Transition Culture

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

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19 Nov 2012

The evolution and practice of the ‘Transition Town Anywhere’ activity

For many people, the highlight of the 2012 Transition Network conference was the ‘Transition Town Anywhere’ activity, where a resilience local economy was built, lived in, celebrated and then taken down again over the space of one morning.  Ruth Ben-Tovim, one of the event’s organisers, tells us how the event came about, how it worked, and how you could do a version in your community. She started by asking “how many people does it take to build a town?”

“About 240 in the case of the 2012 Transition Conference. Over five hours, the very large Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre was filled with a self–built, living breathing Transition Town Centre Anywhere.  Many of you who were there and many who weren’t have asked for more details about this activity, so as promised, here it is.  Also in response to several requests, at the end of this post there are details about how you could bring the Transition Town Centre Anywhere group activity to your Town if you would like to.

How many people did it take to design the process? 

It took about 5/6 people to design the activity over a period of four months, and at least six to run it on the day.  So here is the story of the creation of the Town blueprint as well as the making of the Town itself.  We’ll start the story at a Transition Conference planning meeting about  two months before the conference itself.  Until this point the idea had been to do a ‘Cook Up’ social enterprise event, which was becoming increasingly complicated and unweildy.  The conversation (between Rob Hopkins, Jo Hardy, Chrissie Godfrey and myself) went something like this:

Rob Are we really sure we want to do this Sunday Cook up, Transition in action, indoors/outdoors, community engaged public event where over 24 hours we to set up a living breathing world of Transition in 24 hours?”

Jo Even though we’ve been planning it for a few months, I still can’t  fully see it and when I really listen in I’m not sure its  really what delegates need”

Chrissie “It’s a relief to hear you say that, I feel a bit anxious about it but was prepared to make it work”

Myself Its been a bit like pushing something uphill, yes perhaps it is time to change direction”

Quite far in to the conference planning process (with not long to go until the event itself!) we take a bold and slightly scary step to change course, let something go that felt really exciting but the signs were really starting to show that it wasn’t quite right for 2012 conference.  It felt rare to be part of a team that was prepared to take risks at this stage in order to try to really respond to what feels right.

So, the conversation then explored, “what else?” “What could this years big group process be?”

The idea of a more condensed Transition In Action activity emerges, focusing on the High Street of the future, inspired by New Economics Foundation’s ‘Five ways to Wellbeing’, connected to the REconomy momentum, and with the theatrical flavour of the Energy Descent Action Plan in Two Hours’ led by Lucy Neal at the 2009 conference, which had also been at BAC.

That was the brief.  In little over a month!  Chrissie are I are charged with designing this activity, and we rope in Shane Hughes who is part of running the REconomy day, and Lucy Neal to help with the initial ideas. Jo Hardy and Rob have pulled together the workshop programme already and Jo, Chrissie and myself, who are this years conference faciliation  team, have already done much of the shaping of the conference working, closely with with BAC and conference organisers Sim and Kristen.  Even though time feels short, we think we can pull something out of the bag!

384 specially-made blackboards awaiting a home.

Several Skypes later, with really useful input from Shane and Lucy, Chrissie and I spend the summer putting the flesh on the bones of what had become called the ‘Transition Town Anywhere’ activity. We hadn’t worked together before, but the combination between my participatory arts practice, with its approach of “Let’s build up participation slowly, working from the individual, going through neighbours, street then to the town and aesthetically let’s have no post-its, hundreds of blackboards, chalk, cardboard, string, clear space, emptiness, one colour and lets make it a story”, and Chrissie’s experience as an arts producer and a facilitator, more like “we need to pare it down, things will take longer than we think, let’s go and stand in the space and walk it through,  imagine the timings, the changeovers, see how people can get into groups to make the town centre without it being chaos, oh and the overall shape of the activity needs to be like a banana”, had a certain alchemy.

Early September, with the  conference getting close, we get fine tuning input from Jo, Rob, Sophy Banks and Lucy, and with the generous support of a donor of 364 handmade blackboards, the activity is designed and we are ready to start getting getting all the materials ready.

Battersea Arts Centre

We arrive at BAC a day early and park ourselves up on the balcony above the Great Hall. Our ‘to do list’ is very long, it’s like preparing for a show.  BAC have kindly provided us with a designer/ artist to help out, Kirsty.  She makes the map, the key, the bunting. Lucy is on the celebration details, and late Saturday evening in Lucy’s kitchen she finds pieces of long red ribbon, a stick for our opening ceremony. and she makes Map rosettes. We are all ready, and early Sunday morning an amazing team help set the Hall up; Amber, Sophy, Jo (who also DJs), Lucy, Paul and some early conference delegates.

