Collage via Wikimedia Commons

France's Poorest Cities Now Lead the Nation's Green Revolution

The country's rust belt took these drastic steps to combat its economic decline, and they could work in the US too.

Jun 19 2017, 5:00pm

Collage via Wikimedia Commons

There is something uneasy about attending a private boarding school in the north of France -- one of the country's poorest regions. I saw the remnants of a dying upper class, and the sons and daughters of leading industrialists embrace lavish lifestyles at the expense of an impoverished working class and immigrant youth. My classmates went to polo games, country clubs on the coast and elite social functions, turning a blind eye to soaring jobless figures, social strife, and ethnic tensions chronicled in the local press.

Known for its coal mines and a class conflict that reverberated across the 19th and 20th century, the North of France has experienced industrial decline in the last decades, fueling mass unemployment and widespread poverty. Instead of trying to revive unprofitable and outdated modes of energy production, in October 2013 the local chambers of commerce in the Nord Pas de Calais region built a long-term economic road map. They commissioned American economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin to architect its so-called Third Industrial Revolution plans.

Between 2012 and 2013, Rifkin worked with 120 decisionmakers like CEOs, elected officials, teachers, researchers, unionists, and scientists to produce a socio-economic and environment-saving master plan under the name Rev3 to guide the region's transformation. The plan birthed 350 private and public initiatives in the first two years, and today more than a thousand Rev3-sponsored projects have taken shape. Rev3 has received financial support from the European Investment Bank and a handful of private investment funds. Also, 24 startups have already raised $11 million via Rev3 crowdfunding mechanisms.

Since it was launched, Rev3 has mobilized provinces, territories, communities, universities, companies, associations and citizens to build a connected society through a long-term energy transition and a sustainable economy driven by jobs of the future. Here are its main features.

Energy Transition

The energy transition's main objective is to be off carbon by 2050 and divide greenhouse gas emissions by four. It also emphasizes energy efficiency, aiming to reduce energy consumption by 60 percent before 2050. First signs are encouraging: since the master plan was released four years ago, EDF, the largest French utility company, has already given the public access to residential energy production solutions. Renewable energy production has increased by 15% annually, making the region on track to fulfill its commitments.

Today, 90 percent of new energy produced is renewable. The region has built the second largest wind farm in the country, and has invested in offshore wind turbines that will start to operate in 2020. In 2016, independent companies such as Borax, Eurowatt, and Heliopales added 1500 jobs in the wind energy sector.

Check out more videos from VICE:

Quentin Dubrulle, the founder of Unéole - a company that builds residential wind turbines made of local linen - was driven by Rev3 since its inception: " Rev3 has created a grassroots movement to spur a low-carbon society based on innovative and local initiatives," he said. "They're part of a vision to transform our region."

New Modes of Mobility

A stronghold for car manufacturing, the region employs 29,000 workers and mobility accounts for about 22 percent of the region's energy consumption. But many Rev3-sponsored startups are supporting the region's efforts to reinvent mobility.

Rev3 partnered with the SNCF -- France's state-owned rail transport company -- to build high-speed railway connections between rural towns. In the city of Lille, a company called Pom'road offers a fully electric car-sharing system, and 2R Adventures, a local e-commerce website, commercialized portable electric bikes that will allow you to buzz around the city at a low cost at 30 miles per hour.

Azzédine Guerouaou, a resident of Lille, the largest city in the region, told VICE Impact that it's easy to see what Rev3 accomplishes in city centers: "S ince Rev3 was launched we've seen more charging stations for electric vehicles, more city bikes and waste sorting across the city."

Rebuilding Livable Neighborhoods

Since 89 percent of the Hauts de France population lives in urban areas, one of Rev3's main goals is to build livable, connected communities. Two-thirds of buildings in the region were built before 1975 and were known for their mediocre energy performance, so the region gave tax incentives for eco-renovation projects to retrofit outdated housing.

Rev3 has also overseen the reconversion of old industrial sites into innovative eco-neighborhoods powered by methane and solar energy. For example, a district in the former mining town of Valenciennes rezoned 13 acres of abandoned industrial grounds into an eco-neighborhood powered by hydraulic and geothermal energy that also features 400 smart residential buildings (energy efficient buildings in which wireless technology, heating, air conditioning and safety systems are autonomous and affordable) , student accommodation, green parks, and an EcoPort (an official label given by the EU to port towns that demonstrate good environmental and sustainable development practices).

Social and Sharing Economy

Since the launch of Rev3, the social and sharing economy has become the highest growing sector for job creation. In Nord Pas de Calais, 10,611 Social and Solidarity (SSE) businesses (businesses that aren't driven by profits and are instead focused on social inclusion, social progress, and improving society's well being) employ 150 000 people, accounting for 11.2 percent of the region's total workforce.

As part of Rev3 The Regional Chamber of Social and Solidarity Economy allocates grants ranging from one to twenty-four thousand euros to eligible companies. These grants have enabled many businesses to implement environmentally sustainable work practices. One of those companies, called Clayton, produces decorative wrapping with water-based inks. It recently launched a company-wide "Green Power" plan to involve everyone in its green and social transformation. Rev3 also supports business initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint. Gecco recycles waste oils into biodiesel for public transportation. Oil collection is done using electric bikes. Thanks to Rev3-sponsored R&D, Gecco has found an organic solution to treat waste oils. 1200 tons are recycled annually.

In the old industrial town of Dunkirk, warehouses and defunct factories are retrofitted and revamped into training and co-working spaces called fables or tech shops. Works&CO in the old industrial town of Dunkirk hosts startups, and small businesses, giving them access to 3D printer scanners, IT equipment, storage facilities, seminars, workshops and training sessions.

"Rev3 is a regional movement that has allowed us to build synergies, hire young people, and promote issues that were under-covered," Bastien Dognin, the founder of Les Paniers de Léa, a startup that helps companies implement healthy and green work habits, told VICE Impact. One of their trademark services is the delivery of locally-sourced organic fruit at lunch time.

Education and Culture

It's no secret that France's lopsided education system favors the well-off. The OECD holds that in France being born well is the surest route to academic success. Rev3 recognizes these trends and has made clear that the third industrial revolution concerns all.

Rev3 seeks to give all students access to digital education tools, lower learning costs, and interdisciplinary teaching methods. The Open Source School, which recently opened in Lille in partnership with Rev3 is the perfect product of these new trends. It accommodates students doing apprenticeships and vocational training programs in a post-industrial field, and provides financial aid to young professionals acquiring new skills in the digital space to pursue a career change.

The French rustbelt in the north of the country became the pioneering industrial region in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So it's only fitting that the region is attempting to lead the country's efforts to usher in a new Industrial Revolution via programs like Rev3. With bipartisan political support and the involvement of hundreds of startups, associations, public and private sector initiatives, the region is changing for the future, and other similar rustbelts should take note.