Living the questions together creates community

By Dr Daniel Wahl

My personal interest in sustainable community design as the primary scale of participation in the creation of regenerative cultures led me to spend a good part of the last 15 years investigating ecovillages as test fields for sustainable community design.

My own apprenticeship and pilgrimage of living the questions together, of discovering in community with others what might be the appropriate questions to ask, has taken me to many ecovillages and community initiatives. To participate in intentional communities that are actively living the questions together is a powerful learning accelerator.

While I lived in the Findhorn Foundation ecovillage, I had the privilege to co-direct Findhorn College and set up the world’s first ‘MSc in Sustainable Community Design’ in collaboration with Heriot Watt University.

Community design cannot be left to professional architects, engineers and planning officials alone but, once trained in whole-systems design, these professionals can become powerful change agents. Regenerative and sustainable communities emerge from the active participation of all (or most) of their members. Therefore, widespread education in community design and processes that stimulate civic engagement and community participation are essential.

Ecovillages (Gilman, 1991; Dawson, 2006; Joubert & Dregger, 2015) and more recently transition towns and similar community groups are a source of experience and insight into how to co-create sustainable community. [This article is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

The Findhorn ecovillage demonstrates the results of 50 years of collective inquiry into how service to the whole, co-creation with nature, and values rooted in deep listening can create thriving human cultures in conscious and responsible co-creation. Since their learning has for the most part been born out of experimenting — living the questions together — these insights and social technologies are of particular relevance now that we urgently need to engage people in their communities everywhere in order to scale up the shift towards regeneration.

The Findhorn Foundation ecovillage community on its 50th birthday (Source)

The very process of engaging in conversations about what we can do together, in the place we inhabit and with the people around us, is a catalyst for the collective learning and awareness-raising that will make ‘regenerative culture’ spread like a virus of infectious health. At the human scale of community, we can co-create regenerative cultures that become a lived experience and expression of the narrative of interbeing.

Two of the most successful programmes capable of stimulating this kind of participation and creating multipliers who can facilitate culturally transformative conversations in their home communities are the EDE (Ecovillage Design Education) and the ‘Design for Sustainability’ (GEDS) course developed by Gaia Education. These intensive programmes offer participants a whole-systems design understanding of sustainable communities.

Their curriculum explores four dimensions (social, economic, ecological and worldview) each containing a series of modules (see Figure 17). It expands on the academic orthodoxy that sees sustainability as a ‘three legged stool’ (ecological, economic and social) by adding the critical fourth dimension of ‘worldview and value system’. This approach has since been more widely adopted and is now often called the ‘cultural dimension’ by UN agencies and national governments.

Between its launch in 2005 and January 2016, this programme was taught a total of 200 times in 41 countries on six continents. Over 5,000 people have graduated from this UNESCO-endorsed training, which has been recognised as a significant contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Many EDE and GEDS graduates are now actively working with their home communities.

The curriculum has been translated into eight languages and is available as a free download on the Gaia Education website, supported by four collections of short essays, one on each of the four dimensions of the curriculum: worldview (Harland & Keepin, 2012); ecological (Mare & Lindegger, 2011); economic (Dawson, Norberg-Hodge & Jackson, 2010); and social (Joubert & Alfred, 2007).

Teaching on these EDE programmes, I never cease to be surprised by the effectiveness of the participatory teaching methodologies and design-based exercises in quickly creating a strong community bond among participants as a basis for collective learning.

The course has inspired, informed and enabled culturally creative projects in the favelas of Brazilian mega-cities and in traditional villages in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It has helped to revitalize abandoned villages in Southern Europe and to create working models for local economic development in Northern Europe, North America and Japan.

Urban ecovillage projects are transforming neighbourhoods around the world. People who trained with Gaia Education are now supporting many of the most successful transition town projects.

Figure 17: Gaia Education’s Community Design Curriculum Mandala (www.gaiaeducation.org)

Graduates have created a multitude of educational initiatives that are spreading the culture of living the questions together with sensitivity to the uniqueness of place. Gaia Education and its partner-organisation the Global Ecovillage Network (founded in 1995) have successfully taken their expertise in participatory sustainable community design to grassroots activists, local community groups, academia, local and national governments, and have actively consulted the United Nations as an ECOSOC NGO since 2000.

Ecovillages and transition towns are important examples of communities actively living the questions together. The experience of these initiatives is now informing conversations in communities everywhere. In the USA the Alliance for Regeneration unites professionals who help communities to “reclaim their identities and destinies”(2015).

Pioneers of the ecovillage movement have recently set up VillageLab, bringing decades of expertise and experience together to provide the sustainable communities movement with what they describe as “a systematic, centrally coordinated, yet grassroots- distributed research & development program for the demonstration of leading practices in all aspects of sustainable and regenerative human systems design”. The London-based charity Clear Village helps communities build a better future through creative regeneration particularly of inner-city neighbourhoods.

These enterprises and many others are helping to revitalise communities at the human scale where regenerative cultures can emerge. They all share two important insights: we can design as nature by deeply listening to and learning from the places we inhabit; and the first step towards creating regenerative cultures is to engage people in conversations to re-envision the future of the communities they live in. To do this we also have to re-envision our systems of production and consumption.

NOTE: The next Gaia Education Training of Trainers (ToT) with May East, Jane Rasbash and Deborah Benham will happen on 17th June at Newbold House, near the Findhorn ecovillage in Scotland. There a still a few places left for experienced trainers, facilitators and educators in the great transition towards regenerative cultures. Find out more here.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]


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