On the Sustainable Penang 24/7 Citizen Forum and the divergence of ideas

Dear Friends and members of this open public forum,

We are now getting into the true nitty-gritty fundamentals here and I would not like to leave this behind us too quickly.  The disagreements are creative and as far as I am concerned a critical part of the reason we are here.  Here are a few points I would like to share with you.

  1. SELF-ORGANIZED SYSTEM. First, this is — as we can see if we just look — an example of a self-organized system. Yes, LTH had the brilliant — the word is not too strong – idea of inviting this group’s 24/7 open conversations, and as I think we all pretty much understood on the topic of “Sustainable Penang “, and within that broad frame the issues and contradictions that exist and that are holding back the necessary move to a well thought-out, thoroughly professional strategic vision and plan of sustainable transportation, land use and public spaces in Penang.

But in self-organizing systems, what happens is that the various participants express a variety of opinions and desires on their particular areas of expertise and concern, and gradually a– and with a little luck — the whole complicated mechanism of discussion and exchanges lurches to uncover opportunities and priorities for a truly Sustainable Penang .  And that is pretty much what is happening here and which you can see clearly if you page through the full record of the discussions, either directly here (takes time) or more easily on the first of a series of regular updates on these exchanges which anyone can freely follow through our Public Library at https://goo.gl/gJTJZD.

All that said, what I think is going to happen here is that within this discussion we are going together to lurch toward a number of greater truths, together and at times uncomfortably.

The discussions are unstructured, which makes them very awkward and time consuming to deal with — but these are the voices of concerned citizens and that is what democracy is all about.  And it starts with a potential for LISTENING. Including to people who may not agree with you or your plan.


Ouch! Don’t agree! In this regard, here is what I believe to be an extremely important, and exemplary point.  Namely, as but one example, the discussions around the JKR tree cutting to increase traffic capacity. Someone here made the point that “Protests and such are not in line with the aspirations of this group…. Leave that to others, if need.”

angry public meeting

Image: Published in Civil Society and European Union Policy and Practice in Field of Transportation

As someone who spends most of his time as an independent mediator in these kinds of difficult situations in very different contexts, I must react to that. Indeed, these “protests” (and protests like them) are 100% the business of civil society in general, and this informal citizen forum as well.

There are three fundamental points there that need to be sorted out:

(a) The first is the utter uselessness of this failed 20th century approach of increasing traffic capacity through construction projects. We have known this for more than half a century and there is no reason that the environment of Penang should suffer because of such outmoded, inefficient and reactionary policies, whose long term impacts are exactly the opposite of the initial goals.

(b) Your distinguished international transport consultants, Halcrow, make this point again and again in the more than two thousand pages of their six volume 2012-2013 reports and the three major accompanying background documents.  Their counsel most consistently recommends that you do “not try to build your way out of the problem”. Their approach is more strategic and reality based.

(c) And last because the “tree protesters” are right, not only because they like trees but also because they are arguing for consistent and strategic policies and measures, which is most definitely not the case today.


Because I was honored that Penang and Think City thought enough of my work as an adviser and mediator to invite me to spend several weeks in the early fall of 2013 to be educated by more than two hundred Penangites in private and small group sessions (the full story is in the November 2013 report and 14-page executive summary that you will find in the library), because I worked hard and learned a lot, and because I fell in love with the people of Penang. Enough so that after I left I have given a fair slice of my time and work over the last two years to support Sustainable Penang, as a friend of Penang.

It is proving a great experience I am making a number of new friends, including through this terrific forum — and thanks again LTH for this outstanding initiative).   I guess what I like most about it is our creative disagreements, unanswered questions, and respect for different ideas.

Let’s keep going and let’s not try to get too “organized”.  You already see a bit too much of this as far as I am concerned.

Eric Britton

PS. Volume II of the collected comments of this forum will be added to the Public Library by Monday morning. It makes fascinating reading.

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Background reading and references:

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About the author:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton

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