I am really excited, and really really nervous.  This  activity hasn’t been done before, it’s a complete experiment, and there is a huge amount of trust put into our hands by Transition Network, and by the other members of the conference team and by the delegates who we deliberately keep a little in the dark, feels like a big responsibility.

Participants waiting outside the main hall before being allowed in for the event.

But I have trust in the idea,  I feel very very well supported, it’s been passed through many peoples’ hands, like dough, it’s been  kneaded and stretched and pulled into shape. It’s an offering and so we step into a different mode from designers to  facilitators, holding the space,  guiding the journey, getting out of the way enough so  that the process can unfold itself, so the bread can be baked and enjoyed by many…

Transition Town Anywhere

“Please come in …. Thank you for joining us, this morning we are going on a journey together, a journey into the near future, look ahead of you into the empty space, into the  future,   we are heading for transition town centre anywhere….all we have to take with us is our experience, each other and our imagination, we have the chance today to build a thriving, connected, town centre together, … are we ready to go?…….once we cut the ribbon we will be there” …

Stage One….. Home

“Find a place in the room that you could make a home….. draw the outline of your home using the chalk….. take a blackboard and write down something that gives you a sense of wellbeing or connection in your life …. go on a walk about around your town…. take a look at who you are living here with”

Stage Two – Neighbours

“Meet your neighbour, someone who is nearby. Come together and on the back of the blackboard there is a list of story themes, tell each other a personal story based on one of these themes then write down a sentence about what you have heard”

These relationships and personal stories are the foundations of our town..

Stage Three – Street

“Gather together with three of four  other groups of neighbours … explore between you what you could do to make your lives easier,  more sustainable, what don’t you need the high street for, what could you do yourselves … remember also that successful groups spend time deciding how they are going to work together not just what they are going to do … go on another walk about to see what other streets have come up with”

Stage Four – Leaving home

“We are going to build a town centre together… a town needs different things; food, governance, education, innovation, enterprise, celebration … what would you like to see happen in your town under these headings? … write your requests on the walls…

Stage Five – Finding your role

“Go to one of the headings you are most drawn to and use a blackboard to write what role you would like to play today in response to the requests that have been made.  Self organise between you into smaller working groups”

Stage Six – Building your venture

“Use the Tenants Charter provided to check you have thought of everything you need to build a venture – what is it, who’s it for? … once you are sure what you want to do  go and visit the Map Mistress and get a plot number … take materials from the stockpile and build a 3D version of your idea”

Stage Six- Town Centre opening

Time to open the Town Centre, one venture is randomly selected to receive the key to the town, people run up and down the street with ribbons to celebrate, everyone cheers … “We are ready to go. Go and visit other ventures, see how you could work together, what could you exchange, some of you stay at home to host other people to your venture”

Stage Seven – Town Centre picnic

“Have a picnic together in your town.. share the cake that marks the opening”

Stage Eight – Time travel

“Go back to visit the neighbour you first shared a story with, tell them about your experience, what you’ve seen, learnt, observed, felt….then all walk back down the High Street back to the place we started… back to where it all began…count down back to 2012”

Stage Nine – Reflection, tidy up

“Look back into the space.  It’s full, full of your imagination full of what we created together … you can take a souvenir from it to remind you, but no doubt it will stay in our memories… now let the big clear up begin”

I have never felt so supported in facilitation than I did on the day of this activity.  From the broader team, from participants, from the space itself, something happened in the space between us all that  afternoon that was heart opening, made me cry and smile and feel optimistic about the future.  It was so powerful to see what can happen with the power of our imaginations and our collective effort. We have everything we need at our fingertips to create the Town Centres of the future.

What next?

If you would like a version of this Transition Town Anywhere activity to take place in your town, working with your initiative, then we would be happy to talk with you about the possibility. In 2013 I would be willing  to come to your initiative and run a Transition Town Anywhere activity with you. You would need to provide a small team who would run this activity with me, which would include an on-the-job training, which would mean you could then run it, or something like it, again in the future.  I could adapt the activity for your specific audience and needs. We will look into trying to fundraise to cover some of the costs of running this but that’s not guaranteed so you’d need to cover some of these costs i.e. travel and facilitation fees.  Please contact Ruth  07870 698333 if you’d like to discuss the possibility.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


alan charlton
19 Nov 2:01pm

I was one of the very lucky “about 240” to participate. What an experience as this was both my first Transition Conference (2 days) and (on one of the previous days) Reconomy Conference. I came away with so many positives (aligning ‘head, heart and soul/spirit’) that will support and carry me and those that I interract with in my Permaculture/Transition Journey onto developing our own resilient and sustainable communities …with Transition Durham ..or wherever that may be…. my heartfelt thanks… Alan 🙂

Andy Brown
19 Nov 3:14pm

Dear Ruth,

It would be good to hear what the participants thought and felt about the activity. It seems a good idea. I was not at your conerence.I am thinking of trying it in Hong Kong with a real, large, reusable map of the territory and trying to build an integrated and complete permaculture-type map with all activities all inputs an outputs and other dimensions; to create a vision map and visioning experience. I think there can be a danger of over complicating activities and in doing so taking up a lot of time and closing doors on learning opportunities as the activity takes over, and of the facilitators having a more rosy picture than the group, whatever the subject matter – so I am interested to hear whether it was good for the participants also, and what they liked and didn’t like. Perhaps the human interaction and ‘physical plans of activity’ can also be plotted onto a GIS map of a real town, which can be a permantent record developed after the event.

