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Cambridge considerations

Transition Cambridge celebrates its 5th birthday this year so what better time to assess and appreciate its achievements? Perhaps this is best done against some sort of framework and I have one readily to hand.

A recent academic study in Cambridge looked to see whether learnings from the success of Silicon-Fen (which lead to companies such as ARM and Autonomy) could be transferred to create Eco-Fen, making Cambridge a sustainable city through new technologies and practices that could be transferable elsewhere. The bases for Silicon-Fen were seen to include:

Mathematical Bridge, Cambridge

  • A centre of academic excellence in the University
  • A source of new ideas and energy due to the undergraduate intake
  • Academic pride and curiosity as a motivation to innovate
  • An enlightened legal and commercial framework that allowed researchers to develop their intellectual property
  • Flexibility and tenacity amongst the players – it was found that many companies faltered but that the successful ones often grew out of the setbacks, learnings and often the ashes of their predecessors
  • Availability of seed finance to nurture the resultant fledgling companies
  • The infrastructure (offices, equipment etc) to underpin the development
  • A reward structure to incentivise the innovators and take their ideas to commercialisation

When applying these elements to the environmental sector it was found that the situation was more complicated. Firstly, the aim is more ambitious – to create an environmentally sustainable city, not just successful companies to capitalise on the possible technological spin-offs. The number and diversity of the players (Council, academics, local populace, investors, commerce etc.) means that the environment of activity, the interaction and, not least, the variety of objectives is far more complex.

Various approaches, such as “Eco-City” funding and local neighbourhood initiatives, were considered as possible routes to bring these groups together for common purpose. Analogies were made to the spirit and strategies of the 2012 Olympics with its mixture of governmental, commercial and voluntary involvement but, like the Olympics, the question of legacy and longevity was seen as a challenge.

In seeking possible ways forward, grassroots initiatives such as Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Transition Cambridge were held up as templates for the future. This shows the pride and hope which are often afforded by others to such organisations. However, such expectation needs to be tempered with a reality of what we can achieve in this increasingly connected and interdependent world.

Our focus is local; many of the problems are global. We can help change attitudes towards what is required to live sustainably in a resource-limited world and spread such local initiatives but, as we all know, many of the big problems require global agreement.

But enough proselytizing. Back to the Silicon-Fen research and whether there any there learnings or parallels that can help guide the Transition Cambridge experience over the next 5 years. Without working through every one of the points, the following seem to be relevant:

  • Cambridge in many respects is a transient city, attracting young and talented people who bring vitality in the form of energy and new ideas, often from other countries.
  • The prime driver of participation has been common belief in the moral obligation to do something.

Transition Cambridge with potatoes from their Crop-Share project

  • The twin Transition concepts that viable initiatives emerge where the energy flows, and that a flexible Hub/Sub-group structure allows individuals to pursue their own interests, have provided the enlightened framework that lead to successful initiatives, such as Home Energy, Food Group, Permaculture, Crop Share, Community Gardens, CamBake and others.
  • Of course, many other initiatives have arisen and faltered over the years but this shows the tenacity of the players and their willingness to adapt.
  • Grant funding has been available from the Council and other donors to act as seed finance that, along with contributions from individuals, has enabled TC to become financially solvent although not yet to the extent that allows any major investment e.g. office space, paid employee.

What interests me from the initial analysis is the last point, relating to what incentivises or motivates someone to continue to take their ideas forward, whether it is within Transition or to develop the next environmentally beneficial breakthrough as part of Eco-Fen. For Silicon–Fen it was seen to be intellectual pride and curiosity together with a remuneration system that enabled and rewarded innovation and hard work, resulting in a successful enterprise.

In the case of developing Eco-Fen one of the missing pieces is such a reward system. The financial benefits from developing ecologically beneficial products or strategies do not justify the investment. This is because the environmental costs are not built into current activities. We need a carbon tax or equivalent to help direct investment towards beneficial activities. Whoops, back on my high horse!

But what at the Transition level? In Transition Cambridge the benefits of involvement are probably camaraderie, moral necessity and, of course, interest in the activity. This takes energy and we all know the ever present risk of burnout that can occur when the plethora of new initiatives can swamp the good intentions of those involved. This risk can be reduced by limiting the number of initiatives to what is doable and attracting new members. The latter is difficult when many people find their time is taken up with just earning a living and getting by on a daily basis. No matter how good their intentions, free time is at a premium.

So in conclusion, I hope that at some point Transition Cambridge will see the emergence of sustainable activities that start to incorporate paid employees. These will hopefully be funded through commercial activity, such as selling the produce (e.g. Crop Share or CamBake) or by long term grants, perhaps themselves made possible through a carbon tax. We have started down this road by offering seed grants of £250-500 for local initiatives that show promise of being self sustaining in the longer term. As individuals we can continue to support each other through the changes that future years will bring but, if our influence is to be maintained and extended, then such activities need to be sustainable. Here’s to the next 5 years! Martin Roach, Transition Cambridge founder member

Images: Mathematical Bridge over the River Cam (Martin Roach); Transition Cambridge CropShare project (Transition Cambridge)

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