Édition #4

Loos-en-Gohelle, the demonstrator of territories in transition

Jean-François CARON
Ok for transition, but how do we go about it? From the top of the slag heap, let’s look back on 20 years of experimentation. When narrative and action become the basis for change management and changing mindsets.

Your elective mandates in Loos-en-Gohelle offered an opportunity to test a transition model. Can you tell us more about this experience and what it has generated for your municipality?

Loos-en-Gohelle is a French municipality in the Pas-de-Calais department in the Hauts-de-France region, whose historical territorial model was based on a very large-scale mono-activity: the mining industry.
When this industry stopped, the seeds of resilience were no longer present in the territory.

“The question of how players are organised is key to the resilience of territories, hence the strength of collectives such as hubs and competitiveness clusters.”


When I arrived as an elected official in 2001, everything was falling apart: the territory’s attractiveness was close to zero, most people were not trained (because they were asked above all to be ‘brave’), the
culture of ambition and initiative had become suspect (because by definition it represented a departure from the collective spirit intrinsic to the mine). On the other hand, however, there was a simple and friendly aspect to relationships and, above all, the collective quality there was very strong.

We had social and environmental issues, fuel poverty and the creation of new jobs all at the same time. Loos-en-Gohelle subsequently developed a certain number of strategies, common visions and technical and social experiments.

For example, we carried out projects ranging from harvesting rainwater to planting self-service fruit trees, which has generated a bartering system between locals, closer links and ways of living together. We have subsequently become a “Mecca” of eco-construction in France. For example, 10% of the population hardly pays anything for heating any more, because the houses were well designed from the start. Over
time, we have developed expertise in the implementation of solar technologies and their optimization, so we have excellent results as we have mastered both the engineering and the latest technological  innovations. A “Citizen’s Solar Plan”, in which 120 families have already invested part of their savings, has also been created to cover all the city’s public roofs and meet 100% of the city’s electricity needs by 2050. Loos-en-Gohelle even has the first solar church in France! And that’s not all… All this work led to the creation of the Fabrique des Transitions.


What is the Fabrique des Transitions (Transition Factory) and why did you create it?

Transition is not a series of technological adjustments, contrary to what everyone hopes and dreams. The social aspect of accepting change is crucial. Over time, we have developed engineering based on the participation of the locals, which has earned us the right to be a demonstrator of change management towards being a sustainable town for ADEME. This approach initially involves an assessment to characterize this change management strategy, verifying its effectiveness and then testing its reproducibility.

That was how we created the Fabrique des Transitions, which is an alliance of more than 350 territories and players committed to the ecological transition. Born from the pooling of pilot experiences, it works on developing systemic change management engineering, basing its actions on an alliance charter. It is not a group of consultants, nor a consultancy firm or engineering to benefit the government, but “third party engineering” which assists territories in their development of skills and their capacity to carry out and manage the transition, based on two major fundamental issues: change management and changing mindsets.

More generally, the projects I mentioned above work because they give people a sense of meaning and enable them to take action. The fact that these projects are carried out at a municipal level makes them visible, understandable and concrete. As a result, in the 2008 municipal elections, my list obtained 82.1% of the votes (the highest score in the Pas-de-Calais), then 100% in the next elections, because
there was no longer any opposition. This means that a wellrun transition project, with the right fundamentals, can get people on board. It is also a sign that transition issues are reshuffling the political cards and that my approach is perceived as trans-partisan. Even if I am historically a “green” supporter, I am very far from being a “dictator” and I am convinced that we will only win the challenge of transition
if we bring society on board and therefore by definition, “everyone”.

In what way is the notion of “narrative” central to your approach? What does it contribute?

To take the example of Loos-en-Gohelle, the slag heap, which was a heap of mining waste, was given value as soon as I set up a paragliding school there. So, the “narrative” of the mine is no longer a  catastrophic one leading to decommissioning. It becomes a positive narrative and that changes everything for the inhabitants. Furthermore, the fact that the mining area was included on the UNESCO world heritage list contributed to the recognition of the history of the area and its inhabitants. This recognition is fundamental in order to take action because, if we ask people to deny themselves, they cannot mourn what they have lost and they cannot reinvent themselves.

Today, we have to understand and admit that our development model is dead. That is not my opinion; it is a fact. On the one hand, we are observing a decline in available resources (cobalt, rare earths, oil, water, etc.) and on the other hand, our discharges and impacts are becoming increasingly complex to control (carbon discharges into the atmosphere impacting the climate, discharges of synthetic molecules
impacting the biodiversity, etc.). Even if ADEME has demonstrated that 80% of society has understood that we are in a paradigm shift, it is still complicated to plan for the future because the new  development  model cannot be perceived yet. Moreover, we all have our own reasons to resist change: habits, power, social rank or those “systemic traps”, situations in which the solution is in the hands of several actors… The multiplicity of reasons to resist means that nothing changes or it changes very slowly.

