SPREAD – The drive towards sustainable living by 2050

Modern European lifestyles still put too much pressure on natural resources and are unsustainable. The SPREAD Sustainable Lifestyles 2050 research project has made impressive progress towards building long-lasting bridges between different stakeholders in society – businesses, researchers, policy makers, civil society organisations (CSOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and citizens – to achieve sustainable living across Europe by 2050.

Consumption of food and drink, private transportation and housing are responsible for 70-80% of Europe’s environmental impact. For example, domestic heating, water usage, appliance and electronics account for 40% of Europe’s total energy consumption, and car ownership in the EU-27 increased by 35% in the period 1990–2007. How to maintain our quality of life while staying within global resource limits is a simple question with an extremely complex answer.

Since the problem of unsustainability encompasses many different sectors of society - business, transport, energy, leisure, living, consumption, the environment and the economy, so must the solution. However, current sustainability initiatives tend to be scattered between disciplines without a common platform for sharing ideas and developing strategies for change.

For these reasons, the creation of a platform to consolidate existing knowledge on sustainability has been a major achievement of the SPREAD project in its own right. However, the wider aim of the project, which ends in December 2012, is to trigger policy at the regional, EU and international level, as well as providing inputs for the research agenda towards more sustainable living.

A unique aspect of the SPREAD project is the role that public consultation plays at every stage, via an online People’s Forum (http://www.sustainable-lifestyles.eu/community). The aim is that this brings a ‘real world’ perspective into the discussion in terms of the realities that citizens face every day in striving for more sustainable lifestyles. By taking part in the debate, citizens can participate in the elaboration of research and policy agendas as well as understand their role in the transition.

Visions of sustainable living

After a detailed analysis of existing and emerging sustainability initiatives – so called ‘promising practices’, the SPREAD researchers developed visions of sustainable lifestyles in 2050 by projecting the promising practices into the future. These visions evolved around the themes of:

  • The value of community as the key social driver.
  • Convenience offered by collaborative-based infrastructure, mutual support solutions and new household-centric economies.
  • Trust as the result of closer personal relationships, individual engagement in the community and reciprocity.
  • Global-local inter-linkages.
  • Sharing of goods, infrastructure and access to culture through collaborative services.
  • A toolbox for change makers which helps to enable the transition towards the vision that includes: wellbeing and happiness indicators at local levels; alternative currencies and reward schemes; and a feedback system showing the consumption of resources at individual and community levels.

SPREAD then used these visions to identify key messages for policy makers, what the drivers for and barriers against global change are and who the main players will be.

Key messages for policy makers:

  • Striving for sustainability needs a multi-disciplinary, human-centred approach that includes agriculture, health, education, finance, urban planning, social affairs and welfare, trade and transport, energy, environmental protection and climate change.
  • The value of community is key. The focus should shift away from the individual to the community and move towards community-led rather than ‘top-down’ approaches to encourage collaboration among people.
  • A deeper understanding of citizens’ motivations is required to encourage awareness, alter behaviour and bring sustainable solutions into everyday life.
  • Societal innovation must be supported by creative and resilient infrastructure (see drivers of change below).
  • Promising examples of sustainable living need to be further explored and tested so that indicators and boundaries of sustainable living can be better defined.
  • Potential trade-offs and drawbacks should be analysed as well as benefits to monitor inequalities across different social groups.

What will the drivers of global change be?

  • Better-connected communities achieved through innovative urban planning, multi-functionality of buildings and spaces, web and mobile technologies, sharing of resources, growing own food locally.
  • ‘Distributed economies’ (systems of regionally distributed production) to enable people to produce and consume locally and seasonally.
  • Energy savings through the design and construction of efficient buildings and appliances, especially in dense neighbourhoods.
  • Convenient yet cost-effective intermodal transport solutions linking air, rail, road and personal transport.
  • Reduced mobility and transportation use resulting from well-planned and self-sufficient cities.

What are the barriers that need to be overcome?

  • Social and cultural norms. This means rethinking the value attached to GDP and material wealth to include the value of the environment, well-being and quality of life.
  • Slow implementation of infrastructure and lack of support for sustainable solutions due to the long period of time before the high initial costs are recouped.
  • Our existing energy system is based around centralised rather than distributed production and supply.
  • Gap in education that calls for the integration of specific sustainability programmes into academic curriculum and life-long training.

Who will the major players be?

  • European regulatory authorities – to bring about a people-centric, holistic approach to sustainability.
  • Local governments – to target resources and co-design cities and communities.
  • Public health systems – to evaluate the costs and benefits of sustainable initiatives.
  • Social network technologies – to promote social and technological innovation.
  • Social entrepreneurs – to create new enterprises and bottom-up drivers for change.
  • Educational institutions – to promote civic activity in the public interest.
  • Product designers and architects – to integrate their skills into multi-disciplinary teams to design highly efficient housing.
  • Businesses – to invest responsibly in sustainable business models and supply chains.
  • NGOs and CSOs – to improve coalition, foster debate and influence the political agenda.

In the next phase of the project, a roadmap of action strategies for individuals, businesses, civil society groups, researchers and policy makers will be established, based on four future scenarios for sustainable lifestyles in 20501, which were developed in recent months with the support of different experts and stakeholders. A final policy brief will be produced at the end of the project in December 2012.


1 See: http://www.sustainable-lifestyles.eu/publications/publications.html

SPREAD – Social platform identifying research and policy needs for sustainable lifestyles (duration: 1/1/2011 – 31/12/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 2, “Combining economic, social and environmental objectives in a European perspective”. Co-ordination and Support Action.

See: http://www.sustainable-lifestyles.eu (project website); http://www.sustainable-lifestyles.eu/community (online community forum)

Contact: Cheryl Hicks, cheryl.hicks@scp-centre.org; Rosa Groezinger, rosa.groezinger@scp-centre.org