Transition Culture

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

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28 Jan 2013

‘Social Change 2.0′: an interview with David Gershon. Part Two. Transition as “a laboratory for building transformative social innovations”


What’s your sense at the moment of the movement of people around the world who are doing this kind of work, whether it’s Transition or your work or all the various other kind of things like it?  This bottom-up, community-focused sense that the new economy that’s actually going to be able to sustain us needs to be run very very differently from the one we have at the moment which is failing so many people wretchedly at this point.  What’s your sense of the state of health, where are we do you think?

There’s this common link that you and I have, which is climate change. Climate change, to me, is the over arching context of everything we deal with on the planet at this moment in time, and henceforth for the rest of our lives, our children’s lives and on into the future. It’s now become the 800 pound gorilla in the room, whether our politicians are able to act on it or not.  Eventually they will, at different levels, and they already are at some levels, but as Thomas Friedman, who writes for the New York Times, says “Nature bats last”.

That’s going to drive a lot of what we’re doing in due course.  It already is in many cases, and where I come from, where I am, not too far from New York City, it is creating a whole new conversation.  Hurricane Sandy, the breakdown in the city.  It’s a conversation around resiliency, the kind of thing that your work is so good at, that you’ve tapped in to so deeply.

The health of these bottom-up movements? Their job now is to build viable new systems, a little bit like Buckminster Fuller said, you know, you have to have the new system ready, so that when the old one breaks down, people can step in to it. Right now, the job, in my estimation, is to build these systems, build them, get them tested, prototype them, demonstrate them, scale them, a whole social innovation, and you have to identify early adopters. Are you familiar with Everett Rogers work on the fusion of innovation?


It’s an important context for a lot of the work we’re all doing right now.  Rogers was a social science researcher out of Stanford, whose interest was in how innovations diffuse, how new ideas diffuse. So how Transition Towns, how our work on carbon reduction, our ‘Low Carbon Diet’ programme, and other programmes we have, diffuse.  What he said was, based on 1500 case studies over 50 years studying how successful innovations diffuse, was that there were 4 categories of people who respond to innovation.

He’s actually the person that came up with the phrase ‘Early Adopters’ and he said that Early Adopters have two characteristics: they seek out the new and they have a high tolerance for experimentation. So right now, you have Early Adopters who are your Transition Town leaders in communities who are interested in the issue of resiliency, that would be my characteristic, that would be my take.  You might state it differently, I’m sure you would, but that would be my outside point of view of what I’ve observed with Transition Towns here in the US.

The next group is called the Early Majority and they have one characteristic primarily, they’re belongers, they wait for this idea to be proven and they are representative of around 35% of the population.  The next group he called the ‘Late Majority’ who are only going to join when they feel they have to, when they will feel socially ostracised if they don’t.  They are 35%, and the last group he called the ‘Laggards’, the last 15% who will never participate.

What we have right now are social innovations in process of being architected and prototyped and demonstrated, and very few are in positions to be scaled because that is quite a sophisticated process to get it to that point where you can have real social impact.  A few of them are.  One of the projects that I’ve been working on that’s the stage we’re at right now.  The ‘Low Carbon Diet’, where we’ve identified 5 cities that are ready to take it to scale, meaning 25-75% participation of the community and a significant carbon reduction of 25% per household.  We’ve been at this long enough and have proved it well enough that it’s ready to go to scale.

But that’s just within certain Early Adopter communities, and then we would eventually go to the next level, so as an example of where we are in that particular issue, I think all of this can get accelerated, and I don’t know the time line, nor any of us do.  That is being set more and more by the impacts of climate change and so we have to be ready.  I think we need to be patient and not assume that the fact we are not at higher levels on the adoption curve is a statement that the world isn’t quite ready.  We have to be more and more ready, and we have to learn to be more skilful in the process, we have to learn how to be good social learners, so that we are ready to go through these different stages.

You’ve talked about the Transition movement and your experience of it. What’s your sense of what the work that you do, which is expressed in your book, could bring to, or add, or how it could enrich what Transition groups are doing?

I’ll give you an example.  In one of the five cities that we’re working in, there is a Transition group that is now advocating to have this be one of the five cities that are selected [for the ‘Low Carbon Diet’ programme].  This is Sonoma, and there is a Sonoma Transition group.  I can’t speak for them precisely, but this was helping them to further actualise some of what their vision was.  They wanted to embrace the community.  This programme that we have has a very strong resiliency component built on my work in New York City called ‘All Together Now’.  It’s a disaster resiliency programme.  It has a liveability piece.  It has multiple elements of structure that can take some of the ideas that are in play and help it go to the next level of embodiment and manifestation if you will or realisation on very practical levels in terms of behavioural change and in terms of scaling.  I think there are opportunities there.

Beyond that, because as you point out or at least you alluded to in your last book, there are lots of things being done in the name of Transition Towns.  People are doing many, many, many things and that seems to be part of the modus operandi of Transition Towns. One of the things that Social Change 2.0 does, and you may know the work of Christopher Alexander, the architect?

Yes, absolutely..

I have really taken to heart the notion of ‘A Pattern Language’ and I assume that you must be familiar with that term as well?

‘The Transition Companion’ was done as a pattern language inspired by his work, yes.

There you go, Social Change 2.0 is a pattern language for second order change or transformative social change.  People are using it in multiple contexts. I think that it can only enhance and support the work that’s being done.  It’s a sophisticated body of work based on close to 30 years of research, that looks at how we change behaviour, how we empower communities, how we create large system transformation, how we diffuse social innovations, how we design and implement social innovations, everything that you guys are doing.  That’s why we found so much interest among people in the Transition movement here in the States in this work so I think there is lots of synergy here.

