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The Transition Movement: Creating experimental space for social innovation

January 15 2016

By Noel Longhurst (3S-group)

The Transition Movement is an interesting example of social innovation because whilst at one level it can be regarded as a form of social innovation in itself (as a novel form of community based organizing), it also creates experimental space for further social innovation to take place. This blog reflects on some of the most important ways in which that space is created.  

“Transition has encouraged various experiments with local food production including creating new forms of “commons””
“Transition has encouraged various experiments with local food production including creating new forms of “commons””

The history of the Transition movement has been written many times over, and can be found in many places. Suffice to say that the first initiative was launched in September 2006 in Totnes in the UK, and the idea quickly spread across the UK and beyond. It offered a community based approach to dealing with the twin threats of climate change and peak oil that appealed to many individuals who were frustrated by the lack of action by more powerful governmental and business actors. The deliberately upbeat ethic, practical approach and conviction in the power of community based action found a receptive audience amongst those who were not attracted to more confrontational forms of environmental activism. Over the following years, both the model and the focus evolved, with a greater emphasis on economic resilience emerging in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Since the first project in Totnes over a thousand different transition initiatives have been established and most of these will have launched multiple projects. A recent book and website, timed to coincide with the COP21 climate conference, provides a sense of the range of projects and activities in which ‘Transitioners’ are engaged, including those relating to food, local currencies, community energy and local economic development. So what are the factors that have led to this proliferation of bottom-up creativity? I would suggest that there are at least three:

  • Transition is a multi-faceted movement There has always been a strong ethic of ‘following the energy’ within Transition, in allowing people to participate in the kinds of projects that interest them. It therefore provides a platform for those with a particular interest – whether it be food, education or transport – to pursue activities in this particular area, often with other people who share a similar interest. Local transition initiatives therefore each take a different shape, depending on the kinds of activities that the local activists choose to develop. In many cases these might be replication of projects that have occurred elsewhere illustrated by the spread and evolution of Transition inspired local currencies. However, it also provides the possibility for genuinely new forms of social innovation to emerge.  
  • There is a genuinely experimental ethic The language of experimentalism has always been writ large throughout the Transition movement. Right from the offset there was a ‘Cheerful Disclaimer’ that the instigators of the network could not guarantee that the approach, or its constituent projects, would actually work. This positive attitude towards potential failure – reminiscent of popular perceptions of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism – gives people permission to experiment without being undermined by the stigma of failure. The movement pays considerable attention to process and the techniques that are used in organizing activities and many of these – such as ‘open space’ – support the emergence of new ideas.
  • The movement provides ‘ontological security’ The idea of ‘ontological security’ really refers to the idea of a shared worldview amongst participants. This seems important because it underpins the confidence of participants in pursuing their experimental activities as well as binding them together. This is further enhanced by the sense of being part of a wider international movement that is effecting wider change through the accretion of lots of smaller, local actions. Interestingly there is increasing interest in theories of change within the wider movement, seeking to deepen understanding of the ways in which transition related activities relate to wider ‘systemic’ processes.  

“Local money systems have been one strand of innovation to emerge from the Transition movement” 

So in recent years the Transition movement has refined a process that supports a range of sustainability focused experiments, some of which have grown into fully fledged independent organisations. Like many forms of grassroots activism, there are always problems with resources, burnout, and sustaining initiatives in the longer run when reliant primarily on volunteers and goodwill. The Transition Network provides a source of training, advice and resources to activists, and in recent years the emergence of the REconomy strand of work is part of a greater focus on local enterprise and entrepreneurship as a means of sustaining ventures. There is also the question of the significance of place – such as the possible exceptionalism of Totnes as an experimental place – and the extent to which Transition ideas can be translated to other places. Yet, one of the interesting things about the ‘model’ is its plasticity, so that with its 10-year anniversary coming up soon, it is still being adapted and reinterpreted in new contexts.  

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