©Julien Mignot

Rennes, a lab for Europe

“The mission was to combat Euroscepticism and put people in touch with Europe, not only receiving but also generating European ideas,” Says Anabel Marie, Rennes Municipal Councillor for Europe. “We needed a different way of talking about things, not boring meetings where we talk about what local projects are funded by the ERDF.” But the city never expected to become suddenly awash with video-game ideas, Europe-webbed music maps or online bird-spying devices. That all came from the people.

Whose Europe?

©Julien Mignot

Rennes has always considered its relationship with Europe to be an important part of its local identity, but not everyone in the city feels the same way. “We have some Euroscepticism. People who feel like the EU is a distant, malignant thing. Not to tell them ‘Oh, Europe is great!’ but to help them feel like the EU is not so far away, and that they can discuss it in a critical but informed way. We were holding meetings about our relationship with Europe, but the people coming were always the same; they were interested anyway. We wanted to reach out to a different, wider audience.”

That’s where the idea for Labo Europe came in. The city had been running something called ‘Fabrique Citoyenne’ since 2014, an opportunity for locals to dialogue about and co-create local public policies. Why couldn’t this approach be transformed to refresh the way that the city talks about Europe to its residents? This came at the same moment as Eurocities launched its campaign ‘Cities4Europe-Europe4Citizens’ to promote new forms of democracy, so the city leaped at the chance to “show that cities are an outstanding vector for strengthening European citizenship,” Anabel says.

Taking it to the laboratory

©Julien Mignot

So what is the Labo Europe? “It’s an open approach where people experiment to create new ways of talking about Europe, to everyone and with everyone.” It all started with a workshop with Rennes’ elected representatives and staff from several departments of the city, like the departments of youth, culture, participatory democracy. They put their heads together and built the blueprints, then they set out trying to pinpoint new people to include: Environmentalists, foreign language students, local associations; these people, with their diverse profiles and skills ended up being the 200 members of Labo Europe.

The city organises workshops where this diverse group comes together and gets creative around Europe. The Labo holds around two events per year, which take plenty of preparation. Two civil servants are dedicated to the upcoming event for three months full-time, and the event itself costs between €10,000-20,000. “It’s a tool for experiment,” Anabel says, “so we don’t ask ourselves about what is earned, but what is learned and what works or not. But one of the big gains for our administration is that the new skills and methods we learn can be transferred, or ‘reinvested’ into other local projects.”

What borders?

©Julien Mignot

Anabel remembers one event in particular, the Europe Remix in 2018. During this two-day hackathon, 60 people worked to prototype new ways to talk about Europe. “It was amazing: We got old people, retired people, young people, we even had people coming from our twin cities from Erlangen and Poznan, in Germany and Poland, to participate.” People chose a group, environment, migration, citizenship, data or culture. “The environment group made this amazing thing. It was a birdhouse that takes a picture of the bird when it lands to feed. The snap is automatically uploaded to an online database, expressed through a map of Europe. The idea has caught on like wildfire, and groups and schools are now using it all over Europe.” Now you can keep up with the birds as they migrate across European borders, even if you can’t fly along with them.

In another event, they gave participants datasets – European bands that had played in Rennes, Erasmus figures about where local students had gone to study, or where they had come from through the programme. From piles of lifeless data, suddenly the city had five videos that brought these international vectors of music and education to life.

Great games have cropped up too. One mobile game asks the question, what would Rennes look like if the EU didn’t exist? It drops the player in a dystopian future where EU environmental policy has not protected the quality of the air or nature, where EU funds have not helped to build roads or buildings. A proposed board game even uses real migrant testimonies as players race each other from eastern Africa to Rennes.

Coming up against challenges

This does not just happen automatically

“This does not just happen automatically,” Anabel says, “It takes a lot of work to keep people engaged and committed. We don’t charge a membership fee for the Labo or anything, so we have to constantly draw them in.” When you have diverse membership, you also have diverse constraints – people coming as part of their organisation’s work want events during the day, those who are coming in their spare time prefer the evening. Those with a responsibility to look after children may prefer the weekend, while those running their own weekend activities prefer mid-week.

“We estimate that about 50% of our time is spent with outreach, telling and retelling the story of the Labo approach and keeping people interested,” says Anabel. That means a lot of time on Facebook and other social network accounts of the City Hall, for which there can be a lot of competition from other departments.

©Christophe Simonato

It also requires a bit of a ‘split personality’. “We want people to understand that the city is facilitating these events, but we don’t want it to feel too stuffy either – we don’t want to march everyone into the city hall. It’s better to host these things in bars or cafés – social spaces. But there we have technical constraints – the wifi isn’t good enough to live-stream, as we had hoped. Buying services like wifi, or space from sites like Meet Up, is a little tough with our rules for payment, which are not exactly simple, I would say.”

Another thing the city recommends to others is always keeping the audience and the topic sharply in focus. “We held one event where the topic was ‘youth’. It seems like a simple concept, but we had a bit of a disappointing turnout, and we asked ourselves why. After some investigation, we hit upon the problem: who is ‘youth’? Is it young kids? High school students? University students? These are groups that are especially sensitive to differences in age, so you have to be sure that they know that they’re the ones you’re talking to, for example reassuring high school students that they won’t end up at an event with loads of little kids running around.

An experimental future

What will the future of the Labo be? “Rennes will never stop experimenting,” Anabel says, “We are at the beginning of a new political mandate, and we want to keep expanding the use of experimentation and participation, because this is at the core of our values here in Rennes. Every time we run the Labo Europe, we see something new; we repeat it, but each time it’s different.

This is at the core of our values here in Rennes
We want to bring that same vitality to other events, and other local activities. We’re already working on getting it into more schools and educational institutions of all kinds.”

The residents of Rennes are quite an engaged bunch, according to Anabel, and that tells well for the future of the city: “What is specific to Rennes is that we have 8,000 associations, of all kinds: Cultural, digital, entrepreneurial… It’s a very strong ecosystem. In Rennes, one of every four people is involved in an association of some kind. We just need to keep harnessing the power of that culture of participation, because, these days, we need to be together more than ever.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer