II. Sustainable Cities Conference & Expo

On September 15, 2023, SEQ participated in the II. Sustainable Cities Conference & Expo held for the second time in Budapest, which once again brought the largest municipal sustainability conference to Hungary this year. On the first day of the event (September 15), attendees engaged in the traditional conference activities, including panel discussions and professional presentations. During the expo on the second day of the event, more than 40 Hungarian companies showcased their work and municipal sustainability initiatives to interested individuals.

The Sustainable Cities initiative, operated by the Sustainable Communities Foundation, organized the conference for the second time, with the aim of gathering and sharing knowledge related to municipal sustainability and promoting the sharing of best practices.

More about the project initiative: The Sustainable Cities initiative is also a consulting business founded by experts in collaboration with the Center for Sustainable Communities. Its goal is to provide assistance to municipal governments in Hungary in implementing competitive urban concepts and sustainability projects, primarily by providing the necessary resources and solutions for sustainable transition, especially by bringing Hungarian companies and innovations to local governments and helping integrate them into the sustainability transition of municipalities.

During the conference, several panel discussions were held simultaneously, where professionals discussed the central theme from various perspectives. The speakers included university lecturers, CEOs, researchers, representatives of local governments and civil organizations, as well as individuals in various decision-making roles. Prominent topics covered in our organization included discussions on “Culture and Sustainability,” “Retaining Youth Locally,” and “Sustainable Production, Responsible Consumption,” which we will delve into in more detail in the following sections.

Culture and Sustainability Panel Discussion

How much more does sustainability encompass than just a green idea? As we have heard so many times, sustainability has three fundamental pillars: the environmental pillar, the economic pillar, and the social pillar. However, the social pillar is an integral part of culture. To understand the role of culture in sustainability transition, we need to see in which areas it is capable of initiating the most significant changes. Culture is the primary tool in sustainable awareness, even though it may not seem the most important at first glance. Culture brings together the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability and binds together municipalities, civil organizations, and economic players, making it the ‘mortar’ among the bricks that holds them together, and above all, it plays a role in community building. Without culture, our communities would not even exist in the first place. We couldn’t even talk about sustainability without it.

If we approach the topic from the perspective of city leaders, we can see that these stakeholders must ensure the highest possible quality of life for their communities. We can build on the foundations laid by our predecessors, but we also do it for the generations that come after us, as we are passing on a legacy for them to build upon. If we were to approach the topic through tourism, we can observe that tourists’ preferences have visibly changed in recent years, and there is a continuous shift in demand in this direction. However, the supply side must quickly adapt to new trends, whether it’s sustainable accommodations, food, or destinations. This example illustrates the importance of individual responsibility and awareness because our communities are built upon this. Expressing societal demands always begins at an individual level and has a significant influencing power on certain members of our environment, such as our parents, friends, and neighbors. The upbringing of our children in this direction is crucial because as adults, they will instinctively act accordingly, not only seeking to change through conscious behavior.

We need to realize that WE ARE ALL EXAMPLES! Everyone has a role in the sustainability transition! We won’t change the world overnight, but each one of us can make changes within our own responsibilities and capabilities. Many simply brush aside the idea of individual responsibility, thinking, ‘The rich have a bigger eco-footprint, there are so many factories and companies, and if they don’t reduce their pollution, it doesn’t matter what an individual like me does.’ However, this is also part of the culture—to realize that I have individual responsibility too. We first learn it ourselves and then pass on this perspective to others. The key lies in setting an example.

Retaining Youth Locally Panel Discussion

The role of young people is indispensable in the present and the future. Universities, civil organizations, sciences, national leaders, and all stakeholders in the economic sector have a significant role in retaining young people. It is essential for some stakeholders to determine the extent of their competence and how long they can engage with young people, and young people themselves also play a crucial role in deciding what to do with the opportunities presented to them.

