracy does not work so perfectly that we can consider it sufficient for citizens. For us, the Yellow Vests movement is extremely revealing because it is a social movement that is emerging from a mobility crisis based on three top-down decisions of representative democracy: speed reduction on secondary roads, an increase in the price of diesel and a planned carbon tax. What do the people claiming to be Yellow Vests say? They are willing to participate in the ecological transition, but they want a guarantee that their effort will serve, and that it will be egalitarian. Policies based on taxation, such as fuel taxation, are by definition unequal. The spirit of our Citizen Forums is therefore to take into account the diversity of desires and to give citizens the opportunity to set the objectives. The ideas of the inhabitants are not only the product of sociology, but are also the fruit of meetings, convictions and debates.

Missions Publiques: How do you view these “new” forms of participation that are the citizens’ conventions?

Sylvie Landriève: We have indeed followed the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate very closely, and particularly the “getting around” working group. It was a way for the government to get out of the previous social crisis by bringing together a hundred citizens in a representative way, when the institutions did not foresee it, and this on a subject that is crucial for the future. In terms of participatory democracy, it will be difficult to turn back the clock. From this point of view, it’s great. Nevertheless, we have decided to maintain our Citizens’ Forum because the criticism I would make of the Citizens’ Climate Convention is that the objective given – the 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – has not been discussed. Caricaturing a bit, citizens were asked if they had better ideas than the experts. Flooded with information, they turned into little experts. The members of the Convention are not positioned on convictions or on a conception of society (more liberal? more egalitarian? etc.). They had to choose between proposals from experts. The magic of the system means that the citizens are not stupid and are not completely in the scheme. To sum up, there is almost a fundamental problem with the understanding of participatory democracy. It is up to the citizens to set the objective and then the experts to rack their brains to find solutions.

I was auditioned in the group “to move” and I had prepared like an expert a disruptive proposal that I put away at the last moment, because I passed after the intervention of the ADEME which presented in a detailed way all that the State was doing. Why invite citizens if we already know all the solutions? Why wouldn’t the expertise be discussed? Of course, there are indisputable facts: global warming is anthropogenic in origin, it is a fact. But who is responsible in the human organization of global warming? Is it anthropogenic, that is to say, linked to human nature? Or is it capitalocene? etc.? These questions do not fall within the field of expertise. It is a debate, a point of view on society, a diagnosis and proposals to overcome it.

"What the research shows us is that, for things to change, people need to be able to experience it. When we are forced to change, we revolutionize our way of thinking.

Photo: Forum Vies Mobiles

Sylvie Landriève

Co-director of Mobile Lives Forum

Missions Publiques: You have conducted an international survey on aspirations related to mobility and lifestyles. Two strong trends have emerged: the desire for proximity and the desire to slow down. How do you analyze these results in light of the crisis?

Sylvie Landriève: Well you take into account your previous question: has the desire to slow been the subject matter of any policy at all? The desire to slow down is not a goal of experts, there is no “slow” policy tactic and yet we questioned 12,000 people and 9 out of 10 people want to slow down. In our citizen forums, we ask them to express this desire to slow down and to be close to people on subjects that impact mobility such as work, leisure activities…. In a participatory system, the citizens’ perspective on work has been completely reversed.

The health crisis is also a mobility crisis. Mobility is not, of course, the reason for the crisis, but it is the reason for the spread of the virus. Before rapid transport, the plague pandemic had spread through traffic routes, the old silk roads. Now we have the same phenomenon by air and sea. The large flows of traffic and concentration of housing structure the spread of the virus. At micro level, we analyzed the experience of the French at the time of the first lockdown. In this particular case, the slowdown is imposed by the lockdown, so it is not a question of congratulating oneself for not being able to leave our home; even though some people left small homes to go to secondary residences, to friends who had more space with a garden, etc. What we understand is this aspiration to live closer to nature, which echoes the fact that the Covid crisis is linked to urban life and the industrialization of the economy.

Another example of the gap between people’s desire and the policies pursued: confinement has been the occasion for a formidable deployment of remote work. Before the first lockdown, between 3 and 7% of the working population worked from home a maximum of one day a week. After confinement, it was 30% and 5 days out of 5. When the confinement ended, one person out of two wished to keep it up. However, we know that forced travel is essentially work-related. Beyond the confinement, remote work could be a lever to the desire to slow down. What the research shows us is that, for things to change, people need to be able to experience it. When we are forced to change, we revolutionize our way of thinking. This is also the case for companies, which were extremely opposed to working from home, according to the traditional practice of management. Currently, the right to work from home exists but it is not applied. If confinement is an obligation, it is also an opportunity to question and study this right.

Missions Publiques: The Mobile Lifes Forum is financed by the French state rail SNCF and is totally independent scientifically. How does your work feed into the company’s strategy?

Sylvie Landriève: It is difficult for us to have an impact on the activities and strategic decisions of the SNCF as well as those of companies in general because the institute thinks in the long term and companies project themselves in 3 to 5 and rarely more than 10 years. For their part, institutions are structured to think in the short term and an elected representative projects himself on the horizon of their mandate. When we address the problem of global warming, for example, we have to project ourselves over several decades. Finally, those who project themselves farthest into the future are the citizens who do so at least on the horizon of their own lives and those of their children. They are the ones who are the most capable of thinking in the long term. The Forum works to disseminate the results of its research to businesses and political actors. We do not hesitate to present them with scenarios of rupture, whereas they are rather used to trend scenarios. But we can clearly see that with the health crisis, the rupture scenario is the obvious one. With our Citizen Forum, we hope to change this situation. We want to develop a citizen program and make it as widely known as possible. Making people’s desires known helps to see the world differently.