How can citizens and experts take Climate Action to revolutionise our cities?

This week’s show comes from Denmark. I sat down with Bjarke Kovshøj, the Climathon City Manager for Climate-KIC about the role of cities in tackling climate change. 

In this episode, we’ll be answering some big question like:  

  • How on earth do we tackle the global climate crisis and make climate action as easy as possible for citizens?  
  • What role do our cities play in tackling the crisis? And 
  • What can the average citizen do to take action and show they care?  

The interview:

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Full Transcript

My name’s Bjarke Kovshøj, and I’m a city manager for the Climathon Team at Climate-KIC. I’ve been here for roughly for five months, and before that I was a senior project manager and an organisation called CLEAN. Working with cities, primarily city solutions focused on climate change.

Great, so you’ve always been interested, that’s your passion?

Exactly. So I saw graduated from Copenhagen business school, had a Masters there in International Business. But it was actually due to my own kind of interest that I kind of got introduced to a lot of people in first clean-tech then climate related fields and then, yeah, I kind of just got a job from there and also because I think it’s an interesting. A lot of things are happening because it’s very interesting, and obviously it’s for a good cause also, so enjoy that.

Great. And so if people aren’t familiar with the Climathon concept, perhaps you can just briefly describe what it is and what it’s seeking to achieve?

So the Climathon has been running since 2015. I think they started out with 40 cities doing this 24 hour hackathon. Basically you have one or more challenges, and then you invite groups of people. It could be students, business, professional start ups, entrepreneurs, just normal citizens to actually come and get their ideas about Okay, what what we need to do? What do you think about the problem? Come up with the most innovative ideas.

So it was very focused on innovation, accelerating innovation in the cities that participated. And it was a great success, so it actually grew from there. And then every year since 2015 has been global Climathon day, where all Climathons have been taking place. There all been lasting for around 24 hours. There’s been a lot of people involved. Last year we had more than 110 cities on more than 5000 participants, So it’s quite a lot on a global scale, So it’s not just Europe, but obviously, for people who don’t know Climate-KIC… Climate-KIC is an initiative under the European institutions, so called Climate-KIC, so the KIC stands for Knowledge Innovation centre, and it’s supported by the EIT to again basically accelerate support innovation within climate.

Did you know about the Climathon before, were you aware of it, or did you participate maybe?

So the way I got introduced, First and foremost I’ve seen it before. It’s been advertised and obviously I’ve been looking at it because I’ve been working in that field, but I’ve never participated myself. But last year in May, I was part of a conference that actually my old job old employer was hosting. And we had some of the people who’ve joined a Climathon that I think it was the day before and they were working on some of the same challenges just as we were discussing in the workshop and then, you know, just having these people from the Climathon where there was more of a mix of people, you know, not just people from maybe business side. It is a mix of people and students which were very innovative and had some really creative thoughts and really created ideas. And I kind of gave me this feeling off. Okay, this is this is a really cool programme because it gives people the opportunity to raise their voice, take climate action together, and actually kind of dream a little bit.

How how do you want your city to look like? That really motivated me and attracted me And then when I saw a job ad for this position I applied because I want to be a part of this and I think it’s a cool programme.

Obviously, one of the challenges with the programme is that we obviously want to help whatever team comes up with a good idea around the world this year, we’re gonna have more than 140 Climathons. There’s a lot of Climathons, it’s a lot of ideas, it’s a lot of teams. Some of them might just be an idea. Some of them could actually use some help to get to the next stage, you know, maybe find someone funding them or they need to be part of one of Climate-KIC’s other programmes, helping them in an incubator/ accelerator.

From Ideas to Impact

Does Climate-KIC help nurture these ideas that come out of the Climathon into products, businesses things that are making an impact?

That’s what we want to do. So, for all the winning teams will actually be an entry ticket into climate launchpad, which is an incubation programme, run by Climate-KIC also, in the countries where there is a climate launchpad, they’ll have an entry ticket in there.

So that’s one way, obviously other ways are to introduce them to some of the other accelerator programmes that we have or more specific programmes targeting cities. It could also be to – we’re discussing this with a lot of other stakeholders to actually say “OK, well could be introduced him to some externals?”

One of the things that I didn’t mention is It’s not Climate-KIC hosting Climathon in the given city, it’s a local organiser. So it’s someone who’s kind of said “Okay, well, this is a cool concept. I want to bring this to my city. I want to run it” and then we we provide them all the service, from them having a website too. Like how do you actually run a Climathon?

To make it easier for them?

To make it very easy so all they have to do is invite participants and find a venue and then get the funding, obviously for it. And that’s why together with them we actually want to support them also helping their teams follow up on what happened on Global Climathon Day. This year it’s the 25th October. So it’s very soon.

So you’re very busy at the moment, I presume?

Very busy. A lot of questions about you know what’s going on, but it’s that’s where you can feel the excitement also. It’s there soon and a lot of people also asking “How can I sign up? How can I be a part of this?” So it’s really cool. It’s really cool to see, I haven’t been part of a project or programme before, where it’s been as easy. But so many people have been so actively seeking, you know, engagement in the programme. So it really tells me that there is something special.

So you don’t have to do much marketing?

We haven’t done that much marketing, but we have done some obviously. But it’s something where I think people see this as a way of taking climate action and its something you do together with people you wouldn’t normally have worked with or talked to, and this is actually gives you new perspective on things. I think that’s really valuable. Both the people organising in the cities themselves and the citizens.

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of hackathons actually, a lot of them were infrastructure and cities focused. It’s amazing what you can achieve in the weekend just by bringing different brains together. You probably never normally speak to each other. It was really interesting how you mentioned the citizens as well, just average Joe Public from the street can come in and just give his views because normally, the ones I’ve been to at least, it’s just mainly technical people involved in infrastructure. Whereas actually yeah, bringing the citizen’s voice is an important aspect.

It’s it’s kind of creating that bridge right? Because one of the important things is obviously to get your local city authorities on board to create kind of that bridge to have that dialogue that is probably not happening today, where you know people working for the city, they have a lot of good intentions. But maybe they don’t have the insight as citizens have, because they, they’re they’re living in that area that might be flooded from time to time. And I really feel like having this open approach is also something that’s very encouraging for people, encouraged him to sign up.

Also in these times, where there’s a lot of strikes – on Friday there was a Climate strike. So for Climate-KIC we’re actually closing down to go participate to support it personally. But there’s so much focus right now on you know we need to act, we need to do something and a lot of people are taking to the street raising their voice. But then I see Climathon as that platform, where if you are interested in doing something about it, you can go into the street and that’s that’s a very important thing, obviously. But you can also actually take part in something where maybe you feel that you can both raise your voice, but you can also you can start something.

So it’s kind of yeah, giving power.

Citizens for climate action

Yeah, that’s really interesting. And so for this upcoming event in October, you set challenges, specific themes that you’re targeting each year, and are these the same across every city? So everyone’s working on the same challenge or different?

It’s very different and it’s very much depending on the local context, so it will be the local, It’s actually local organisers who set the challenge because again it’s there event and they know the local context the best. So it’s very different what they’re working on. But obviously there are some overarching themes, like mobility or a climate adaption or water or waste.

It’s kind of cuts across and where you see some Climathons working on the same. And what we’ve been trying to do is to connect them, to say okay, well, maybe it’s not exactly the same challenge you have, but you’re working on something where maybe it’s relevant for a city somewhere in Europe, and it’s relevant for somewhere in Africa or the other way around. You’re solving a problem there that could be relevant for someone in your part. How do we make sure that knowledge is also transferred to the people taking part?

Even after then event, once the dust settles and it’s calmed down a bit, you can see that “These four teams were working on very similar stuff, together they can really make a difference”.

Exactly! So that’s actually one of the things that we want to do this year, also, to kind of have a look at “Okay, what actually went on during that day where everyone was just focusing on their local challenge. Now can we maybe connect that broader?”

So what we’ve introduced this year is that global awards show in late January thinks the 31st in Paris at the Change Now Summit where again we will invite the winners of the the national Climathons to take part in this. Again creating some visibility, you know, showcasing all the good ideas that were out there again with the hope that they could potentially then attract some interested funders or they could get some interest from elsewhere. They can maybe meet each other and actually figure out a way to do something to realise their idea.

I really see that also the organizer’s that we have, the people who are organising the events, it could be anywhere from city authority could be the city themselves, or it could be an NGO are maybe a business development organisation or something completely different from that. Also, that I’m hosting the events, and I see all of them that they have this kind of excitement. There was a lot off a lot of things that they want to achieve with bringing this event to the city. So in that way I really see that we built up some kind of strong movement there, which then hopefully be a translate to more implementation of the actual solutions.

