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Version française de cette page : Le territoire, brique de base de la gouvernance du XXIe siècle

The territory, foundation brick of governance in the 21st century

Extracts from « La Démocratie en miettes », Pierre Calame (2003)

Rédigé par : Claire Launay, Thomas Mouriès

Date de rédaction : 2007

Organismes : Institut de recherche et débat sur la gouvernance (IRG), Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme (FPH)

Documents sources

Dossier : 9 thèses pour repenser la gouvernance, Résumés et extraits du livre « La Démocratie en miettes » de Pierre Calame, Ed. Charles Léopold Mayer, Descartes, Paris, 2003.

The active subsidiarity principle allowed us to understand in particular how different levels of governance communicate and cooperate with each other. Among these governing levels, the local territory represents the place where we can concretely identify both the acting individuals, the occurrence of the problems as well as their effect. Far from being an abstract and subsidiary environment, it is the typical place where relations between the actors involved and different ranks of governance are constructed. This implies the necessity to “  think locally  » in order to understand one of the key issues of the 21st century governance: the “  revenge of the territories  ".

(…) I will show that local territory, a concept which will be explained fully below, is the real foundation brick of governance, the basic unit from which all the structure is built upon, from the local to the global, depending on architecture, a meccano, which active subsidiarity is the structural principle.


What is a territory and under what conditions it can become the fundamental brick of governance? Even more than in other areas, a new way of thinking is necessary.

If you ask a local policy and administrative manager what a territory is, if you ask a local planning officer what a territory is, he will be amused so much the answer seems obvious: it is a physical area delimited by administrative and political borders. It is this type of territory the interlocutor is aware of and he does not know any other. (…)

What is dramatic in this approach is that the mentalities are constantly changing, that the cities for instance, keep expanding in space up to the point where the distinction to their fringe between urban and rural world become more and more fictitious. In addition, each type of problem would lead to define its own “relevant territory”: on the scale of which the major interdependencies for that problem are organised. It will probably be the housing sector for accommodation, the urban and peri-urban road network for transport, the sector of employment for economic development, the main watersheds for water, etc. (…)

The point of view changes completely if one defines the world of today, in particular the territory, like a complex system of relations and trade. Thus, the development is intended to enhance, improve and control the different systems of relation. The territorial management implies one ought to know them well and learn the multiple ways to enrich them. In that case, the territory appears no longer as a geographic area or an administrative and political entity defining an inside and an outside, but as the public square where relations from varied nature meet. (…)

It is precisely the new importance of the relations which leads to territorialize yet again our thinking. The territory appears under two aspects  : first, a superposition of critical relations between the problems, the actors involved, between humanity and the biosphere, a privileged environment where goods are made valuable and multiplied while being shared  ; secondly, it is the place where relations between different levels of governance are organised.

As a result, the traditional issue of “think globally and act locally” is almost reversed. It is based on the local that one must think. To think of the relations, one can not but “think outside the box”, from local realities. (…)

This is a particularly symbolic way to explain reality more broadly  : starting from the territory forces us to go from concrete facts, with participants in the flesh and real links in place of the handling of abstract systems for which there is ultimately no criterion to distinguish the truth from the false.(…)

(…) It is in fact on the territory level that one can examine the forms of current development and the mental and conceptual systems underpinning them. It is based on the local scale that one can best describe the pathologies of these types of development, question the reality of the needs we pretend to accommodate, and find alternatives. In all the countries of the world, economic globalisation is more influential at the local level. For example, a farmer in Mali is directly affected by the world production and marketing chains of rice or by the subsidies paid by the United States to its cotton producers.

To sum up, coming back to active subsidiarity, territory appears both as the point of implementation of guiding principles set out at another level, as the space of cooperation between different levels of governance and the place where we think, evaluate and explore new perspectives. (…)


(…) The scientific, technical and technological development has rendered us more ignorant of concrete realities around us. Not only we occult death and unnecessary things, but on top of that, as everything is converted into money and everything can be exchanged in the global market, money becomes central to everything and knowledge on concrete relations is blurred.

For example, a French city barely knows its energy consumption, poorly manages flow exchange of goods and services internally and abroad, poorly controls the expansion of knowledge. (…)

(…) In decades to come, the development of effective tools for the management of multiple relations at a territory scale will be one of the most promising innovative fields for the governance. We will then discover as I mentioned it, on the historical perspective, that the industrial system of the 19th century, the organisation of the State and trade, in short, everything that had transformed the territories into abstract environments with poor quality, and replaced the communities by individuals that are interchangeable has been nothing but a break in history.

The revenge of the territories extends even to areas such as Education and Science which, passing or developing universal knowledge, seemingly have to be de-territorialized by their very nature. This is not the case however. The agenda for the 21st century from the World Citizens Assembly is more specific in this regard. The forthcoming transformation of Education and Science will be similar to that of the governance and for the same reasons: if the challenges of today’s world are based on the recognition of the relations, Education and Science should primarily contribute to take them up. Nicolas Bouleau, a mathematician and professor at the “École Nationale des ponts et chaussées” made a particularly interesting comment in this regard. According to him, there are two types of science. The first one which became hegemonic during the last two centuries tends to enunciate true principles regardless of the context. (…) However, he said there is another science which is as rigorous as the first one. It is as follows  : «  in any situation I can find a satisfactory answer to the question asked.” It is this second type of science that is best suited to our current situation and one may notice that its statement is very similar to that of the active subsidiarity principle. This science must develop in the field. Where can it be done except on a territory level? If, like Edgar Morin said, the first objective of Education is to enable future adults to understand the human nature and to manage the complex world, where can we achieve it better other than at the territory level and from teaching which is rooted in the territory  ? The major role of territory in Education is mainly demonstrated in the teaching of citizenship. This learning means that firstly, one ought to change his/her environment, take responsibilities and make reference to concrete actors. Secondly, in the institution of communities, it also includes an ability to specify the rules together. This is however possible only in concrete situations, deeply rooted, with identified actors.

Translation in English

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