Sustainability Governance in the City of Tallinn

Published 21 June 2023 


Demos Helsinki and the City of Tallinn, the European Green Capital 2023, joined forces to create an innovative approach to sustainability governance in cities. Together, we embarked on a journey to develop the concept of sustainability governance, aware that cities could hold the key to fostering sustainable transformation and have a pivotal role in shaping the future — just not in ways the world previously thought.


In cities around the world, including Tallinn, notable strides towards sustainability have been made. However, the effectiveness of these endeavours often encounters substantial obstacles within prevailing governance structures. It has become increasingly evident that our current modes of thinking and decision-making are falling short of meeting the pressing demands of sustainability. Governance, as it is today, is built for the industrial era and can’t solve the problems it has created.


Prevailing governance systems are falling short of aligning with the imperatives of sustainability


Redefining Tallinn’s city governance for the climate era

With the City of Tallinn, we delved into the structural components that enable the sustainability transition. By exploring these foundations, we sought to find ways to overcome bottlenecks that hinder progress, paving the way for cities to chart a path towards a more resilient future within planetary boundaries. In brief, we identified:

  • four horizontal principles of how the governance system should behave,
  • how these can be put into action through a process (drawing on our Humble Governance model), and 
  • how to link the above to different strategic management models for contextualised implementation.

A promising approach emerged.


For this collaboration with Tallinn, we continued building on our Humble Governance model as a way to drive forward sustainable collective action. This model has been tested and proven successful in various contexts — for example, the transition to timber construction in Finland. The transformative potential of Humble Governance lies in its ability to foster consensus-building, stakeholder collaboration, effective coordination, and rapid learning and to nurture trust among relevant actors. As an iterative process, it aligns with the need to continuously learn, reflect, and adjust our approach in the face of an unprecedented, complex sustainability crisis. To this end, for this collaboration with the City of Tallinn, we have incorporated mechanisms for continual impact assessment, knowledge accumulation, and iterative approaches and methods. These elements equip us to navigate unforeseen challenges with resilience, adaptability, and purpose.


Next steps for cities and sustainability

Drawing on extensive research and our collaborative endeavours in cities worldwide, we have found that many urban centres grapple with similar bottlenecks impeding transformative change. Prevailing governance systems are falling short of aligning with the imperatives of sustainability. Thus, we encourage cities to chart a new course, embracing novel horizontal principles, processes, roles, and structures designed to break these barriers. Through this, we can foster organisational and individual capacities for decision-making that are fully aligned with sustainability.


The responsibility to shape the future of cities lies in the hands of dedicated leaders. Together, we can revolutionise the very fabric of governance, transcending conventional boundaries and building cities that lead the necessary transition to a sustainable future.


Lilybell Evergreen
Expert, Transformative Governance



Feature Image: anshar73 / iStock.