Andy Brown

john thackara
19 Nov 6:15pm

Dear Ruth,
I too was one of the lucky 240. I thought, at the time, that it must have taken a lot of thought to prepare so well – and your excellent account, here, confirms that. After I wrote about it a couple of weeks back, someone in California immediately asked what it would take to do something similar there. My reply was: a lot of time and a lot of insight. I’ll keep you posted on that – but for now: thanks again for a wonderful event.
John Thackara

michael Dunwell
19 Nov 7:51pm

As not one of the lucky 240 I’m really jealous! Absolutely brilliant.

Henri Laupmaa
19 Nov 10:15pm

Thanks Ruth it was really good being part of the process. The whole setup was well done – as a result we try to implement this in our city vision process during the coming year in Estonia.

There are lots of interesting initiatives around, like crowdfunding development projects in YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) way … see Brickstarter.

We’ll let you know of our progress. Many thanks for inspiration!


Neil Chadborn
19 Nov 10:22pm

Hi Ruth- sounds like a great event, shame I missed it. I’m interested in how you used 5 ways to wellbeing, and how people perceived the concept? I’ve been doing research using 5 ways to wellbeing to link health and sustainability with children in Liverpool (I remember meeting you during four corners in Bluecoat). Did you use health as an individual theme for discussion, or did you feel people’s discussion of wellbeing pervades all discussion?

Ruth Ben-Tovim
20 Nov 8:57pm

Hi all, thanks for generous responses.
Andy: From survey monkey feedback after the conference 95% of participants felt the activity was fun and or inspiring. We spent a lot of time in preparation trying to make the stages clear and accessible, a series of Invitations to Join in filled by what participants brought rather than what we as facilitators pre- determined.
Neil : Good to hear from you. Hi yes we invited people to consider wellbeing or what brings you a sense of ‘connection’ with yourself, neighbours, wider community as a key factor in the ingredients that might create a Town. There was a health category as well.

25 Nov 8:19pm

I was there too and it was brilliant. Also my first transition conference. I don’t think the photos really capture the incredible atmosphere. Thanks to Ruth and the team for pulling it off!

Andy – I think using a map of an actual place would turn it into a very different activity and I’m not entirely sure if it would work. Transition Town Anywhere was about dreaming and thinking big then using that general inspiration to take back to your Transition Initiative to plan more do-able projects. (I wasn’t part of a Transition group but have started one since the conference). The ‘street’ we created in the activity would take a VERY long time for a Transition Initiative to replicate, although many will have some elements of it.

What your suggesting sounds like using the activity to plan in a more literal way what you hope to do with your area. While I don’t want to put you off, I worry that this might set the bar a bit too high so that when you only do one or two parts of this master plan (which would be a huge achievement) it doesn’t seem that impressive.

I think there is definitely a time for thinking big and imagining revolutionary change at a local level and that’s exactly what this activity provided.

If I had to come up with a criticism, I’d say that I know one or two people who were at the conference who did not enjoy this imaginative journey. I loved it, as did all the other people I spoke to but it is just a shame that for a very small minority it wasn’t something they could get into.

Steve Hinton
12 Dec 6:41pm

Great write up and it was, truly a moving experience, I was there. At one point I got so overwhelmed I had to go and grab a cup of tea. It was confronting in a way, as for years I have been bemoaning the lack of sustainability in society, and when I get the chance to design one I feel confronted. What was most interesting for me was how I got magically drawn to one subject that I thought I had no talent for, but soon got into the flow and was solving and creating with the others at a fabulous speed. The story telling bit I thought at first was spurious but realized it was essential. We need to have strong emotional experiences with each other before we can move to the practical stuff. The session is still working in me I know, I just completed a kind of “community finance planning canvas” based partly in my experiences at the event. Download it here

8 Jan 11:07pm

Ruth, what an inspiring read. The event and whole concept have your hallmark stamped all over them, I got a lovely tingle of familiarity coupled with the frisson of something new and very exciting. I think there might be a potential Encounters-Loca Creatives collaboration in Kirklees, shall we explore?