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The Catalytic Effect of Community-led Action

One of the most fascinating recent studies into the impact of Transition was Local Communities Leading the Way to a Low Carbon Societya report published by AEIDL (Association Européenne pour l’Information sur le Développement Local.  It looks at Transition, permaculture and ecovillage networks, what it calls the "Silent Revolution", "a potentially powerful driver of pro-environmental behaviour change".  We caught up with Eamon O'Hara, who created the report, to find out more about it, and about his conclusions. 

How did you create this report, and what research did you do for it? 

CoverI have been working at European level on programmes and initiatives dealing with local development for almost 20 years now and around 2008/2009. I started to become more aware of Transition and other similar movements that were developing around Europe. It struck me at the time that not much was known about these grassroots movements at European level, at least in Brussels, where I was based at the time.

There was some really great work being done, some great examples of local projects and communities that were transforming themselves, but it was off the radar for many people. Of course there was nothing abnormal about this. These were grassroots movements, developing organically at their own pace and normally this would be fine. But climate change and the drive for sustainability are issues that need urgent responses, so it seemed to me to be important to try to promote awareness and a wider replication of these initiatives in communities across Europe.

From other programmes I worked on I knew there was considerable experience, and tools and methodologies, that could be drawn on to facilitate the exchange of good practice and ideas, but a necessary first step would be to build awareness around this movement and its potential. Over the next couple of years I began to make contacts within Transition, the Global Ecovillage Network and within other community-based initiatives focusing on climate change and sustainability. Then, in 2012, I received support from AEIDL, a Brussels-based association that I have worked closely with for many years, to carry out a preliminary study.    

This study was a combination of desk research and interviews with key people in the countries targeted. I focused mainly on 13 countries where I knew there were community-led initiatives focusing on climate change and sustainability. The study was essentially a mapping exercise, focusing on, firstly, identifying initiatives where they existed, and then trying to better understand the scope and scale of their activities. I had a limited budget, so this study was by no means exhaustive but I think it was an important first step in terms of developing an understanding and awareness of this fledgling movement.

movers and shakers

How has it been received since you published it? 

It has been really well received. A lot of people have expressed surprise that they hadn’t heard about the initiatives featured before, especially given the scale of activities that now exist across Europe. It has certainly got the attention of policy makers in Brussels and I think this is something we need to build on.

Another important outcome of the study, however, is that it allowed me to build up a strong network of contacts across the countries studied. These contacts represent a wide range of initiatives and I sensed there was a strong interest and desire among them to work more closely together. In some cases there had already been informal interaction, but there was a clear interest in taking this to another level. So, in follow-up to the study I set about coordinating a discussion between these contacts and from this discussion the idea of establishing a formal network emerged. This has since progressed to the establishment of ECOLISE, the European network for community-led action on climate change and sustainability.

I think this is a hugely important development. ECOLISE now brings together all the key stakeholders involved in community-led action on climate change and sustainability in Europe and I think it is well placed to build on the awareness the study has created and really set about the task of championing the cause of community-led action on climate change and sustainability in Europe.

What is your sense of the impact that Transition has had since it began?

Transition has been pivotal. It has opened the door for ordinary people to get involved in reshaping their communities and in so doing reshaping society. That opportunity always existed for people, but Transition has provided the “how-to” guide, and by leading through example, has inspired people and given them the confidence to take action.

However, I think Transition’s best days are still ahead of it. The challenge now, however, is to take Transition from being an initiative that is still largely limited to pioneering communities to a concept that is mainstreamed in the thinking and actions of every community. Of course Transition is not alone here. There are also other initiatives, such as the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), Low Carbon Communities and others, and there is also considerable knowledge and experience available in movements such as Permaculture, but the essential principles are largely the same and I think this knowledge and experience now needs to be disseminated on a much larger scale.

mainstream

You write that lobbying and advocacy "remains a relatively minor part of their activities and the focus is more on local rather than higher level decision making".  Do you see this as a weakness or a strength of the Transition movement? 

