If we seriously intend to limit global warming, we need more people like Heinrich Strößenreuther. This cycling and climate activist and serial NGO founder specialises in street-level change, and he’s using the political system to do it. The beauty of Heinrich’s methods – cycling referendums and mobilising civil society – is that they are easy to roll out in any city. He tells us how and when to strike to cause maximum impact.
Readers in Germany are likely aware of the work of Heinrich Strößenreuther, even if the name is unfamiliar. Heinrich is the brains and legwork behind Volksentscheid Fahrrad, and the initiative and later NGO, Changing Cities. With this combined might, he organises cycling referendums, established to pressure the Berlin public administration to invest in cleaner urban mobility. It’s due to his campaigning that an extra forty kilometres of bike lanes have emerged in the city in recent years.
Activism Must Begin Somewhere
Heinrich’s methods weren’t always so democratic. Environmental activism cuts to the core of his being.
In the early 1990s, while our CityChanger studied business administration, he had an idea: bring “the world of environmental tasks, challenges, and issues” into the minds and work of his fellow students. Design eco-friendly processes into business practice.
This ethos went with him to Canada, where our CityChanger grew more passionate about protecting nature. He knew that his future career would be shaped by efforts to “save the environment”.
Making Change Pay
Large-scale impact for social and environmental causes requires, like any business, an investment of skills, finances, and time.
Sustaining pressure is a catalyst for change, but as an activist, maintaining that level of commitment is a full-time job.
Heinrich found a way to make it pay. Before green jobs were on the cards, he subverted traditional roles to create a career in sustainability.
Back in Germany, “the fourth biggest economy in the world”, he held positions within the national parliament and Greenpeace, spreading the sustainability gospel. Later, at Deutsche Bahn, he was tasked with attracting more customers to the railways and training 14,000 drivers to engage more energy efficient habits, saving money and cutting CO2.
But where he really makes waves is via the NGOs he eventually set up, where, finally, he could set the objectives.
The Power of Civil Society
Heinrich admits that he was in a fortunate position. Not everyone has the means to seed fund their own passion project, but, as a consultant with modest outgoings, our CityChanger could channel coffers to start a decarbonisation initiative.
GermanZero empowers citizens and industry stakeholders to lobby their local politicians to implement a legislative package designed to reach a net zero carbon economy by 2035.
This makes it easy for citizens to discuss 200 predetermined policy measures on a knowledgeable level with members of parliament, which, the organisation believes, will help the country limit climate warming to 1.5°C.
The power behind GermanZero is civil society.
People care about the future. As such, many want to act today to save tomorrow. Klimaentscheide, another brainchild of Heinrich’s, channels the human resources required to generate change.
Local teams lead “citizen petitions, referendums, and consultations” with myriad stakeholders, Heinrich explains. This is where activism meets formal participation methods and professional project management, which are used “to get their local administrations to adopt a plan for climate neutrality”.
At the time we spoke to Heinrich at Urban Future 22, more than 80 cities or districts had participated in climate referendums. That’s a reach of 15 million German residents. On the back of this, twenty-five of these administrations “have passed a resolution to develop a plan for climate neutrality by 2035 or even earlier”.
An advantage seems to be making the commitment less financially problematic for those accountable for the public money they spend. Municipalities can use a tool Heinrich helped develop – LocalZero – which calculates a fundamental 60-page climate neutral plan for the city, saving administrations up to 90,000 Euros in consultancy fees.
Movements Need a Leader
People may share a belief, but change of this scale begins with a committed leader.
Our CityChanger references a TedTalk by Derek Sivers demonstrating very simply how to start a movement. What it comes down to, essentially, is this:
- An individual believes in a cause and acts. They commit, unafraid of standing out (or failing).
- Someone who shares this belief notices. They join in.
- Others see this. There is safety in numbers and so they too become followers. The movement swells.