Yet neuroscience teaches us that we change when we are in action. One of the major keys to transformation is to turn it into a narrative and put it into action. This, for me, is the whole point of working in cluster-type logics, because this can initiate collective processes, particularly in the context of public-private partnerships.

“We change when we are in action, not when we listen to a conference.”

The narrative is not advertising storytelling to make people dream, like, for example, “the largest ski area in the world”, it is the promotion of the history, the stakes, the future… It is a dynamic logic rather than a marketing one.

To sum up, we have two subjects to tackle for transition: transforming mindsets and considering that transition is above all a human and social matter. Yes, we will need techniques and engineers, but that is not the starting point.

In your opinion, how can we bring about the change you describe and on what scale?

As concerns change management, I observe two trends which confront each other and which will do so increasingly in the future. First of all, there is a “totalitarian” trend that aims to reduce needs through
prohibitions and restrictions, etc. This trend is driven by the fact that we must “move forward” and that “time is short”. But this timesaving is counterbalanced by a very poor acceptance of these measures, as people are presented with a fait accompli. On the other side, there is a tendency to start with people’s needs and to adapt to them through co-construction processes. Longer, certainly, but much more effective.

Experience shows that if we consider transition from the old model to the new one at too global a level, the stakes are such that it is difficult to influence people. If, on the other hand, it is approached at a local level, then we find  a grip. For example, the church in Loos-en-Gohelle is equipped with solar panels. It seems very simple, but it has become an element of pride for the locals, since they themselves took part in the project.

In the fundamentals of the Fabrique des Transitions, we started from the principle that transition will come at a territorial level and not from a global one. The territories must therefore be allowed to live and bring about new experiences, because these will shed new light on global matters and make it easier to carry out transformations

“There is an expectation of new alliances in the territories.”

So, with the Fabrique des Transitions, we propose starting from the lessons learned from the Loos source code, where the approach was started and which led to a reference framework on change management
in the territories. This work was based on an analysis of several dozen territories in transition in France. This approach is based first of all on the territory’s value base (notion of “memory carriers”) and its
trajectory and it allows the singularity of each person to be recognised and welcomed through the telling of stories in various forms (writings, shows, sound and light, etc.). It will be triggered and supported by cooperative leaderships, capable of vision, as well as of leading processes that will involve the stakeholders. There are four central pillars for action:

» Involvement of the stakeholders in their diversity (power to act) for greater collective intelligence, greater efficiency and an in-depth transformation of the stakeholders that the putting into action makes possible.

» Thinking and acting in a systemic way, allowing a transversal approach and requiring strong cooperative processes.

» Developing a culture of innovation (which is a successful disobedience) and which will require building trust, accepting the “right to make mistakes” and a gradual rise in ambition which allows
the production of collective skills to make projects succeed.

» The image of the “star and the white stones” : The “star” (the vision) makes us dream, it gives us desire and therefore energy, in a long-term logic. But if it remains inaccessible, it provokes frustration,
anger and stupefaction. We therefore need “white stones” that lead to the star, like so many steps, milestones and concrete proofs that give rhythm to the collective movement in the short term.
Even if the hardest part is still ahead for the mountain territories, I am convinced that there is an expectation of new alliances in the territories and within companies. We must question ourselves
collectively and take action to create an intelligent economy, i.e. an economy that anticipates what is coming and that will make serious changes in direction.


Jean-François CARON
Jean-François CARON
An elected official of the Hauts-de-France region, Mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle (6800 inhabitants) since 2001, vice-president of the Lens-Liévin Urban Community, and former vice-president of the Regional Council, where he was in charge of Sustainable Development, Land Use Planning and Environment.

At the Regional Council, he led the work on the Regional Spatial Planning Scheme (SRADDT). In a highly mobilising participatory exercise, he produced the “White Paper on the post-coal era” for the mining region (1 million inhabitants) and implemented the first cross-cutting policies aimed at integrating a sustainable development approach.
In 2010, in close collaboration with the region’s president, Daniel Percheron, he led the “Regional Ecological and Social Transformation” initiative, which aimed to go beyond the stage of experimentation in terms of transition. The aim was to introduce a change of model that better integrates the question of common goods and is based on the re-coordination of the players. It is in the continuity of this logic that he led the “Third Industrial Revolution” approach with Jeremy Rifkin, with the drafting of a regional master plan and the initiation of an approach that aims at re-articulating the economy and the environment.