For me this is a weakness, but not just of Transition, of community-based initiatives in general. It is completely understandable, as I mentioned above, as Transition is a grassroots movement and there are obviously limited resources and capacity, but I think this is an important activity. To achieve the kind of scaling up I mention above, I think the Transition approach must essentially become part of mainstream policy and thinking and for this lobbying and advocacy are essential.

But I think this can best be achieved by initiatives like Transition and GEN and others working together, and this is why I think ECOLISE has such an important role to play in facilitating this scaling up.

You mention what you see as the "important catalytic effect" Transition can have, and how it has the "potential to change social norms".  Could you tell us more about what you meant by that?  By what mechanisms do you observe that it does that? 

Again, this applies to community-based action on climate change and sustainability in general, not just Transition. The catalytic effect is essentially about one community being an inspiration for others. Communities that have been successful in developing community energy projects or in reducing their carbon footprint are an important source of ideas and information for others. These communities demonstrate what can be achieved and in this way give confidence to other communities to follow suit.

Various studies have also shown that community-based initiatives tend to have a longer term impact, which goes beyond the immediate effects on carbon emissions or other indicators. These initiatives are generally more holistic in nature, covering a wide range of issues, such as food, transport, energy, etc.. so they can impact on more than one aspect of people’s lives. But the group dynamic aspect of community-led initiatives is also important. Norms are established by groups, not individuals, so this potential for growth and learning within a group environment is an essential precursor for wider behavioural change.

Having created this report, what do you see as the keys to Transition being able to go more mainstream?  What, for you, might its next steps look like, and what support would most skilfully enable that? 

cooperationI think the most important thing now is for Transition to work with the other partners in ECOLISE to create the conditions that will allow for the mainstreaming of community-based action on climate change and sustainability. This is a formidable task and one which can best be achieved by working together. It requires a coherent dialogue with policy makers on why and how community-led action on climate change and sustainability should and could be mainstreamed and what supports are required. It also requires a concerted effort to promote awareness of the potential of community-led action and to make available to communities across Europe the information, tools, guidance, training and advice they need to make this happen.

It is important to be aware however that not every community will necessarily want to become a Transition town or district, but I don’t think this should be an issue. The key thing is to mainstream the approach, to make available the learning and knowledge and to allow flexibility for communities to use this and adapt it to their own circumstances.

How impressed were you by the evolving evidence base for Transition?  Do you think researchers are asking the right questions, and is there a good body of evidence already would you say? 

Some really good work is being done in this area but I think more is required, not just for Transition but for community-led initiatives in general. To get policy makers on board and achieve the mainstreaming that is needed we need a more convincing argument as to the benefits. There is strong anecdotal evidence and some interesting studies have been carried out but we need to build on this and provide strong empirical evidence that supports the argument for mainstreaming.

We also need to better understand the potential for replicating community-led approaches in different contexts across Europe. Local conditions on the ground vary considerably from one country, or one region, to another so we need to better understand how existing approaches can be adapted to different contexts.

As an extension of this, we need to know what works and what doesn’t in different contexts. We need to be able to provide advice and guidance that is context specific. All of this requires a coordinated transnational approach to research and knowledge development, which is developing but still in the early stages.

You concluded that: "Community-based approaches should not be seen in isolation. Their role must be seen in the context of wider action and an appropriate support framework must be established in order to assist the further develop and replication of these approaches, without losing their essential local, bottom-up ethos".  What is the role that Transition groups play do you think that none of the other scales can do? 

Transition groups and other local community-led initiatives play a key role in engaging with and mobilizing local communities.  By engaging local people they can unleash a resource that other levels can rarely unleash and facilitate the development of ideas and projects that are tailored to local needs and conditions.  Policies and programmes developed and implemented at higher levels rarely if ever achieve this.

However, if higher levels of governance and decision making recognize this important contribution of community-led initiatives then policies and programmes can be designed  in a way that makes space for and facilitates this local, bottom-up approach.

There is already a precedent in terms of EU rural development policy, part of which is implemented through a bottom-up, community-led approach. The European Commission has also proposed that this approach (community-led local development, or CLLD) be extended to other policy areas in the 2014-2020 programming period. This opens up a real opportunity to establish community-led approaches as an integral part of the EU’s response to climate change and sustainability.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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