One of the ways that we’re trying to also, I wouldn’t call it educate, but support a local organises. This year’s actually also to challenge them a little bit to say “Okay, Climate-KIC is very much moving in the direction of the more transformative thinking.” So it’s not just, you know, if we have a lot of cars on the road, we just need to get everyone to switch to electrical cars were actually thinking “Okay, well, if we have a lot of cars on the road why are they there there in the first place?”

So maybe 80% of the people going to work well… could maybe 50% of them work from home? Or have some kind of car-pooling?

Cars are probably the least efficient method of getting people in and out of cities

Yeh! And its There’s just one way, when you have these Climathons, where you are discussing these problems… it would be good to actually first, look at the problem and say okay, maybe it’s not that there’s cars on the road that’s an actual problem, is the way that we think we have to commute back and forth, for example, from work. Maybe we don’t need to do that every day.

Have you got an example of maybe one of the challenges that one of the city’s is setting this year, just to give a bit of a more hands-on, practical example?

Yeah, that’s a good question. So for the City of Copenhagen actually I have a bit of insight because I’ve been in contact with them.

Oh, is it secret?

No, not at all. It’s not. It’s not all. It’s just a lot of cities currently working on their challenge description. So that’s actually one of the things they’re getting up to speed. In Copenhagen, it’s very open-ended, it’s looking at how can you use energy and create a better energy system when it fluctuates. So that’s one of the things that they’re looking at.

Yesterday I was looking at another challenge in Izmir in Turkey and they have huge problems with forest fires. There’s a whole different category in the whole different focus. But actually they wanted participants to look at “How do we live with nature in our cities? How do we make it a part of the city but still being able to obviously safeguard ourselves but also take care of the nature around us?”

So it’s very much looking at this city development and how we maybe get a bit more green trees and stuff into our cities.

I completely agree and part of the reason why I started this this journey, and I think you’re tackling this in a way, but I think lots of cities and even companies and countries just doing their own thing. But issues like the climate crisis, huge global issues, and tackling forest fires in Izmir is a similar problem to has probably has been solved in other places or some other countries have really good ideas of how to contain that. Perhaps sharing knowledge before an event.

And that’s the thing right, instead of always thinking “I have to come up with the solution”, maybe start to think “okay, what else is out there first?”.

I completely agree… and we’ve also had some Climathons focused on urban heat island effect. So it’s obviously becoming also in in our part of the world is also becoming a bigger issue.

Last year, we actually had one in Vienna, they were also looking at Heat Island effect and one of the winning teams, they came up with this interactive heat map so you could actually see where in the city is it hot at a given time of day.

And that was actually piloted now by the municipality, so they’re using it to show “Okay, where do we have to do something as a municipality.”

Oh, so people are actually building solutions in this 24 hours? It’s not just ideas and workshops?

Yes yeh, like I said, we have more than 140 this year. And for some maybe their solution is that they have that dialogue and they have people actually getting together to discuss a problem. For some Climathons, maybe they’re a bit more advanced or they’re just in a position where they can actually get more into an actual solution for whatever reason that might be.

OK, and to focus in on your role in bringing all this together, you said you’re organising the framework as it were, that every city used.

Yeah, and so my role basically is to be in contact with everyone who wants to organise a Climathon. It’s to make sure that they they know what to do. It’s to help them with any questions that might have, support them with templates and guides and just yeah, basically making sure that they know what they know what to do and obviously giving them a lot of visibility.

Also internally, talking to my colleagues in terms of how do we communicate this and then it’s also reaching out to potential partners so trying to set up partnerships with other organisations that could have similar programmes or that could have an interest in supporting in one way or the other and actually reaching out to them to say okay, like you said before, there’s a lot of interest dialogues innovation going around in a lot of cities around the world that they can do their own stuff. Like that, there’s a lot of city-related programmes also trying to target city development and they also happen in silos.

And what I see now is an opportunity now is also to link some of these programmes together to create an even stronger platform for climate action.

