Reflections on my Reconomy roadtrip: Big challenges and big possibilities
‘Road trip’ sounds better, but it was of course a rail trip, taking in 10 places over 1,500 miles in 22 train legs in 11 days – from Totnes to Maidenhead, Lewes, Brixton, Norwich, Durham, Dunbar nr Edinburgh, Slaithwaite, Manchester and Hereford then back to Devon. I also visited Todmorden for their Incredible Edible projects, the only non-Transition town on my trip.
I chose these places as each has some economic activity going on, where new enterprises are emerging from the heart of the Transition Initiative. I was interested to find out more about how this is happening and the issues and barriers that are coming up, especially those that the REconomy Project or the Transition Network might help with. I also wanted to share some news about the REconomy work that’s going on in other places, and do some cross-pollination.
There’s a separate blog post for each of these places as linked above, except the last 2 visits were for the Economic Evaluation work rather than meeting the local TIs, I’ll do a separate update about those sometime soon.
Firstly, thanks to all the lovely Transition people who gave freely of their time, homes and bakeries. I had a fantastic trip – really enjoyed it. I’m honoured to do this work with you, inspired by the energy and enthusiasm all around the country, awed by the collection of skills and expertise and glad to be in it together. If this wasn’t enough, any Transition gathering also produces the most spectacular food!
Here are my reflections on the four themes that emerged from my visits around the UK, and also a listing of the enterprises that I came across.
1. Energy flows out from TI core into enterprises, often leaving a vacuum
What’s been most noticeable to me is a sense of expansion out from the core of the TIs. For example, Transition Town Brixton, like most of the TIs I met, has gone through the process of forming, then creating working groups out of which emerged projects and new enterprises. These often meant the working group (or even the core group) stopped meeting, and the energy went into the enterprises.
This can leave a bit of a vacuum at the heart of the TI while people got on with the vast job of birthing a new company, and there can be a sense of having lost the overall focus at the core. (When I say core, I mean the group of people at the heart of a TI that manage/co-ordinate its activities). It’s worth noting that all the TIs I met are at least a few years old.
Then a stage is reached where people notice this impact, that things are not so joined up perhaps, and initiate a re-grouping and reflection, and do some work to refocus the efforts of the TI. Most places felt that a refocusing around the potential for a new local economy, and the role their TI might play in this, to be fertile and exciting territory.
This not only ups the game of Transition and makes its ambition more clear, but also presents a new story to tell the local community – the main stream debate has moved on from climate change and even peak oil to economic uncertainty, so the timing is right to raise these issues and Transition as a potential solution.
The reflection stage also enables the TI to make the most of synergies and interactions between the emerging enterprises. For example, it’s only when taking the time to map out the bigger picture that TTB could see, for example, how the Makerhood group could use some of the Remakery’s facilities and equipment, and Remakery could employ or reskill long term unemployed from the London Creative Labs project, and sell the products at the Brixton Market using the Brixton Pound as the primary means of exchange perhaps (just my thoughts, not what they are doing necessarily).
2. Organic approach or a planned strategy?
Mostly all TIs I visited started their foray into the local economy via food and energy enterprises, usually with some level of community ownership. It seems that most of the enterprises have emerged opportunistically, i.e. an opportunity and the right people came along at the right time.
Hardly any of the places have a written economic-based strategy (except Sustaining Dunbar and TT-Totnes), but mostly all are interested in learning about strategic approaches from other places and taking a more focused approach themselves around developing the local economy, per my earlier reflection (some strategies will be covered at the REconomy Project day in London.
One interesting question is whether a core group/strategy can identify some key enterprises, and then recruit someone to take on that role of founding and running that new entity. TT-Lewes is experimenting with this through a draught-busting enterprise. We discussed whether this approach can result in the deep passion and commitment that’s needed from the recruit, if they are to rise to the significant personal challenge of starting their own business and ensuring it succeeds. Or will it always feel like they have been brought in to do a job, and TT-Lewes owns it? We are watching this with interest, as it’s a compelling idea to help ensure the ‘right’ cornerstone Transition enterprises are in place.
T-Durham have been feeling the impacts of another aspect of ownership – a community consultation came up with 20 or so ideas for the core group to take forward, but then these suffered a lack of ownership as they were not necessarily the things that people in the core group have a personal passion for. When these people are volunteers then they can’t be expected to take on others’ dreams, when they struggle to find time for their own?
