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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.

Comments

Ben Brangwyn's picture

No discussion about

No discussion about Transition Network is complete without bringing Sophy Banks and Naresh Giangrande into the conversation. Transition Network would never be where it is today without the input from both of these two, first shaping Transition Town Totnes and then giving crucial input as Transition Network started taking form. They were key co-creators in much of what's happened in the organisation from the start, for example creating the first training courses, delivering them worldwide and creating a global network of trainers and much more beyond.

Mandy Meikle's picture

Transition Research Netowrk

Great post Jay and a really important topic. I went to the recent TRN conference (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/stories/mandy-meikle/2012-10/dawn-ivory-tower) where the topic of Transition being 'fit for purpose' was discussed. It's a serious question and we should consider the structure of Transition - it's dynamic. Transition Scotland is a national hub and it's a great idea so long as the resources are there. I'm intrigued by the mystery funder who kicked Transition movement off - might they fund a national hub? There are too few people with time on their hands so I'd advise you not to go into the hub idea without sufficient backing.

You mentioned that a project to ascertain the health of initiatives would be a good idea. TRN are looking for research topics on Transition - if you need a contact, let me know.

Josiah Meldrum's picture

Hi Mandy,Way back (as it

Hi Mandy,

Way back (as it feels now) in 2008/9 Transition groups in the East of England were really keen to get to know each other, we ran a number of (very successful) regional gatherings and developed a loose support structure. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and the wider network was clearly very useful, but everyone involved in organising the gatherings struggled to find the extra time needed outside our own initiatives to make them happen - more to the point our region is big and the distances between inititives great so (sensibly) through 2010 the gatherings became more and more localised. Sadly they've now petered out completely in a formal sense, though we do attend each others events and the network still exists...

Anyway, that was a rather long preamble... In 2009 the East region support group decided to do exatcly the kind of state of the network research being talked about here. Imporatantly it wasn't just a paper or on-line survey and Charlotte DuCann (the founding editor of this blog) phoned or visited every inititive and muller she could find (and she really looked hard) and interviewed them. Many were not on the 'official' list and some that were didn't really exist in a meaningful way. You can read the final report here:

http://transitionculture.org/wp-content/uploads/Transition-East-Roundup-...

The Transition Troubleshooting section was particularly useful.

It'd be interesting to repeat the process now - Looking through the list now I can see many initiatives that have faded and, though I know of new groups I have a feeling there are fewer active groups now than then.

Jo Homan's picture

my sense

is that pretty much every group I speak to is struggling in one way or another, but that everyone is still 'selling' their initiative. Few groups have consistent success (year after year) and broad success (e.g. sub groups in every area). It feels like some of the groups are established and are becoming flagships for a wider area, but often mistakenly. Some groups often only exist in name. I meet people who hear I'm from Finsbury Park and say "oh yes, your group is doing really well." In some ways we are (we recently won some money and will be making a real difference in the area) but in other ways we're not - we don't use all of the transition ingredients, we don't even have a solid core group at the moment let alone sub groups. It feels like we're often waiting for new volunteers to step in and 'save' us by taking up the leadership roles we're tired of carrying, but that this doesn't fully happen. Many transition groups are becoming clusters of projects rather than strategy-led groups, and that's just how it is. A few new groups are starting, but most of the activisty types are already on projects. One reason for this lack of expansion, I believe, is the lack of necessity for our work - it's still largely tokenistic. For that reason, I am happy to carry on pushing the idea, because the necessity will come.

In terms of the transition network (I still say 'the' transition network!) it mostly feels relevant for the leadership and dialogue from Rob (via Transition Culture) and for the transition conference. Those are the main things that feed into what we're doing. It may well be that the trustees etc feed into the general direction of all of this but that feels quite distant from here.

Sara Ayech's picture

Such an interesting week

I wasn't sure about this one as I do sometimes feel I don't know that much about the Network but I think the posts so far are great and the discussions they raise, so necessary and interesting. In response to this post alone, I feel like I could write loads (but will try not to!)

I personally find the website (since it was re-configured with the ingredients) very useful. I particularly used it quite a lot when Transition Dartmouth Park were starting (just over a year ago) and when we were trying to figure out our structure and what to do in what order. Having said that we kind of did our own thing in the end anyway, and I'm pretty sure most others in our group don't use it much at all. I also found the training and going to last years conference amazing opportunities to understand it more as a movement and see the bigger picture, but again these things are expensive and time-consuming and I feel like a minority of people in TIs really engage with the network as a whole. I guess part of the consequence of being a movement that is very locally focused is that our geography can shrink and we can become so embroiled in our projects that we don't always look out at the whole.

With the economic crisis, it may be that people in the UK see Transition as mainly an environmental initiative and not an economic response and go elsewhere for that. I think the social enterprises mainly exist in more established groups and in many cases are probably not far enough along the road to be seen as a real economic alternative. With the cuts, I know of one TI in this borough who pretty much put Transition on hold to save their library which is now community run. This is fantastic but isn't seen as Transition, although it's mostly the same people.

I would say our group is still thriving but we've only been going a year, and in a way we are simultaneously struggling as there has been a such a good response, so many requests for us to do things in our community and so much more we could be doing, but as volunteers with busy lives we have no more capacity. I do feel a flaw is that many groups need to rely on a few full time volunteers who become Transition activists and that this doesn't make for sustainable or balanced groups. For our group to really be able to work strategically in the long-term we'd need to get funding and pay people.

A communications plan is a great idea and useful to raise the profile of Transition among a wider section of the population. Also of use I think would be some more detailed advice on strategy - I don't mean EDAPs, I mean initial outreach and engagement strategy. I think there is a big gap between education and awareness raising (which are quite vague and hard to measure concepts) and engaging people to a point where they particpate in change (e.g. projects). I have seen a lot of energy go into great events and projects that are vibrant and visible but which don't offer a concrete path to actual involvement and have seen a few groups start in this area, have a great launch and a few events and then really struggle to get to the next stage.