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Transition Network – What’s it for? Where’s it going?

These questions seem as good as any to begin a thoughtful week looking at the Transition Network. Like all good questions they lead to more and hopefully deeper questions that ultimately lead to greater self knowledge. This is the basis for growth in personal development as well as organisational development. Arne Naess, in his essay “Deepness of Questions and the Deep Ecology Movement” makes the point that this is the case for movements like ours, as well. So this week begins with those good intentions and is as much about the network as the Network.

Why now? The Transition Network Conference is a memory but the experiences and conversations continue to reverberate in the minds of many who were there, and no doubt many of the questions and learnings from that weekend continue to ripple out. When the social reporter team put together the topics calendar this past spring, we thought a week on the Network sometime after the conference would be good timing. Based on my experience at the conference, it is. There were several threads that explicitly or implicitly question some of the basic assumptions about the state of the network and the work of the Network. Given the apparent trajectory of recent history, now’s a good time to look within with a view toward preparing for what comes next.

Years on from the early days, one could argue that the world looks more or less as Transition visioning sessions then might have imagined – climate change more evident, energy descent and peak oil important topics albeit discussed differently, and economic relocalisation a front burner issue. Loosely accurate forecasts of the realities we’re living now, but lacking the immediacy and urgency of the current moment.

Hence the theme for this year’s conference, "Building Resilience in Extraordinary Times." But “extraordinary times” is too ambiguous, detached like an ancient proverb, perhaps too self-conscious about appearing alarmist before the media. No matter, the times feel more like crisis. The Transition model is apparently experiencing rapid uptake in the Euro crisis zones, however many conversations over that weekend were about the urgency of growing the movement and how that might be accomplished, especially here in the UK. With austerity the stubborn policy of Coalition government, a more than disappointing harvest, and near certainty that next year’s growing season will be equally challenging, the time for a robust and influential Transition seems to be right now, if not yesterday.

I brought these questions and more to Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of the Transition Network, which shares an office with Transition Town Totnes. Our conversation was candid and revealing, and before too long, our conversion dives down to before the beginning. Around 2005, he, Pete Lipman, and another friend were considering the potential impact of climate change and peak oil, independently coming to much the same conclusion that Rob Hopkins and his class in Kinsale were coming to. Ben eventually attended a course at Schumacher called Life Beyond Oil, featuring Rob, who talked about the experience of starting TTT and that other towns were beginning to get interested in what Totnes was doing.

“Although he didn’t see it then, I saw him as a bloke sitting under a tsunami of interest that might wash him away. So, it was at this point that the idea for an organisation to deal with that interest came up, and that’s how we got started,” he tells me.

And so, the Network was born and began pursuing those aims with no funding and few resources. But within just a few months, literally out of the blue, a funder saw what they were doing and said, in effect, “What you are doing is so important, we need to give you lots of money.” The tsunami struck and they were ready to support the budding Transition network. And TN came to be what we now know, a small but mighty organisation supporting the growth of Transition around the world. Of course, it didn’t just happen, Ben, Rob, Pete, Jo Coish, and others invested huge amounts of time, deep thought, and physical effort. For a hugely talented group that too humbly brandishes the “cheerful disclaimer”, it’s been an amazing job. 

(For a more in-depth look at what the TN does now, and their recent history, read through the website. On it you’ll find lots of information, including links to board meeting minutes and a 2009 document entitled “Who we are and what we do”.)

If the initial spark was to deal with the growing interest, the mission of the organisation quickly expanded. Ben explains, “The Transition Network supports community-led responses to climate change, diminishing supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness. This breaks down into 7 strategic aims: support, catalyse, evolve the model, broaden the scope of involvement, interact with larger institutions, flourish as an organisation, and balance. Of those, support is way at the top and takes up 70% of our efforts – training, website, personal support, events, single day events, films, books, etc.”

The website is full of content and supportive functionality, but still too hard to use, he admits, and is in the process of being evolved, as well. And they’d like to find ways to enable more peer to peer support, do better at signposting other helpful organisations, possibly develop more training courses, and a starter pack, all of which will boost the support offering. But he confides that a large percentage of Transitioners he meets asking for support haven’t been on the website, seen the movies, or read the books. Why?

