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TRANSIT Facing Societal Challenges #3 | Transformative Social Innovation: a prospective

November 8 2017

By Tim O’Riordan, chair TRANSIT Advisory Board 

The TRANSIT experience has been liberating. I have enjoyed the privilege of chairing its International Advisory Board, composed of wonderful and knowledgeable colleagues, who have learned and guided this mighty research project over its nearly five years of existence.

We have all gained from our companionship and our journeys. Here is a group of friendly and compatible researchers who share a common cause of exploration and discovery. They emerged at the outset of TRANSIT from different perspectives and disciplines, from many learning and living cultures, and from varying ideologies and expectations. Such diversity makes for great research and productive enterprise, if well championed. This was the case here under the very special leadership of the team in DRIFT. They have wide experience in this kaleidoscope of learning. But in TRANSIT they surpassed themselves.  Their confident, sensitive and participatory approach to this evolving panorama was a joy to behold.

What did we learn? The history of social learning reflects the microwaves of the original cosmos.  Transformations are the wrinkles which collect energy and pulse innovation. Any evolutionary process requires such disturbances for its continuation. The delight of this research was the huge and energising variety of people and activities which gave transformative social innovation both meaning and life. What was so impressive was the persistence of the movements, the charismatic elements of their dynamism, their exciting flexibilities and pragmatic accommodativeness, and the specialness of their leaders. All of the cases we studied carried three elements of fire. One was a commitment to persistence. A second was the scope for rapid but collective innovation if change was required. And the third was the exuberance of the participants who proved that social innovation is so worthwhile.

As the TRANSIT Manifesto introduces, we live in an anxious world. For some, the future should be rosy as they are well educated, financially and emotionally supported by their families, and well trained. But for a growing minority, these felicitous conditions no longer apply. They may not be able to accommodate the changing worlds of employment and demanding capabilities which are careering over the horizon. They might not be financially buttressed to buy a property or to rent appropriate accommodation. They cannot guarantee their health or their supportive families and friends. They may well face rising costs of pension contributions and longer periods of working before their pensions mature. They may feel uncertain, angry, or resentful of their emerging plight. And they may seek recourse in isolationism, or ephemeral social relationships, or in dispersed travel, or in rootlessness. This is not betterment for them.

Transformative social innovation should seek the betterment beyond the ambit of its activists and its supporters. It should work towards creating the social and political conditions for changes in the economics of living where nature, society and economy rightfully and mutually intertwine. It needs to ensure that there is the ecological and social safe space for survival for all future life on this planet. Above all it should provide a template of examples of how to establish the capabilities of adaptation and innovation so that all young people today can live sustainably until the end of their natural lives. This means throughout this whole of this century.

The TRANSIT experience offers encouragement. There are many examples in the case work of exciting approaches to living which can engender health, security, companionship, nature assimilation, and viable contentment beyond the dysfunctional mainstream. TRANSIT provides the beacons of hope. What we learnt is that transformative social innovation is alive, is maturing, is evolving, and is expanding. This is heartening, at the very least that it is just good to know. And TRANSIT has enabled us all to know.

But these innovations are neither secure nor reliable. All of the schemes are viable but they are also ephemeral, local and require effort to maintain as effective networks. The cause lies not in their stars but in the failures of their institutional settings. We need policies which free up their scope for earning in unconventional ways. We need tax arrangements which do not penalise their fledgling incomes as the move from puberty to adulthood. We need social placenta which encourage them to form and to experiment without the crises of closure or of disapproval. They should never become mainstream, as this is not the way of wrinkles. They need to be assured of support from the heartland of policy financial support, social excitement and prospective hope. Then it may be possible to bring in the next generation who might otherwise be marginalised by the mainstream.

I see this as an essential vision for the coming 25 years. This should be the period of carbon contraction big time. It will be the period of great international turbulence where globalism will progressively be counted out. It will be the period of creative localism and much more self-reliance. It will capture the disaffected, the downtrodden and the despairing. It has to do so as there are no other feasible alternatives for more than a third of present young people in prosperous countries, who face ill heath physically and mentally, who are trapped in poverty or destitution and who are unable to travel in the face of increasing hostility to migration.

TRANSIT shows us that there is a way forward. That there is scope for local community endeavour and innovation.  This should be championed, exalted on social media and websites, and which should steadily coalesce into the thousand varieties which is the hallmark of innovation. Of course this cannot happen unless there is transformation of the mainstream.

Surely here is the ultimate learning of the TRANSIT experience. We need to examine just what will be needed to ensure that the mainstream innovates so as to be accommodating. This will apply to the pensions, the taxation and the benefits regimes, so they are friendly to transformative social innovations. There should be a constructive exploration of the basic wage or social income proposals so that there is scope for various versions of social contracts and mutual personal community and state agreements. There can be a fresh look at the whole idea of responsible citizenship so that everyone feels confident and supportive of cooperation and sharing of communal betterment. We need to nudge the economic measures so that the key constructs of wellbeing (individual competence and confidence, self-esteem, personal health, warm and supportive social relations, and reliable accommodation and employment) become the hallmarks of prosperity.

These are easy suggestions to compose and to promote. They are much more troublesome to put into effect. The great hope stemming from TRANSIT is that the next stages of transformative social innovation take place in the mainstream and not its margins. Then the core and the periphery can pragmatically merge with the scope for continued productive evolution. It is possible that the coming perturbations of the mainstream economies and polities, plus further dislocations on international relations and the dysfunctions of globalism, will combine to galvanise the experimentation of the mainstream into fresh frameworks for transformation.

I firmly believe this to be the case. Disaffection with politics and politicians, and the exuberant disturbance of social media are fragmenting the conventional communications of democracies. Indeed my learning form my glorious five years with TRANSIT assures me that this just must be the case. We cannot sit idly by if more than a third of our forthcoming electorate are displaced, displeased, and disintegrating. This is not a society or a democracy, it is merely people living in tense isolation. Humanity has not come all of this way to break down. TRANSIT shows that it is indeed possible to reconstruct. What a wonderful lesson to learn and what a wonderful prospect to behold. Surely this is the mighty legacy of TRANSIT.

Do you want to know more about the TRANSIT Facing Societal Challenges Blog Series? Read the introduction to the series!

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