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TRANSIT Facing Societal Challenges #1: The Contribution of TRANSIT: Addressing an uncertain future

May 10 2017

TRANSIT Facing Societal Challenges: a series of blogs

Introduction to series by Flor Avelino

We are living in turbulent times with economic, ecological and social challenges, and significant political turmoil. In recent months, there has been a flurry of public debates on the increasing divides in society, manifested in intercultural tensions, anti-elitist sentiments and ‘post-truth’ media wars around ‘alternative facts’. More than ever, there seems to be a need for researchers and other actors in society to exchange ideas on how to respond to such societal developments.

As researchers, we entertain no illusions of having ready-made solutions or final answers to these political challenges. We do, however, maintain that basic socio-economic, socio-ecological and socio-cultural needs and concerns underlie much of the current political and societal unrest.

In the TRANSIT project we study initiatives that are working on socially innovative responses to societal challenges, often including renewed socio-economic, socio-technical, socio-ecological and socio-cultural arrangements. In total, we study 20 transnational networks and 80 local initiatives across more than 28 countries (in Europe and beyond).

In this series of blogs, we invite our researchers and members of our international advisory board and knowledge group, to share their personal ideas and reflections on what we can learn from transformative social innovation research for facing the current social and political climate.  

TRANSIT Facing Societal Challenges #1
The Contribution of TRANSIT: Addressing an uncertain future

By Tim O’Riordan, chair TRANSIT Advisory Board 

Our sense of the future is uncertain and even fearful. The UK referendum followed by the US Presidential election, and then the Italian and Austrian referenda are changing the surety of the established political order. Such convulsive turbulence in political and social values is common in history. It is just that we are actually experiencing it with no obvious signposts from hindsight. The outcomes and even the causes are not at all clear or agreed upon. This makes the future very uncertain for societies, economies and ecologies.  What might the future look like?  

In the next five years, it is possible that some new form of overall political and social accommodation will emerge. But this will have to be envisioned, worked for, and initiated from thousands of local communities striving with collective belief in securing their combined betterment. Such a groundswell will have to be universal, operating across the planet. It will not just “emerge”. In the enveloping chaos of political and economic uncertainty, there is a chance that so-called “grass roots democracies” will actually receive an airing. But only if articulated, coordinated, visioned with integrity, and progressed over a decade at least, can such an outcome even remotely be guaranteed. However, currently, we are far removed from such a future: which social and political trends are we witnessing? 

Five trends towards social and political unrest
We are witnessing five major trends which, if left unattended, could give rise to long term hardship and varying degrees of social and political protest or conflict:

  • Persistently increasing levels of national and household indebtedness shattering the long accepted economic models of discounting and continuous prosperity
  • Persistently increasing inequality of income, of opportunity and of fair treatment undermining faith in any viable future for the disadvantaged, and eroding public trust in governing and policing institutions and their leaders
  • Persistent and endemic unsustainability with attendant losses of ecosystem nurturing and biodiversity, health damaging toxic air and water pollution, and excessive extraction and wastage of natural resources. In this process the global “commons” is being usurped and colonised
  • Constant struggles to enable the Paris Climate Change Agreement actually to succeed, in the setting of all manner of good but unrequited intentions and sliding national failures to deliver to agreed timetables
  • Widespread risk in weather events, in food availability, in public health, and in security of living, all of which combine to diminish efforts to improve education, women’s wellbeing, the decent treatment of children, and the responsibilities of retaining and of redefining spiritual faith and human morality
  • An intriguing amalgam of rapidly changing technology, massive alterations in data management and theft, and a growing feeling that prosperity is declining due to an economics which is out of kilter with societal aspirations for decency and compassion in human relations.

Allied to this is the weakening of both a moral order of citizenship and an undermining of an ethical commitment to stewardship for retaining and nurturing a habitable planet for future generations. This failure of moral compass reduces the “gaian imperative” for retaining the self-organising perpetuation of a habitable planet, certainly on the part of humans, along with a establishing a manageable scale of expansion of the human population.

Our soft human capital: progress and transformation

At stake therefore is the prospect of a continuing subtle disintegration of trust in human affairs and in the resilience of the human spirit. This is not universal nor yet undermining. There is still lots of capacity in human organisation and in community enterprise for real progress and transformation. This is the point: we could drift onto a path which weakens and unhooks the crucial qualities of “soft human capital”. This is the basis of collective endeavour and joint enterprise. It is also the most powerful means for ensuring innovation towards overcoming the five dangers listed above.

Soft social capital cannot be taken for granted. There is a tendency towards collective selfishness and the search for immediate personal gratification and satisfaction. This tendency often obscures any residual moral concern for the well-being of others. Such apparent isolation is linked to inequality where the already acquired wealthy seek to consolidate their gains and reduce their compassion and empathy for the disadvantaged and despairing. There is a very real danger of social negligence over the wellbeing of the disadvantaged and of the capacities of the coming generation to be able to cope.

Transformative social innovation: learning from networked and consolidating social initiatives

The TRANSIT project seeks to illuminate the scope for meaningful transitions to more sustainable societies through transformative social innovation. For the most part TRANSIT has focussed on existing examples of successful social initiatives and enterprises. Many of these are small scale. But they enjoy the advantages of being networked and consolidating. The great achievement of TRANSIT has been to embrace the diversity of these activities within an impressive theoretical framework of cause, categorisation, and consequence.

Now is the time and the requirement for taking the huge and impressive learning from transformative social innovation into a hopeful broadening of both initiative and connection so that society across the world can address and engage with its culturally framed aspirations, and change the worst of the emerging politics of this troubled planet into a new unifying social order.

This future could embrace the following:

  • A genuine willingness on the part of business and government to engage in new approaches to listening, to sharing and to creating innovation. This in turn means that the research will be collaborative, participative, co-creative and solutions driven. The focus will rest on barriers and mind-sets which dampen innovation and experimentation. Researchers will be embedded in shared experiences of joint exploration in government at all scales, within businesses, in civil movements (both formal and informal), and in the teaching and learning programmes involving young people and community organisations. 
  • Preparing for exciting innovation in new forms of ecological and social enterprise generated from nascent and emerging opportunities. This process supported by joint partners in business government and community based organisations. This will centre of the emergence of the sustainable household, street, community and region. It will capture new forms of financing. 
  • One possibility would be to examine the case for “sovereign funds”. These would be created by placing a levy on non-sustainable activities (extraction of non-renewable resources and depletion of ecosystem nurturing and recovery processes: in effect the reclaiming of the commons). This is being seriously mooted as part of the response to the Paris Agreement
  • Another option would be to establish community-based charities (or not for profit companies) also financed by levies on local non-sustainable operations. This would provide resources for community/business/state supported enterprise based on a social wage and ensuring that promotion of personal and overall wellbeing is the overall objective. A variant of the UK National Lottery Fund but operating at the local or regional level could be one such vehicle
  • Exciting forms of experimentation with community-based evolutionary schemes combining the creative arts with imaginative expression. This in turn would mean discovering new forms of measurements to show betterment is happening across society, and especially those initially disadvantaged
  • Identifying troubled cold spots of low creative energy to show how such experiments and pilots could be guided by the communities themselves in this search for betterment. 

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