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Governing the “good citizen” and shaping the “model city” to tackle climate change: Materiality, economic discourse and exemplarity

Roger Berquier (Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK)
Delphine Gibassier (Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK)

Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal

ISSN: 2040-8021

Article publication date: 25 July 2019

Issue publication date: 18 September 2019




Cities are key actors in the fight against climate change. They have developed integrated strategies harnessing the power of information and communication technologies (ICT) as part of the move towards smart(er) cities. In spite of our knowledge of the role of technological infrastructure in tackling climate change, the role of governance mechanisms to actively pursue environmental sustainability is often understated. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to analyse governmentality mechanisms developed by a small town in Europe to render energy savings and new energy sources visible and to create new identities with which the citizen and other cities could then identify with, thereby participating in the fight against climate change.


Data were gathered through non-participant observation, interviews and access to internal data from the city’s energy control project.


The outcome of these governmentality mechanisms was to create two new identities: the “good citizen”, responsible to lower his impact on climate change, and the “model city”, a laboratory that would serve as a guide for future policies to tackle climate change at the city level. While the “model city” was successful and identification happened with other small cities taking example from it, the “good citizen” failed and inhabitants did not identify with this role model that was defined for them as a way to participate in the fight against climate change.

Practical implications

This case study is a concrete example, based on a longitudinal study, of a city’s strategy and actions on climate change. Other small cities will be able to use this case study to gauge their possibilities for action on climate change. Notably, it is an example of how a network of mechanisms can achieve results in CO2 emissions reduction. It also demonstrates the difficulty to enrol citizens into an environmental sustainability scheme.

Social implications

This paper has implications for how climate change can be tackled in rural areas by small cities. While the role of organizations and large cities (e.g. C40 city network) has been acknowledged, there is a possibility for smaller local actors to act upon grand challenges with local strategies and their own governmentality mechanisms.


The case study contributes to the literature on cities, bringing new insights into how they can become actors of climate change beyond acting on internal controls, and the literature on governmentality by demonstrating how mechanisms can act upon a population without being calculative.



The authors would like to thank all those who agreed to be interviewed in relation to the city’s longitudinal energy control project. Interviewees do not necessarily endorse the analysis, which is the responsibility of the authors. The authors also acknowledge the many helpful comments from Marie Boitier, Sami El Omari, Anne Rivière, Simon Alcouffe, Wafa Khlif, Kim Ceulemans, Fabienne Oriot, Maxence Postaire and Richard Jabot. Also, they would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers and the guest editors of the special issue for their comments through which the authors were able to greatly improve the paper.


Berquier, R. and Gibassier, D. (2019), "Governing the “good citizen” and shaping the “model city” to tackle climate change: Materiality, economic discourse and exemplarity", Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 710-744.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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