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Knitting your own MRI scanner, or not

John Paul Flintoff's article about Transition and The Power of Just Doing Stuff that appeared in the Guardian two weeks ago seemed to hit the right note, and has been popping up all over the place. It also led to the book being the bestseller in the Guardian book shop, outselling Iain Banks and Paul Morley! It generated a lot of interest on Twitter, most of it positive. As is so often the case though, the usual sceptics and cynics waded in, deliberately misinterpreting what Transition is about and then criticising it for being something it was never meant to be in the first place. A couple of them missed the point to such an entertaining scale that I really felt it was worth some kind of a response.

My favourite tweet read "Could a hospital that buys four tonnes of lettuce every year (a reference to a story told in the article) get that locally?" Yes, but maybe not its MRI scanners". He also tweeted "challenge for economic localism, source everything (pharmaceuticals, solar PV cells, Li-ion batteries) not just food, from a 50 mile radius". No, that really isn't the "challenge for economic localism", and the implication that if you can't source all those things locally then you have negated the whole idea of a more localised approach is just silly. It is an interesting misunderstanding though, one I encounter in various settings, the idea that localisation means self-sufficiency, the absence of imports, a turning of the community's collective backs on progress and technology.

Nottingham University Hospital

The logic that because a community couldn't produce its own MRI scanner there is no merit to the idea of some degree of localisation is ridiculous. While we are on the subject of hospitals, I loved the story recently about Nottingham University Hospitals Trust (see above) which now sources 90% of its meat and 90% of its seasonal vegetables from within 30 miles, a £2 million injection into the local economy. It uses the 5,000 meals a day it needs to produce as the opportunity to give the local economy a much-needed shot in the arm. John Hughes (below), the Trust's catering manager, said:

"It's public money. Surely we should be spending it in such a way as to have a positive local economic impact as opposed to lining the pockets of shareholders".

John Hughes

Indeed. But what if Hughes' bosses in Nottingham were also to apply the same thinking to other aspects of what they do? Let us imagine that, so emboldened were they by the success of this scheme that they decided to also look at the hospital as being power station, to use its roofs and other spaces to generate energy for the grid, using what it can during the hours when power is being generated. It could invite its neighbouring community to invest in and be part of it too. It could rethink its grounds maintenance, letting the ground maintenance contract to a market gardener instead of a lawnmowing company, or retrain its staff, with the brief to maximise production from the site.

This would create the possibility for patients to do horticultural therapy, introduce them to fresh fruit and vegetables and how they are grown for possibly the first time in their lives. It could lead to a more biodiverse and therapeutic place in which for people to recuperate (a kind of actual reality, rather than virtual reality, version of the approach the army is using to use nature to help burns patients). It would generate an income and show a real commitment to healthy living.

It could pull the fast food outlets and fizzy drinks dispensers out of the ground floor and offer franchises to local food entrepreneurs to give people a real taste of healthy, local food. When the hospital needs to build new buildings, it could design them so that they can be built using local materials, and contract to a company that can do that. These materials (strawbale, clay, lime, timber) create very healthy spaces, and choosing these materials can lead to other new local economic impacts. Clay plastering as occupational therapy? Why not? In all of these approaches I see only wins, no losses. And what then if the same approach were to be taken up by all the other large institutions in a place, as well as by the wider community too? This is why I talk about Transition, and the idea of community resilience as economic development, as a Big Idea of our times.

To focus on the provenance of the hospital's MRI scanner rather than the potential of a community to invest in and take some degree of charge of its own community misses the point spectacularly. Should a hospital be able to source locally-produced syringes, bandages and drugs? Of course not. It is unlikely that will be able to source locally-made bedding, but it could use a local company to wash them, again contributing to the local economy. It's a shift in mindset, a shift in focus and approach. It helps to put local people back in the driving seat over their economic future.

With the publication of two Economic Evaluations/Blueprints (Herefordshire and Totnes), we now have good data for a market town and for a county in terms of the economic advantages of a concerted push at such an approach (an urban neighbourhood follows shortly). We know that even a 10% shift in spending to the local, independent economy would yield substantial benefits, and that food, energy, retrofitting and care for the elderly are the best places to start. The point is that what the Evaluations/Blueprints do is to powerfully make the case that community resilience is a form of economic development. That's seismic shift.

Maria van der Hoeven of the International Energy Agency said recently when announcing the IEA's World Energy Outlook Special Report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, "the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C". If we're currently on a path with that as the destination, we need a new path. How on earth could the kind of approach undertaken by Nottingham possibly scale up to become a meaningful contributor to climate change?

The Fife Diet recently reported that, in the light of the Scottish government's failure to meet its carbon targets for a second year running, there should be a much clearer focus on diet.  Their press release began:  

Fife Diet releases it's Carbon Food Report it shows that if everyone in Scotland was on the equivalent of the Fife Diet, we could collectively contribute to 60% of the Scottish Government annual saving target, only by changing the way we eat.

They added:

Fife Diet estimates that our 5,000 members saved 990 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012-13.  If everyone in Scotland made similar changes to their food habits, up to a million tonnes of carbon could be saved.

We know that this alone won't be enough, that localisation alone isn't going to be enough. But clearly it is a powerful and untapped piece of the solution.  It sits in a wider context of responses. The back-of-an-envelope calculation I did for The Transition Companion showed that even if every community across the UK were to mobilise all of the money at its disposal, savings, pensions and so on, it would only be able to raise about a quarter of what we need to spend on renewable energy infrastructure in order to meet our targets. But that quarter can do so much in terms of community economic regeneration, job creation, carbon reduction and confidence building.  And it's the bit that WE can do. 

Another Tweeter wrote:

"It (Transition) encourages the idea that local people are somehow more morally valuable than people from further away".

No it really absolutely does not. What it encourages is the idea that trade and economic activity are inseparable from the generation of carbon dioxide. It encourages the idea that a dependence on global trade weakens resilience both in the country taking the imports and the country exporting them. It actually, I would argue, creates healthier relationships between nations.

Indeed the current model of trade, where our supermarket shelves are lined with produce produced by multinational food companies using labour who have often lost their own land and are now dependent, is what already enshrines the idea that "local people are somehow more morally valuable than people from further away" (indeed, doesn't our media do that all the time?)

The self-organising nature of Transition is a great practical expression of the sense that everyone is of equal value. See, for example, the stories of how Transition is being rolled out in Amazon communities, and in South Africa.  This is about building resilience everywhere, not just in a few privileged communities.  

Finally, one of the comments to the Guardian piece said:

"Why don't we just go the whole hog and stop trading with everybody and go self-sufficient. That should solve everything! Then we can all spend the majority of our time growing food, exchanging nick-nacks, buying things off inept (and expensive) locals instead of efficient (and cheap) large companies. Sounds like heaven ! Count me out thank you".

Hopefully I have set out above some arguments as to why this comment completely misses the point. No-one is talking about complete localisation, nor doing away with the idea of competition and efficiency, or knitting MRI scanners.  Different things make sense to localise at different scales. Most settlements could do a great deal more to localise their food supply, their energy generation, how they build and care for their young and their elderly, with many benefits across the community and the local economy.

A lot more could be done across a range of areas, but expensive, highly specialised kit like MRI scanners needs national, if not international, production, as do computers, some medicines and so on. But the hospital in which they are used or installed could sit at the centre of a vibrant web of local economic activity, offering healthy food, home to a variety of enterprises, building soils, enhancing and diversifying the local economy, providing a vibrant and beautiful space for recuperation as well as a less stressful and more nourishing place to work. It's not 'either-or', it's 'both-and'.  And it works, it's already happening, and it has only just begun.  

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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