You could kind of see Climathon as the entry into, you know, your climate action journey and then you have a lot of other programmes which are more focused on reaching the actual implementation, which is obviously also one of the goals of the Climathon. But maybe it doesn’t happen for all the Climathons, but it is definitely a goal, but this is where maybe some of these programmes could then come in and and support in the next step for a team that comes up with a great idea.

Yeah if you can act as the integrator of all these separate programs, that would be great!

Exactly and it’s easier for people to also have an overview of what’s actually going on…

Yeh, like “What can I do about [the climate crisis], oh just go to Climathon!”

Exactly.

I’ve noticed there’s quite a few people working here, is everyone here working for Climathon? Or is everyone Climate-KIC?

So, I’m the only one working for Climathon. The rest of my team either Based in Berlin, Amsterdam or Zurich, so were 6 people..

Yeah, And then the rest of what you see that way is still DTU, but that way is Climate-KIC and they work on either education, entrepreneurship, or business development or communications.

Maybe slightly aside from Climathon, but related to what you just said there. The entrepreneurship, is there a good environment in Denmark for cultivating these climate-related startups?

Yeh I think so, like my old job also like focused on that was more SME stuff, but then, but still helping them too, it was kind of trying to create that kind of climate where once you’ve really shown that you have a technology, how do we help you get the projects that you need to grow and there is more focused also on on startups. Obviously what we do here is for my colleagues sitting in entrepreneurship, they’re very much focussed on all of the Nordics. But yeah, there is to some extent, and I think also because many of the incubators supporting start ups in Denmark… obviously a big part of the Danish focus is on clean technology; it’s one of our trademarks and strengths.

So from that comes a lot of startups. But I don’t know if it’s as good as it could be. There’s definitely room for improvement also. But now we also have a government who set really ambitious targets for emission reductions. So hopefully that will also transfer to more money going to for example supporting some startups that have good solutions for that. There’s a lot of other things that also needs to happen in terms of just, you know, the mindset people need to change and everything but hopefully that strong focus we’re off a transfer to a strong focus. W

What’s the public’s shift [in mindset]? How has the general Danish population changed – is there a noticeable change in their mindsets recently, or is it slowly or is there no change?

I think we’ve always been very conscious because Obviously it’s been since the oil crisis has been something that, you know, suddenly wind took off. Denmark was pioneered as one of the really front-runners in Green Technologies. I think it’s kind of in everyone’s perception that, you know we are among front-runners, obviously then looking at all our consumption, then we’re not, then it’s a whole different storey, most because we import a lot of goods and food and everything.

But I would then say that it’s definitely changing. Also in terms of now, I think there’s because of the recent election in Denmark, there was a lot of focus on climate, kind of like in the European election and in a lot of elections there’s been focus on climate because of what happened during the past three years or so also what you’ve seen around the world, so there is definitely an increased focus on it, but I think we’ve always been focusing on it, you know, for city like Copenhagen, they’ve been a front runner. They’ve said we want to be carbon neutral about 2025 so it’s just an ingrained part of I also think of the governments that even no matter whether or not I’ve been left, right or centred and also all the local municipalities, that it’s a big thing.

You are looking for solutions that more environmentally friendly. But I still feel like that needs to change also, in a lot of people’s perception about how we consume.

Do you think people think that’s achievable? The 2025 goal?

That’s a good question, because again, it’s also about how you measure yeah, so there’s a lot of things there.

I think what is really good about that goal is that when they made that goal and everything that they had to do the municipality, whether or not it’s it’s it was a project or a smaller plan somewhere it had to relate to that target.

So you have to think about “how can we limit emissions here?”… we can’t just go for the cheapest options.

Yes! It’s not just an afterthought….

It’s actually something that then was cutting across the whole municipality saying “well, you really need to consider this” in the procurement process, for example.

And are other cities following suit?

I’ve seen that other cities are following this, also in Denmark, there are a lot of cities now where if you if you go through…

Yes, I’ve seen the [sustainable] islands!

Yes it’s in Bornholm, and also Samsø actually is a very sustainable island. But there’s a lot of municipalities published their own climate action plans, which are very ambitious. I don’t know if they have the same goals being carbon neutral, but they have a lot of very ambitious goal in terms of being sustainable.

Great, well thank you very much!

By all means, if you want to join a Climathon on October 25th then whever you are in the world, take a look at the website and then you can see in there’s a Climathon.


Will Needham

Travelling the world talking to the people shaping our future.

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