So there’s something here about what needs to be done to have the right things in place to help a new economy come into being, what the community wants to have done, and what the core group (and other Transition activists) have personal interest in doing. These things do not always coincide!
3. Resourcing the work at the heart of a TI
Having established a desire to orient the work of the TI around a new local economy (as well as carrying on with established ‘traditional’ Transition projects of course), the very next topic of discussion was always how to resource this.
Few of the TIs have any substantial finance or facilities at the core – Dunbar and Totnes being the exception. Most have not pursued funding streams for core activity, though some have secured project funding. The evidence clearly shows that this does not prevent things happening! It’s the passion and capacity of the people involved that shows results.
However, having some guaranteed capacity and the right mix of skills at the core helps ensure things happen and in a timely way. It reduced the burden on the volunteers and the likelihood of burnout, with most people trying to do their own work to earn a living, and fit in a significant amount of volunteer Transition-related work on the side.
REconomy’s Shane Hughes has some interesting ideas on the benefits of giving ‘unreasonable levels of support’ to enterprises founders in a recent blog.
As Mamading from TTB notes, the founders of the enterprises might also need support to help them avoid burnout, especially if they are also committed to carrying on the work of the TI in general.
He says “founders often commit themselves to making a livelihood from their enterprises, and work-life balance is the first thing out the window, and stress is the first chicken to come home to roost, if you don’t mind the metaphorical overload“.
The TIs that have a large ambition, to take their work up to the next level and tackle their local economic problems, are in agreement that some paid capacity is essential.
The TIs that have been successful with fundraising for their core team, including ‘the strategists/managers’ have a strong story to tell about their track record, their planned projects and their vision for how it all joins up.
They are also partnering up with local councils and other organisations, recognising that a TI alone can’t transform their local economy. Then they find and pursue funding opportunities.
The track record is important as it shows funders you can deliver, and this then opens up additional and often larger funding streams. In the early days of T-Totnes, a donation of £5,000 by a local benefactor was used to pay a fundraiser to generate more funds for a prioritised set of projects. This turned the £5k into over £80,000 and the benefits are still being felt today, some of the funders are still funding the work and new ones are impressed by what has been achieved.
This in no way discredits the massive amount of quality time and action that volunteers bring to Transition, the vast majority of the phenomenal growth has been volunteer driven, by far. The paid work is very minor overall in terms of contribution, but its impact should not be discounted. It also introduces issues such as deciding who gets paid work, how they are managed, HR and payroll complexities and each TI needs to decide if the gains are worth the pain. Learning from other TIs that have chosen this route could help simplify this for others.
Currently it seems that TIs might fundraise for a project role, but rarely for an overall manager. So just to be clear, I’m talking here about how to pay people to work at the heart of a TI, to do an overall management and co-ordination role and help ensure a strategy is formed (or whatever is most appropriate). This person could then well have responsibility for ensuring the financial viability of the TI’s projects, whether through setting up income streams (direct debits from local people, fundraising events, selling project ideas and outcomes etc.) or writing funding bids.
Clearly, one of the aims of the new Transition Enterprises that are emerging is to provide a reasonable income for some or all of the workers.
Some places are starting to look at how these ‘spin out’ enterprises might give something back to the core to help ensure the TI can continue to nurture others. This is another potential income stream for a TI (if a tricky one to implement!).
I also noted a few enterprises are looking to help TIs or the emerging businesses by offering Transition-related services such as group working, resolving conflict, mentoring, legal structure advice and so on. So a whole new ‘Transition services’ sector may be something that grows.
We don’t have the answers here yet, but we will see what emerges from those TIs that are pursuing a more strategic, centrally resourced model and share their learnings and if they are happy to, their funding sources.
4. Do more outreach? Or is there another approach?
It’s blindingly obvious but capacity is not only about money but also about people. Without fail each TI would like to, or is actively trying to, grow the number of local people involved – no one has reached saturation point! Some discussion usually showed the intent to do more of the kind of outreach done in the earlier days of the TI – events, films and so on. Many had acquired a bit of an unwelcome reputation as a talking shop, which has demotivated quite a few new recruits (as well as the old timers – which contributed to the focus on doing projects and enterprises rather than just talking?).
I wonder about the best approach here for established TIs – how many people could or should we attract to the heart of our Transition Initiatives (the core group, the working groups and projects), and why? In what way can we be most relevant to our town/village? What kind of participation do we want?
