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Over the next couple of months we’ll be exploring Practical Projects, one element of our Support Offer.  Our  Transition Initiative Support Coordinator Mike Thomas introduces the theme: 

Practical Projects

Practical projects show that change is possible and that Transition is a real thing that exists. They can be creative, great fun, an opportunity to learn new skills and great for making new friends. There are no right or wrong Transition projects, it is all about what feels right for your group to do in your community. Practical projects are great for getting Transition going and for embedding it in the local community.

Transition Groups carry out a range of practical projects from very small ones when they are just starting up like tree planting, tidying up an area, a clothes swap, to larger projects like community orchards, Transition Streets, bike repair schemes, to much larger projects like energy coops, local currencies and community businesses. These larger projects can be part of the REconomy model that looks at how you can redesign the local economy to create new livelihoods, and show new ways of providing goods and services that benefit your community. This blog post is aimed at those just starting out doing practical projects, but it also is worth reading even if you have already been running practical projects.

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When should we start doing Practical Projects?

People in Transition groups often feel tempted to rush into doing projects to feel they are having a practical impact in their community. This can sometime be a bit premature as practical projects are reliant on other factors of Transition to be as successful as they can. By putting in work early on to build up your Transition group and presence in your community you will find it easier to carry out practical projects.

We recommend that you initially spending time carrying out quite a bit of networking, awareness raising, and developing your group, so you have

  • good connections with others who will be affected, or who can help

  • a receptive public – people on your email list who might get involved

  • a clear overall purpose and sense of priorities within your group, and enough structure and clarity about how you work together so you can successfully organise things that are public.

Once you have done this you will find it easier to implement projects as you are more engaged with your community and have a network of supporters who may be interested in getting involved.

What type of project should we do?

There are several ways to decide what projects to do. Here are some common ways Transition Groups do this.

The Transition Group decides together based on people’s interests or the skills available. People may also already have a good understanding of the community so are aware of projects that could really benefit the community. Other things that happen are that an opportunity presents itself that the group feels fits in with their aims, such as a space for a community garden.

Another option is to run an open space session where people come together to decide on projects. This can be a great way to decide on projects and engage people outside of the Transition Group.

There are also some simple things to think about when deciding on projects:

  • Start with simple things that give lots of benefits – the “low hanging fruit”. Doing small things and being successful will bring greater benefits that attempting something ambitious and risky.  

  • Ideally it should respond to a local need, a gap, something that isn’t already happening.

  • See who has a lot of energy to make something happen, and follow that, rather than thinking of something you feel you “should do”.

  • The role of the Transition Group can be to support what others want to happen, rather than being the source of all ideas and energy.  

  • If you can’t all agree on what should happen see if you can agree to support one idea now, and another later. Can you learn from the process of disagreeing and finding a good way forward that works for everyone?  

  • Don’t do anything that is controversial, or likely to stir up opposition.

  • Do support existing ideas that have broad support.  

  • Do talk to anyone working in a similar area. E.g. If you’re going to run bike maintenance workshops, talk to the local bike shop first and see how it can help rather than undermine them.

Another thing to consider is that if you are in an area where there is already a large amount of work going on then you may not need to carry out projects. Your role may be to network and promote the work of others and this become the thing that your Transition group does. This can be really useful as it creates the next layer of synergy, and means you’re friends with everyone!

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What are the risks of running a project?

All projects carry a variety of risks, but two of the biggest are running out of energy and alienating members of your community.

Running a project in a community takes a lot of time, energy and sometimes resources –  and there is a risk of people overstretching themselves or people burning out by trying to juggle too many things. Ideally a project should not reduce the focus on developing the core group that oversees Transition and takes it forward in the community. When this does happen we call it the donut effect, as you end up with projects and no core group.

Projects should compliment what is already happening in your community and not conflict with others. The key to this is to have carried out some community engagement processes and to have built good relationships with other groups. This way you have a good idea of what is happening and potential partners to approach when you are considering the type of project you are hoping to carry out. For example, if you run free bike maintenance workshops this may affect the local bike shop  and you don’t want to alienate them, in fact you want to work with them if possible. It is crucial to know what is already being provided in your community as you want to avoid duplication, competition and annoying people.

Raising awareness

A practical project is a prime opportunity to raise awareness of your Transition group. They can be very visual like a local producer’s market, a community garden or an incredible edible project and this announces to people in the community that Transition is happening. A practical project can be like a great big advert for Transition, that gets people talking and asking questions. It shows that Transition is a project that gets things done, which is really important for gaining momentum and for showing that change is possible through people coming together.

Highlights issues

They also raise awareness of the the issues that Transition is trying to address by showing practical responses that spark conversations and debate.

  • Why are you setting up a food project?

  • Why are you running Transition Streets?

  • Why repair stuff?

Are some questions that practical projects can raise. They offer a low threshold way of having a wider conversation about Transition in your community. You can chat about the issues in a positive way as you are providing a solution, even if it is small scale, to an often much larger problem. You can explain that if thousands of people were all doing the same then it makes a massive difference. These conversations allow you to talk in a friendly and welcoming way to people about major issues.

Get new people involved

Another benefit of practical projects is that they are a great opportunity to get new people involved in Transition and to build partnerships with other community groups, faith groups, schools and local businesses among others.  People are often more likely to get involved in practical projects that have a tangible benefit to them, than just getting involved in an abstract idea, of course some people like abstract ideas as well. Practical projects also offer people the ability to engage with your Transition Initiative in a way that doesn’t require a huge level of commitment, allowing them to get a feel for it and to meet new people. All of which can lead to increased engagement, actual involvement in your group, or people becoming cheerleaders for your project in the community.

Build your group

As well as building support externally, practical projects also help build connection, solidarity and meaning within your group. As you come together to plan and deliver practical projects then people get to know each other more, work out how to work together, discover each others’ strengths and develop confidence when your idea manifests itself as a real living thing in your community. This is not to paint a too rose-tinted view, as projects can be demanding, frustrating and challenging. You will also find that your project group will go through the forming, storming, norming, performing phases that all groups go through, being aware of this helps you to ride the bumpy bits.

Develop new skills

Practical projects can also be opportunities for people to develop new skills or even livelihoods like Transition groups who undertake REconomy in their communities that have resulted in a wide range of enterprises developing. You will often find that people in your group or community already have a lot of the skills needed to deliver the project, so always ask around friends and relatives to see if they can help out. It is not just practical skills that can be learnt, there are also the skills involved in planning and running projects that you develop as you make your project a reality.

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How do we do it?

We recommend that unless your group is very small or it is a small one-off project at the very start of Transition, then set up a sub group to focus on this project. If you don’t do this you may find that the core Transition group falls apart, as you focus all your energy on the project. Projects should be running as well as the core group and not become a replacement for it. When this does happen, we call it the donut effect, where you end up with projects but no Core holding it all together. This means you lose the holistic vision of Transition. So, from the beginning you need to think about how you will connect the project with the core group. The easiest way to do this is to have someone from the project on the core group. So once you have your project group in place you need to think about the practicalities of managing a practical project. We have put together the following guide to running practical projects and ideas for small projects you can run.  

Developing practical projects

Small practical projects for the initiating group

It is also useful to look at all of the resources that are in the Support Offer that can be very useful for helping you run and develop practical projects, such as the visioning exercises, how to run effective meetings etc.

These are some more in depth guides for those thinking about carrying out larger projects:

Introducing paid work to your Transition Initiative

The following three guides are available here http://www.reconomy.org/practical-guides-for-community-economic-change/:

  • Transition Enterprise Handbook

  • Transition Events Toolkit

  • Transition Core Resourcing Guide 

Good luck with your projects and I hope that these resources are helpful in making them successful. Most importantly try to make your projects fun and don’t forget to celebrate your achievements!