To what extent is the urgent need to model and create new economies in response to the implosion of our current one something that features with your approach, and what tools might you have that could help communities who want to do that?

Fundamentally what we’re talking about at different levels are variations on a theme of social entrepreneurship or entrepreneurship with a social dimension.  Some for profit, some not for profit, the whole new model of blending the two often, but at the end of the day, for any of these enterprises to be successful, you’ve got to get a lot of people to adopt new behaviours.  You’ve also got to be able to build a viable social enterprise that can enable this thing to be successful.

That is an integral part of the work of building a social innovation and then turning it into the process of a social enterprise so that it can be scaled whether its non profit or for profit, again they’re blending, these two must necessarily emerge because social change is so important.

The key to our work is the social change component, not so much the social entrepreneurial component.  What I have found is that many social entrepreneurs have a fantastic idea and they have the power and the will to do it and move it forward and make it happen but less do they have a really deep knowledge of social change itself.

The more we can build that capacity, then we start to increase the magnitude and the speed and the quality of social change, rather than just having lots of activities.  It’s time, I believe, for those of us who are doing this to really look at how we can increase the social return on investment.  It’s not good enough to just do things, but we have to have those things actually start to have an impact, and the way that they do that is to be more skilful in the process of social change.  That’s what I see as the missing piece.

The first chapter in my book is called ‘Reinventing Social Change’ and so rarely do we even look at our paradigms, we just step forward and try stuff, and some people are good at learning and they can figure stuff out like you, more often than not, people don’t and then they get frustrated and then they start to say it’s not possible or they just carve out a small little niche which might have a marginal impact. But the world needs us to do better and better so we need to raise the standard and a lot of the work I do is committed to that.

Any last thoughts on what tools would be most useful for Transition moving forward I suppose, where the insights need to be mined?

I think the truth of the matter is that people are at very different places, and so what we’ve laid out is a pattern for how to create this type of bottom-up change.  Minimally, I think reading the book would be helpful, getting groups together to form study circles, but practically, the heart of all this work, in my judgement, is social innovation.

If I was to step back and say “what is Transition for me?”, I see it as an incubator for social and community based social innovation with resiliency clearly as an organising principle.  But it’s bigger than just that because you’re activating people who then look in their community and say ‘what can be done?’ and they have this umbrella.  At the heart of what I think you’re all doing, you are a laboratory for building transformative social innovations and that’s what this book is designed to support people to do.

How far can we get without government do you think? Since we’re talking about bottom-up change..

In the big picture, we need to bring 1.0 and 2.0 together, they are not meant to be separate.  Part of the way that 2.0 can work, and I would say that you guys are a 2.0 platform, is that you start to build demand for different types of policies.  You start to show what’s possible, you start to have political advocacy come out of it.  You do need policies that reinforce and support the kinds of activities you might well be involved in.

So 1.0 is very important, it would be wonderful to have social innovation, I think you have something like this in the UK, grant programmes to support people who might do these things.  I think this is where foundations and corporations need to go in the future, but the key is to demonstrate quality and the scale-ability of these social innovations so they can get the attention of policy makers who want to get a good social return on their investment.

That’s where the skill set and the quality of the products and the services that are being built need to commit.  Ultimately government has a very important role to play; they can’t get the job done by themselves, their job now I think is moving more and more into facilitating and enabling the help and the resources wherever they can.  The private sector, the civic sector, the public sector: we all have to work in some synergy and all global designs that are designed to scale have to be whole system in my judgement.

One of the things that strikes me as a real tension here, and I assume it’s similar in the US is that since economic growth has kind of dwindled and ground to a halt there too is this manic obsession with getting growth started again.  It’s like in a hospital drama when someone has died and they get the electric paddle shock things to the chest.  There’s this real tension between trying to get economic growth going again and resilience, because a lot of the things which are put out, here anyway, as things that we need to do urgently in order to re stimulate the economy tend to involve removing obstacles for big business to do whatever it likes, wherever it likes, things that actually actively undermine community resilience. You mentioned about the role for corporations, I wonder how you see that tension between community resilience and economic growth.

We don’t have easy problems to solve, so there aren’t easy answers to any of these potential places of tension. Traditionally there have been silos: government does its thing, civic sector does its thing, the corporate sector does its thing. A lot of my work is really designed because I realise that we can’t scale any of these social innovations unless we bring the whole system together.  I’ve been looking for ways, and piloting ways, and pioneering ways, to bring all systems together, so where do corporations fit?

Here’s what I’ve observed about corporations today.  As the world starts to go in to this state of being unstable, most of the social systems being unstable, our climate system now moving in to a state of being unstable, they are unstable, and they are not unaware of that in my experience.  The question is how do they begin to play a role.  For example, one of the large consultancies, McKinsey, just did a whole white paper on shaping our future, about how they can become engaged in social change as a way to enable their future.  There are a lot of calls for them to start stepping in to this space on a practical level.

Then there is just the general desire for employing loyalty and customer loyalty so when you put them all together, the early adopter company, that’s the ones we would be targeting, in context, early adopter local governments, state government officials or federal or local or national or global companies.  They are looking for opportunities.  There is all this other stuff going on at the macro level, but to me the real thing is someone coming forward and building a viable strategy that can help them in some way and they can help it in some way.

We have to start thinking more creatively about financing and ideally when you get them involved and then you have the local government involved, I mean I don’t want to suggest that this is easy but I can give you a couple of examples of some of what we’ve seen happen, but more than these finer points, it’s really just to paint the picture of what I think (a) is needed and (b) is possible.