From what we have seen in Totnes, we initially attracted a number of what we might call ‘Transition activists’, often folk previously involved in green or sustainability groups and activities. They formed the initial core group and a number of working groups. Most but not all of these working groups then took on projects. Some groups ceased to exist as the energy went into the project or new enterprise, like I have observed in many other places. Now while we still do public events and films, and we still get people coming along wanting to join some of the working groups, or start new projects, this is not the way that most people in our town participate.
For us, the Transition Streets project (I declare a personal interest as I was deeply involved with this project) has been how we have connected with most people in our town. Over 500 residents are involved in 64 neighbourhood groups. Many of them have initiated their own Transition-like projects with no help from us whatsoever. I see these groups as microcosms of Transition, at street level. They are getting together and doing what they are most interested about. They might say they are involved in Transition, but most have little or no direct contact with the core activities or other projects.
I think the work we are doing around the local economy is reaching out to a whole new group of people, those who want to shift their livelihoods, start their own enterprise or make their existing business more shock-proof. We don’t want to attract them to the heart of T-Totnes per se, but to show how we are relevant to them through the overlapping of our needs and interests.
So as I see it, T-Totnes is growing but not by growing the core and working groups, which is possibly as big as it’s ever going to get, or needs to be. Always there will be people who turn up unexpectedly and make a great contribution in these inner places, but our aim is to make ourselves more relevant to the groups and residents in our town, to go out to them rather than bring them in to us.
Maybe it’s useful to think again, for an established TI, which parts of the community it wants to reach and how to do it as part of the re-focusing strategy. I’m interested to hear more from other TIs that I didn’t meet with, to see how these themes resonate – or not – with their own experience.
All of the enterprise activity is at an early stage, most are vulnerable and needing some level of ongoing support. Opinions differ about the start-up failure rate in the UK but they are all depressingly high. Will the success rates be better for Transition Enterprises?
On one hand, the fact they are firmly stuck between 2 paradigms actually raises risk, I think, in the short term as margins are so slim, the benefits of bulk purchase and large scale efficiency are not available to our local small enterprises, and they rely on a large contribution of volunteer effort that is not always sustainable.
On the other, statistics from Co-operatives UK show that co-ops and community shops have a lower failure rate, probably due to community buy-in and support.
Prices are sensitive and energy costs need to rise before the local food system can truly compete. We are not there yet. Price issues are already causing an issue in one place where the local food grower and the local community shop cannot agree a price that suits both parties, and allows salad bags to be sold at a price that customers will pay while giving the grower a fair reward – just because we are the Transition family does not remove these hard business facts, or the personal issues that can result. The two enterprises are not currently talking, though they are trying to resolve this.
The imminent threat of big supermarkets coming to Slaithwaite and Todmorden will shift the local food landscape and pressure the fledgling local food economy. At a presentation to business leaders in Hereford, some in the audience were totally perplexed as to why we thought people would pay more for local produce in a local shop, if it’s cheaper elsewhere. We face some big challenges, and it’s good to be reminded that most of the world out there does not think like us!
However, I finish my roadtrip inspired and enthused by the fledgling local economic work that I have seen. It’s planting the seeds of a new local economy and providing extensive learning opportunities. The power of this work so far, as well as providing some jobs for people of course, is that it’s starting to change the story about our economy.
Collectively, all of the work I have seen offers a sense of hope and possibility, and at a scale that’s big enough and wide enough to provide significant jobs, food security, lower energy bills, income from renewables and local investment opportunities. The economic evaluation work is clearly demonstrating the possible value of a re-localised economy. There’s potential to connect the Transition enterprises to trade, collaborate and support each other, and benefit from the economies of scale that can improve their ability to compete against the current system. By showing the credibility of a Transition local economy, by continuing to build it on the ground, we can start to have greater influence and a louder voice.
This power can be demonstrated by bringing together a collection of new enterprises and strategic activity from these TIs and other places, and creating a virtual local economy – starting maybe with a high street where most everything is a Transition Enterprise. We aim to do this at the REconomy Project Day on 14th September (the TN Conference starts that evening at same venue in London), we hope to see you there.
Meanwhile we welcome your comments here – do you recognise any of these themes? What are the challenges you are facing? What answers do you have, that others might find useful?
Fiona Ward, REconomy Project, August 2012.
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