Ten years ago, a small group of people started experimenting with ideas that came to be known as Transition. Founder Rob Hopkins explains how these communities are “coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world.”
Words Rob Hopkins
Illustration Sarah Vanbelle
It’s a process that starts with groups coming together in their community. They raise awareness, initiate projects, learn how to work together while avoiding burnout, and work to build connections between the distinct parts of their community. They start new food projects, community energy projects, new enterprises, and housing initiatives. They find new ways to provide care for the most vulnerable in their communities, and bring people together to make things happen. It’s an experiment that evolves, absorbs new influences, and often works under the radar.
This is a time in history when we are confronted by a perfect storm of challenges: climate change, destructive economics, an accelerating concentration of power, the epidemic of loneliness, social injustice and more. The solution lies outside of business as usual, and outside of our experience thus far. The challenges we face call for perhaps the greatest work of the imagination ever seen on this planet, and yet I am deeply troubled that our imaginations may not be up to the job.
Imagination is the ability to ask “what if?”, to be open to the idea of a future very different to the present, to come up with novel and unique concepts and ideas. It is the ability to look at things as they could be rather than how we see them now. We are all capable of doing it, but seemingly less than we used to.
A decline in imagination is troubling for many reasons; if ever there was a time that demanded our collective intelligence to be firing on all cylinders, it is now. A decline in imagination is directly linked to a decline in empathy. Much of the right wing populism we have witnessed recently is underpinned by a lack of empathy for different demographics. We also see many people lacking empathy for themselves. A recent report by the Prince’s Trust found that 41% of young people felt more anxious than they had the previous year, and 45% were stressed about their body image.
Transition works very powerfully as an invitation to the imagination as a collective process, in which we reimagine how our world could be and then take firm, collective steps towards that.
“This is a time in history when we are confronted by a perfect storm of challenges: climate change, destructive economics, an accelerating concentration of power, the epidemic of loneliness, social injustice and more.”
The polarising of people into entrenched positions has been one of the most worrying trends of recent history. Family ructions caused by political division over Brexit and Trump remain open wounds. It is easy to identify things that divide us, harder to pin down things that can bring us together. We take an approach that is firmly non-party political. Its focus is on reinventing the place where it takes root — and to do so successfully requires members from across the political spectrum.
Transition Streets is a street-by-street behaviour change model. Groups of up to 12 neighbours form and meet seven times in each other’s homes. Together they learn how to reduce water use, energy use, car use and so on, saving 1.3 tonnes of CO2 per household, on average. But the main reported benefit is “building good relationships with my neighbours”.
By parking our political affiliations, we hope to engage far more widely with people who love growing plants; who love good food; who like to support new entrepreneurs; who are looking for innovative investment opportunities; who like doing book-keeping for interesting projects. This often requires learning new skills and ways of working together, but it unlocks so much more. Trying to see ourselves as others see us, and to alter our messaging to broaden our opportunities for interaction, is vital.
All too often activists arrive with their own understanding of what is best for the people in a given place. They have a clear sense of what a location needs, but are informed more by their beliefs than the desires of local people. The best Transition projects start with a process of identifying local needs. Could it be for example that it is possible to address climate change, social justice, the epidemic of loneliness, and local economic resilience through the creation of employment, affordable housing, and the provision of social care?
One group, Atmos Totnes, is doing just that — designing a community- owned development of 65 genuinely affordable homes, along with a hotel, workspace, new public space and more. Two-thirds of the community participated in the design of the plan, which was approved via an 85% ‘yes’ vote in a community referendum. The mix of housing and elements of the scheme were planned based on extensive research into local needs, generating greater support, and ensuring the longevity of the initiative.
Often in our culture, the larger, more impactful projects are the ones we value the most. The Transition movement has its share of these: the Bristol Pound (over £2 million in circulation, accepted for local taxation, buses, trains and energy bills), the Edinburgh Remakery (winner of the 2016 Social Entrepreneur of the Year award) or Bath & West Community Energy (over £13 million of community investment in renewable energy schemes).
But just as important are the smaller schemes: the community gardens; repair cafes, where people bring items like clothes, laptops, toasters, shoes, and volunteers fix them for free; shared meals; and draughtbusting workshops, where neighbours learn how to make their homes more energy efficient. They matter because for many people with little experience of effecting change, they are a gateway into taking regular action. They give people the confidence that change is both possible, and can start with them — to never underestimate their own importance and value.
Under austerity, the most vulnerable in our economy — and the care and support they receive — have been under sustained assault. With this trend set to continue, Transition groups are starting to make care a focal point of what they do. Transition is perhaps unique in the level of attention it gives to care within the groups that make it happen, giving them skills to manage burnout, design effective meetings, and support each other, putting care at the heart of both their group and the projects themselves.
“If we want to reach out and connect with a wide range of people, we need good stories — stories that feel achievable, adaptable, and inspirational.”
One of the keys to the success of Transition has been founding initiatives based upon stories that travel far: The Brixton Pound £10 note, featuring David Bowie; the street in a Brussels red light district that founded a community garden; Transition Black Isle’s reduction of car use being equivalent to driving to the Moon and back two and a half times. If we want to reach out and connect with a wide range of people, we need good stories — stories that feel achievable, adaptable, and inspirational.