As an example, setting up Heinrich’s NGO required 500,000 Euros of investment. This was achieved in 15 minutes! He secured a third of that total by leveraging the right contacts. When these individuals stood up to make their pledge at a public event, others followed suit.
In earlier times, by holding an individual demonstration every Monday morning for six or seven weeks, Heinrich persuaded Berlin to build around seven kilometres of new bike lanes. By starting a movement, he achieved much more.
Democracy As A Tool
Heinrich orchestrated a Radentscheide – a cycling referendum – “to put new mobility politics on the agenda”. He did, and Berlin ended up with 40 kms of new cycle paths the number of city planners rose from two to 80!
Other cities saw it happen and wanted in; 50 to date have approached our CityChanger to replicate the idea. It’s an example of local projects creating nation-wide change – bottom-up, not top-down.
In this story, our CityChanger plays the essential role of leader. He first had the idea for cycling referendums in 2015 and contacted locals who had experience in setting them up, albeit for other objectives. (It’s a transferable vehicle.)
Cooperation with a cycling association, he held workshops to share the idea, and the first followers were hooked.
These die-hards then had the arduous task of defining the ten most important objectives needed to frame the new mobility agenda. They drafted Germany’s first cycling law. With this rounded out, they needed to collect 20,000 signatures on an offline petition to get it to parliament. They had six months. Followers emerged in many other cities immediately. Within three weeks, they had 100,000 signatures. Politicians were not able to ignore demand of this scale.
Timing is Everything. Spin Achieves More
Heinrich had timed the petition perfectly to coincide with election season. Candidates rushed to include cycling policy in their manifestoes.
“In the phase before election, it is very important to be in place at the right time with the right message, because then the parties are unusually open to new ideas.”
These are lessons Heinrich has learnt, as what he describes as a “spin doctor”.
“Spin is an idea of to how to change things and use energies which already exist,” he explains. It’s about “trying to figure out which buttons you have to push, and which people you have to talk to” to facilitate cooperation and a change of direction.
Heinrich offers an example: the track record of Germany’s ruling conservative party, CDU, for dealing with the climate crisis was not good. So, he joined up and founded KlimaUnion to change the system from within. Another NGO, it was designed to influence the party’s direction towards greener politics – and prepare them for a potential coalition with the Greens. The CDU now had a green agenda, and it would be hard to back away from it.
Public pressure shapes political promises, but, like all activism, it must be maintained to succeed. Priorities can change at any point leading up to an election; this can be prevented if spin doctors shout loud enough to keep the issue in the spotlight.
Increase support by talking to people and having a media presence, Heinrich advises. If done right, politicians have little chance to renege on their promises.
Taking One for the Team
Although it may appear that Heinrich could be considered by politicos as a nuisance for his determined mission for change, he may in fact be their hero.
At Urban Future 22, he talked with Claus Ruhe Madsen, among others, about the next stage of local initiatives. The spin doctor is concerned that even events such as this do not stress the urgency of climate breakdown. So, what is the next step to speeding up decarbonisation?
The answer, they decided, is the mayors.
Localised campaigns increase top-down pressure and have the potential to accelerate change in public administrations, which spreads city-wide via policies and changes to public services and procurement.
Mayors talk. They are a network. They share ideas – and copy successes. That’s why so many attend Urban Future. Heinrich spoke to them.
“Mayors don’t have that much time to set up good strategic plans,” he learnt. “So, if we support them in the back office with professional lobbying, spin doctoring, or delivering support services exactly how we want them designed, they could stand up and be the nice guys.”
The theory is that, if experts, activists, and leaders of movements absorb the brunt of any backlash, mayors may be more willing to impose taskforce-speed-like transitions. They get to bask in the glory and enjoy the sustainability votes when it succeeds. This could be the strategy needed, Heinrich ponders, for 1,000 city mayors from all over Germany to promise to make the cities climate neutral by 2035. And this may just inspire a whole new global movement.