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Impact Work

France is Transforming Old Manufacturing Towns Into Eco-Friendly Cities

After decades of industrial decline, France's northern rust belt took drastic measures to lead the country's economic and sustainable innovation.
Photo via Pexels

Most people say Paris, Cannes, or the Bordeaux area drive France's economy. The French rust belt in the north of the country rarely comes to mind. But after decades of industrial decline fueled by globalization, automation, and the shift of the French economy to the service sector, the Hauts de France region decided to embark on a new economic journey. In 2012, region officials commissioned economist Jeremy Rifkin to architect its so-called Third Industrial Revolution plans.


Together with the local chamber of commerce, they released a master plan called Rev3 that provided guidelines to make the French rust belt one of the most connected, sustainable, and efficient economies in Europe by 2050. So far, Rev3 has mobilized youth, startups, associations, businesses, nonprofits and private initiatives, giving impetus to a grassroots movement that is rewriting the region's future because of the following five objectives:

  • Wean the region off carbon by developing and investing in renewable energy.
  • Modernize and democratize the education system by emphasizing lateral learning and digital information-sharing.
  • Support a social and sharing economy system in which people share goods and services at a low cost.
  • Bolster local and organic food production to ensure agricultural independence and improve health standards
  • Renew old industrial towns into diverse and livable eco-cities.

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To find out what it all means for the rust belt's newfound economic boom, VICE Impact spoke with Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts de France region and Philippe Rapeneau, vice-president and head of the region's Third Industrial Revolution implementation.

How challenging is the Hauts de France's energy revolution in a fossil fuel driven economy?

Philippe Rapeneau: Renewable energy has traditionally been underdeveloped in our region. The central pillar of Rev3 is to catch up and bolster all forms of renewable energy -- solar, wind, geothermal, but also hydrogen. Our region consumes a lot of energy; industrial energy usage accounts for half our energy production, so the aim is to be completely off carbon by 2050.


But we're also seeking to improve energy efficiency and reduce our energy consumption by 60 percent within the same time frame. We want to give our companies and our population access to clean energy. By mass producing clean energy, and investing in residential energy production, we will achieve zero-marginal-cost of energy production.

Was it easier to approve Rev3 because the population in the north of France is one of the country's youngest regions?

PR: Rev3 is dedicated to youth, first and foremost. The third industrial revolution is meant to enable younger generations to find the new jobs of the future. But it's also meant to power and sustain the local economy. This is why Rev3 emphasizes the sharing economy, sustainable development, crowdfunding, and more. It's to adapt our region's economy to the interests, values and consumption patterns of millennials. But we're also aware that these trends pose a challenge for youth, and Rev3 is a constructive way to respond to these difficulties.

Entering the Third Industrial Revolution supposedly requires a profound ideological shift and political will. Do you agree?

Xavier Bertrand: Rev3 would never have taken shape without political will. Rifkin made sure that the project would get bipartisan support to ensure that it would continue regardless of political changeovers. Even inside our region, cities and areas that accommodate the highest number of Rev3-sponsored initiatives and projects are places where city officials are fully invested.


Now one of our greatest challenges is to build more Rev3 projects in remote and rural areas. We also want to export the Rev3 framework outside of this region, and outside of France into other European countries. There needs to be integration at the European level for this to work. There are now plans in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Bratislava. And Spain and Portugal will follow shortly. We also recently received an Austrian delegation and we're also talking with a delegation in Quebec. Our dream is to build a comprehensive Rev3 European network.

Should people be surprised that the French rust belt is trying to lead the country's economic innovation?

XB: In five years we've accomplished great things. We've sponsored more than a thousand Rev3-labeled projects. It's influencing every sector, from construction to communications, agriculture and so on. But I admit that we need to promote our Third Industrial Revolution efforts more. We're one step ahead and we want to continue supporting innovation, but we want to encourage thousands more Rev3 initiatives that will increase our region's standing in Europe and influence abroad.

What are the most important Rev3 initiatives to you?

PR: I'm very fond of what're doing to build smart networks and intelligent grids on city outskirts. We also transformed entire industrial towns into environmentally friendly, innovative and diverse neighborhoods. My personal favorite is a residential wind turbine project called UNEOLE. This Rev3-labeled startup created small-scale urban wind turbines made out of local linen that you can install on top of residential buildings. I'm also very attached to the University of Lille's project to become the first zero carbon university in Europe.

But to me, the most successful aspect of Rev3 is that all project and initiatives have mobilized local companies, civil society initiatives, startups, associations that drive such a huge industrial change.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity