Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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9 Sep 2008

Clay Shirky on Self Organisation

This is rather wonderful, and worth a few minutes of your time.  In advance of tomorrow’s meeting in Bristol to discuss and refine the Transition Network Structure Document, Shirky’s insights into collaboration and self organisation are fascinating and very relevant.  Thanks to James Samuel in New Zealand for coming across this…

Categories: General

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Finn Jackson
9 Sep 7:47am

Thank you.

Graham Burnett
9 Sep 8:24am

Fascinating stuff

9 Sep 2:41pm

So what are the consequences for the transition movement?
Feel comfortable with the realisation that 80% of work is done by 20% of the people, and although some people contribute once only, it’s a valuable contribution.
I guess we should also adjust our success criteria, and expect this to happen, and not give up if we feel that we are doing all the work and others are not enthusiastic.
I also guess we should remain a ‘movement’ and not try to set up institutions.

James Samuel
10 Sep 7:28am

This is just one of Clay’s contributions that are worth exploring. Another can be found by searching for Clay Shirky and Here Comes Everyone, which was recommended by another transitioner in the UK (sorry your name escapes me for the moment).

In New Zealand, a great deal has been accomplished without resort to organisational structures, legal entities, or external funding, and I think it is the communications tools we have available that have made this possible.

If you visit the local groups list at, then check out the Local News or the Events calendar, you’ll get a glimpse of what has been achieved in New Zealand in less than 12 months.

I feel immensely grateful for the work done by Rob, Ben and others in the UK, as they have effectively laid a foundation that has made this sort of response possible. Their clarity of communications and depth of consideration has enabled us to take up our shovels and spades and get to work, and then come back to the fireside of an evening and browse the inspirational offerings from The Transition Handbook or this blog.

I wish it was as romantic as these words imply, but there is some truth to this. We don’t all need to engage in the same research over and over, in order to be informed. We are after all connected parts of a much bigger whole. But I digress.

The point I wanted to offer, was that we may have reached a point where resorting to old institutional entities and structures may be more of a hindrance than a help. We may be moving from having to struggle with childish dependency and adolescent resistance to organisations, by bypassing them altogether. Could we be growing into self-responsible, self-organising, self-funding, geographically diverse networks of people with a common vision, working locally to evolve ways to live dignified lives, free of dependance on an industrial system that itself requires a continued supply of a finite resource?

We are past the time of tweaking things around the edges. It is time for radical change.

I see someone else has posted Derrick Jensen’s statement in a comment to another post, but I would like to offer it here again:

Jensen: If your experience is that your water comes from the tap and that your food comes from the grocery store then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on that; if your experience is that your water comes from a river and that your food comes from a land base then you will defend those to the death because your life depends on them. So part of the problem is that we have become so dependent upon this system that is killing and exploiting us, it has become almost impossible for us to imagine living outside of it and it’s very difficult physically for us to live outside of it.

From this understanding I am left with an assumption that large scale change is not likely to happen gradually. I suspect that crisis will become the driver of the radical change. David Holmgren has suggested, the best thing we can do is to put in place examples of how to meet those needs (for food and water, to use the above example), when the system which currently provides them, no longer consistently and reliably does so.

Then when people go looking for ways to meet those needs, the examples are more than ideas, they are already concrete, and can be seen, touched and understood. Once people experience the need, see the solutions and how to implement them, then they can go and build for themselves the new systems which can provide them.

Shaun Chamberlin
10 Sep 1:10pm

It seems to me that the implication is that the Transition Network is currently inappropriately structured.

Let’s say that the ‘work’ of Transition is not collecting photos and using them but collecting ingenious ideas and practices (memes) that are created in the various Transition initiatives and spreading them around.

At the moment we have the Transition Network staff running around trying to collect those insights centrally and then distribute them via the Primer etc. (the centralised employee model), and hopefully also Transition initiatives talking to each other.

What Clay Shirky seems to be saying is that we need each Initiative’s wiki to have tags attached to its calendar etc. (as well as linked to the Transition forum’s tagging system) which enable us to access everything happening in Transition around, say, “food”, without the need for anyone to collate and categorise it, beyond setting the right tags when you announce your event. There could also be a voting system for users to highlight especially useful content.

Just some initial thoughts. I’m not in Bristol today, but I look forward to hearing what comes out of it.

cate kyne
11 Sep 5:46am

Thanks to Andy. Yes I agree that models of relocalised production are needed and that when/if the crisis deepens people will urgently need to emulate these models, but there are two points I want to make,
First there IS a great deal of relocalisation activity already and it IS being picked up even by the mainstream media and wonderfully in the UK this is happening in Transition Towns. Gowever it is perhaps merely seen as a chic fashion rather than a transition essential to survival.
Secondly, when the crisis deepens how do we ensure that on a massive scale relocalisation happens in a fair and non competitive (if not worse than that?) way – ie food wars, water wars etc and what about the elderly and unfit – how can we ensure that they – who are unable to be ‘of use’ in the emerging relocalised system will be included?
To answer my own question, I do believe that the Transition Network is utterly correct in embedding community development skills and practices in its operations. Here in Melbourne I keep on insisting in our climate action networks that telling the truth of the climate change emergency while essential is only one dimension of the message and that we are also engaged in building a new culture, hence the centrality of relearning the skills and practices of indigenous peoples and schooling ourselves out of individualistic consumerism. And yes to self organised communities. so long as these communities are connected and based on participatory democratic governance and ethics and not self centred ‘exit’ options like the self sufficint city states or monasteries of past ages.

11 Sep 10:34pm

thanks for sharing that talk Rob, very insightful stuff. It seems like we should not try to fight this natural arrangements of the 20/80 but somehow embrace the diversity of ideas and efforts in a cooperative social model. I think you have captured a vital part of this in the transition process by designing the demise of the original founders of any local group from the outset. This brings into early perspective the acceptance that they will not become the institution and allows not only new people but new temporary structures for the organisation to evolve into.

Another related point is to ensure people do not ‘burn out’ through institutionalising themselves into this 80% effort zone. We need to create an environment where we go where the energy is, ensuring people feel only committed up to the point where they personally feel comfortable. This is very much like viewing an organisation as an open space session, but one which goes on and on, continuing to evolve.

thanks again for the inspiration.

Neil L
16 Sep 8:02pm

You can also check out a more recent presentation Clay Shirky did at the RSA in London in Feb 2008

[…] posted a Clay Shirky video on my blog a little while back. Then Rob Hopkins picked it up, posted it on his blog and it got a few comments. Through Rob’s blog Neil L sent a link to a second video by Clay […]