Based on current trends, we can see that at the local level, there are fewer young people, and they tend to migrate from villages to district centers, then from there to county capitals, and further on to major cities, capitals, and even abroad. Reversing this trend requires collaboration across sectors.

So, who and what are responsible for retaining young people locally?

The leader of a civil organization highlighted the observation that organizing programs that serve the interests of young people is worthless if they don’t want to attend. It is crucial to identify the target audience primarily. For example, in family-friendly programs, young individuals should also feel good, find their areas of interest, and gain knowledge that they can apply effectively in the future.

During a research project, they explored when an individual considers the place they live in to be successful. The responses from young people revealed that they considered good infrastructure, the quality of healthcare services, and employment opportunities to be the most important. These were closely followed by public safety and the characteristics of the local environment. Universities and civil organizations play a crucial role in providing opportunities for young people.

Who are our most active young people today? The “Z” generation, those born between ’85 and ’95. They exhibit a different attitude compared to previous generations. The primary changes have emerged due to economic development and the dominance of the online world. The key to retaining young people is to be found in real communities, not in the online space, as supported by research conducted among Hungarian communities in the Carpathian Basin. Where local communities are strong, young people are more willing to stay or may not even want to leave in the first place. Whether we’re talking about a religious community, a volunteer group, a group of friends, or any other community, they have a preserving power. So, the essence lies in community building.

Our young people are full of determination and have strong opinions about their environment. However, often the views and plans of young people are not in harmony with the views of city leadership and the values of the community. What can be done in this case? This is where the crucial role of civil organizations comes in. It is essential to identify in what areas each young person is competent because fruitful collaboration can only arise from this. Municipalities also find cooperation with young people important, and they can achieve this through the involvement of civil organizations.

An interesting duality can be observed in the European Union’s policies. The EU supports keeping young people in their local communities, endorsing local economic and rural development, culture, and traditions through them. Still, it offers numerous programs that encourage young people to explore Europe, whether through Erasmus programs, Discover EU, university opportunities, and various other initiatives. Therefore, it is very challenging to expect young people not to move away. However, this duality also plays a crucial long-term role in the development of local communities. Young people cannot be kept in one place by force, especially when travel has become so accessible in today’s world. The desirable outcome would be if our young people could see the world, gain knowledge, build connections, learn languages, enrich themselves mentally and emotionally, and become more courageous and open to new experiences. These are all beneficial and positive aspects that do not inherently influence young people’s decision to stay abroad. The key is that they can eventually apply their knowledge at home with proper compensation, benefiting their local environment!

Every year, the population of Hungary decreases by the size of a city of 40,000 people. There is strong marketing in online media related to life abroad, which has a significant influence on young people. However, what those living abroad portray in online media may not necessarily reflect the whole reality. We cannot know how much of their income they can keep due to the high cost of living abroad, how much they commute daily to work, whether they have well-functioning relationships or communities to belong to, or if they are viewed as second-class citizens in the foreign country, and if they are happy in a foreign place at all. One practice that could serve as a counterbalance to this online “abroad marketing” is to introduce successful individuals from local, smaller communities to local young people as role models. Since they are known locally, young people there could see that they can also achieve success at home. It is essential to showcase and make trendy the idea of succeeding locally. We are sitting on treasure chests, and the opportunities are here; we just need to show them. It’s important that they can capitalize on what they have “earned” abroad and give back to the local community. Being cool for young people should not be about having a better salary but living far away, alone in a foreign culture.

However, today’s youth wants to make their voices heard. They want to change many things, but it’s not guaranteed that their motivation aligns with decision-makers. These young people are most likely to find receptive ears in the civil sector because they are the ones who convey information to the higher-ups to facilitate change. And if something cannot be realized as they would like, it’s important to provide a reason why not. This is crucial so that our young people do not lose their motivation and do not become aimless.