The post-conference survey indicates that 25% of Transition groups are thriving, 30% are doing OK, and 25% are struggling. Two thirds of the conference attendees were from the UK and were a self selecting bunch anyway – mostly white, mostly male, and flush enough to afford it. Perhaps these results are not accurate, but maybe they are indicative. According to the website, there are 212 official Transition Initiatives in the UK. The last one appears to be Buckingham in Transition, becoming official in August 2012.  The one before that was Transition Town Reading, which was mid-2011. It’s not known what the growth curve has been in the UK, but maybe it’s reached a plateau. And if 25% are struggling – does that mean over 50 UK initiatives might be struggling?  Ben suggests a project to ascertain the health of initiatives would be a good idea.

The word “movement” rolls easily off the tongue when talking about Transition, but what if actually this isn’t a movement? Movements move. Shouldn’t there still be growth in the UK, especially over the last two years with austerity, bank misdeeds harshly illuminated, Occupy, rapidly rising energy costs, and the increasing clarity of evidence that the changing climate is affecting our food supply? Growth - both in the numbers of communities taking up the model and the numbers of people joining in? The principle of connecting and forming networks is highly visible in the Transition literature, and apparently a majority of Transition groups do reach out to their neighbours. How many Transition groups were spawned by neighbours? Shouldn’t this be accelerating the spread of Transition? Are we missing something?

When I first learned about Transition, I was interested in how to bring “green” to the mainstream. The Transition model seemed a perfect fit. It’s accessible, non-threatening, and potentially effective for sparking and spreading grass roots change, even in the middle classes. It’s become a strong brand, too, which helps with fundraising and dealing with local authorities. It’s a model that even people with no experience in organising or activism could pick up and implement, or so I initially thought. It may be that the model is harder than it looks, or that the task of transition requires more than the model offers.

Ben suggests that the early adopters have adopted and now the task is to reach the early majority. But he adds that early adopters can become disillusioned if not soon followed. He may be right, but I’m not convinced this is a fruitful way to think about the problem.

From the outside, the Transition Network Ltd. looks like a well funded, high profile charity. It’s built on a service/client model, delivering what it thinks its clients need based on surveys, conferences, and other feedback channels that inform decisions on content and projects. It enjoys strong brand awareness among other high profile non-profits, foundations, and governmental bodies. These strengths create access to influential people and resources, and may ultimately lead to change from the top. Surely that’s good.

It’s possible that the growth in UK Transition groups is there, just underreported. And that the number of struggling groups is much lower than the conference survey suggests. One could argue that in a self-organising network, whatever manifests and in whatever timeframe is simply the way it is.

On the other hand, it’s worth asking whether a more proactive approach in trying to grow and support the network as a movement would make a difference. Would that include a robust communications strategy to make Transition a well-known and relevant voice in the public debates about the economy, democracy, localism, renewable energy, and the food system? Or to inform and motivate those on the ground? Would it include legions of community organisers? Could it make Transition stronger and deeper where it’s taken hold, and desired in the tens of thousands of communities not yet on board?

There were suggestions at the conference that perhaps a national hub was now required. If Transition Network is to become a worldwide organisation, then maybe a national hub is essential. If one is thinking about Transition as a movement, it begins with the grass roots, the people who are actually doing the work. Is the service-client model the right one for a Transition Network aiming to support and grow a grass roots phenomenon into a potent movement? Could unleashing the collective genius of the network yield more interesting results?

If we accept that the Transition model offers an effective way forward, then we must do what we must to spread and deepen its adoption. Time’s running out – apparently we’ve only got 50 months left. Ben tells me more about upcoming plans for an easy to read little book, perhaps a TV show, and more importantly, a delivery manager or CEO-type role, that could drive growth of the Transition Network forward. Maybe these measures will lead to more uptake and healthier Transition groups. But he also tells me that they in the Network, and the Trustees, feel this same sense of urgency and that there may be more fundamental changes in store.

So, where are we headed? Questions like these should spark a line of inquiry that deepens and makes us stronger. And while we’ve put the Network on the spot in this post, we’re all responsible for co-creating what comes next. I know we’re part of something special but that’s not enough. We’re only as resilient as our neighbours. I don’t have the answers, but hopefully some of the questions posed here will prove useful in finding some.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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