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Interview Professor Van Montfort: simple solutions for complex sustainability challenges

Cities and urban areas are often perceived as being a large part of the problem when it comes to their impact on the environment. At the same time, urban areas are the place where solutions are found. Prof. Cor van Montfort from Tilburg University is initiating a research project together with Dr. Ank Michels from Utrecht University on public-private partnerships and sustainable cities. EMI interviewed the Professor about this ambitious project.

Why do you focus on public-private partnerships in this research project?

‘It is noticeable that many governments, inside and outside Europe, do not have the capacity to independently solve the challenges in the field of sustainability. Neither do citizens. That is the main reason why governments take the initiative to involve more and more private companies to tackle these problems in a partnership. This is one way of building a public-private partnership, but partnerships could also be created between the government and civil society, for example, including neighbourhood organisations or women’s rights movements. Another way to create partnerships is between private organisations and civil society. Think of sponsored activities focussing on a better environment financed by private companies.’

What is your approach for this research project?

‘Within this project we will compare public-private partnerships on sustainability in different cities by analysing the role of 3 main aspects:

  • Government: does government take the lead in a project or remain more passive? is the government sufficiently prepared to secure public interests in such – often complex - partnerships?
  • Regulations and judicial system: are there laws and rules setting boundaries to the execution of the project and can these boundaries be overcome?
  • Governance: to what degree are projects transparent to the public and how is accountability of the government and the project as a whole arranged?’


What is the main aim of this project?

‘The research has as its main aim to stimulate the exchange of knowledge between cities about public-private partnerships on sustainability, especially in the fields of water and waste (like waste water purification, water supply or waste collection). It is our aim to let cities learn from each other. In this comparison we actually see it as an advantage to compare projects with different contexts, because these differences can particularly inspire cities to come up with new ideas and solutions.’

What can Western cities learn from non-Western countries, like India?

‘Last year we visited different projects in India and China. In both countries the number of public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects is increasing. It’s interesting to notice that a fast-developing country like India, with low funds, is very good at finding simple solutions  for very complex problems. Whereas the West often comes up with very complex solutions for simple problems. An example is the way in which India arranges accountability of city officials in social audits organised in neighbourhoods. Such a social audit gives citizens the opportunity to call city officials to order in a direct and non-complex way.’


How can European cities participate in this project?

‘We will organise an international conference on this subject in the Netherlands. We also plan to develop a book with advice, practices and reviews of research. On the longer term we strive for a network to stimulate the exchange of knowledge. We are still looking for public-private partnership projects in the fields of water and waste that contribute to sustainable urban development in European cities and in the BRIC countries. Are you a city involved in such a project and interested in participating in this project? Or would you like more information on the project, please e-mail Prof. Van Montfort.’