Sustainable Production and Responsible Consumption Panel Discussion

Can we talk about responsible consumption in the consumer society of the 21st century? In the short term, yes, but not in the long term. We live in a capitalist, money-centered system. We didn’t create this system individually at the grassroots level; it was established within a legal and economic framework. Advertising, consumer incentives, and money surround us, and the economy “needs” us to keep it running by consuming. However, endless growth is not sustainable in a finite world. There is a problem with how the entire system operates on a global scale. On an individual level, we can influence and should do so. For example, composting, banning single-use plastics, choosing plant-based milk for coffee, and responsible consumption of local products. However, the most crucial change would be transforming the system itself, moving away from a consumption-based capitalism. We need to find different values in life, seeking happiness beyond consumption. Our primary focus should be on improving our immediate environment, which will become a self-reinforcing process, slowly initiating development and reshaping the system alongside it.

We must strive to consume “clean food” from local producers because the use of various chemicals in large-scale agriculture is highly detrimental. However, outside the EU, the situation is even worse in this regard. Today, people prioritize the price of products over their quality, and many don’t even know what they are consuming, as harmful chemicals are used in the cultivation of crops. We often fail to consider the massive soil destruction and environmental impact associated with cheap food. The greatest enemy of progress is the power of habits passed down from previous generations. Education plays an incredibly important role.

However, substantial sustainability transition is only possible after a social transition because if there is no money to afford better food, consumers cannot make responsible choices. This is why it’s important to cultivate our own food at home if we have a small area for it. It also has a positive psychological impact as it establishes a connection with the land, and without it, a person’s mental state may suffer. Individuals must start taking care of themselves on a fundamental level. Have a garden bed! Just with this small step, so much food waste can be avoided in the urban cycle. Additionally, your work is there, and you can see the results of taking care of that plant.

We could ask the question, why doesn’t extensive agriculture spread more if it works well? The answer to this is simple. It’s because intensive agriculture, backed by billion-dollar factories, has such strong marketing that it dominates the normal functioning of production. What is the responsibility of the public and private sectors in responsible consumption and sustainable production? Firstly, we need to assess the level of maturity within a given society and its associated public sector. The first and most important step is to engage and empower our communities, whether in the private sector or within government institutions.

We need to teach our farmers how to produce food responsibly and healthily. There is an urgent need for soil-regenerative farming and the restoration of seasonality. Returning compost to the soil would be of paramount importance because our nutrient-rich farmland can only produce nutrient-rich food when it has nutrient-rich soil. However, in grassroots initiatives, there isn’t enough capacity to produce tons of compost. To maintain our valuable farmland, we would need tons of compost in a continuous system. Compost facilities do exist, with 32 such facilities in operation in Hungary, but they do not produce high-quality compost since they only store organic waste, preventing the creation of quality compost. Unfortunately, the regulatory and financial system does not allow these facilities to restructure. However, there is a positive grassroots initiative that produces high-quality compost, and now state regulations are starting to take notice. We can see that both the government and society are capable of progress, but the process is very slow, and there is a need for good practices from grassroots initiatives to be integrated into the system for further development. It’s important to emphasize that innovation usually comes from civil society, but the government needs to create a regulatory framework because it determines how fast we can progress along the right path. There is a problem when state regulations suppress or make it impossible for new initiatives to thrive. For example, in Austria, organic farming accounts for around 40% of the country’s agriculture. This is possible because the use of organic food is mandatory in hospitals and schools. Farmers switched to organic farming because there was pressure from the government. In Hungary, the percentage of bio-farms is only around 2%. In Slovakia, there is 9% ecologically farmed agricultural land.

Where will we be in 15-20 years under the best-case scenario? Hopefully, on a global scale, most people will be living a high-quality life, consuming nutrient-rich, healthy food, and our ecosystems will show an improving trend. It is crucial on this journey to maintain community cohesion, support grassroots initiatives, keep our youth in their local communities, and harness their knowledge for sustainable living. Sustainability is not just a green idea; it’s much more than that.

Our future is not only determined by our opportunities and capabilities but also by our decisions!