Transition Culture

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

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6 Jan 2014

The 5 factors that will enable Transition to scale up

Scaling up

Our theme for January is ‘Scaling Up’.  There is no route map to a powered-down, resilient future.  No-one has done this before.  What Transition has achieved in 7 years has been remarkable.  But it’s not enough.  The times we are in, and the escalating challenges we face, bring with them the demand that we demonstrate that what we are developing here is actually proportionate to those threats and challenges.  There’s a balance, between a pressure that prompts us to up our game, to think more ambitiously and imaginatively, and our feeling overwhelmed by that pressure, and as a result pushing ourselves unsustainably or being left feeling hopeless.  It feels to me though that we have only just scratched the surface of the possibilities and potential of Transition, rather than any sense that we have pushed it as far as it will go.  With a mindfulness of that tension, we’ll kick off this month of reflecting on scaling up.  

Over this month we will be speaking to leading practitioners of the art of scaling up social innovations.  We’ll chat with those trying to scale up their community responses in neighbourhoods facing really tough challenges and we’ll hear from a number of voices about their suggestions for “how to discuss Transition with…” a variety of different groups, starting today with ‘Republicans/Conservatives’.  

We’ll hear from Andy Lipkis of Tree People in Los Angeles who are looking at building resilience on the city-scale, from Rosie Boycott on how the Mayor of London’s office have sought to grow urban agriculture across the city, and we’ll also be hearing from some leading practitioners in the world of earthen building as to what the mainstreaming of natural building practices could look like in practice.  We will be unveiling Transition Network’s strategy document for your comments and input, as the organisation seeks to identify how to most effectively support you to sustain what you’re currently doing and have an even greater impact.  And some other stuff too. 

To kick off this month’s theme, I would like to suggest five factors that would help the Transition movement to scale up in a way proportionate to the challenges of our time. They are:

  1. Create a learning network
  2. Support and resource core groups
  3. Bring forward investment for Transition enterprises
  4. Become better storytellers
  5. Build an evidence base 

There are doubtless many more, but I’ll focus on these five.  Please feel free to respond to these and suggest others in the comment thread below.  Some of these came out of discussions in advance of, and during, my trip to the US in October 2013. Here is my favourite talk from that trip which touches on some of these issues of ‘scaling up’, and includes a very silly hat:


So here we go.  If we are serious about Transition scaling up to have the kind of impact it needs to have, and that we want it to have, and in order to be proportionate to the ‘perfect storm’ of crises we’re facing, I would argue that the following five will be vital:

1.  Creating a learning network

It is really important that we avoid Transition initiatives, whether adjoining each other or on the opposite sides of the world, ‘reinventing the wheel’, working in isolation and not sharing the wider learnings from the thousands of other initiatives doing very similar things.  In The Transition Companion, I described a learning network thus: 

Rather than reinventing the wheel, tap into the pool of accumulated insight the Transition movement has generated, as well as feeding into it and enriching our collective understanding.

Part of the reason for Transition’s success has been what Doria Robinson (interview coming tomorrow) calls “trans-local organising”, i.e. initiatives working at the local level to build resilience, but doing so in solidarity and in networks with other initiatives doing the same.  

2013 national Transition Hubs gathering, Lyons, France.

The recent gathering of representatives of 19 national Transition hubs (see above) was an indication of how this building of a learning network is progressing.  Transition Network’s forthcoming Strategy, which will be posted here soon for your feedback, is also intended to build this network as effectively as possible.  Among other things, we’re working to make it much easier for people to make use of the wealth of information, advice and resources that is available on this site (more information on this within a couple of weeks). Enabling such a network is also a key part of what this blog and this website is all about, so we are always open to new ideas as to how it might best achieve this.  

2.  Support and resource core groups

Transition doesn’t happen by magic. The foundation of any successful Transition activity is a healthy, well-functioning core group which has dedicated the time and thought needed to how they will function together.  It is a group that pays attention to the inner aspects of its work as well as to the outer aspects.  This is one of those areas where there is already a huge amount of learning, both within and beyond the Transition movement.  As we review and revise the way that Transition Network supports initiatives, we’ll be emphasising the value of getting the basics right and making it much easier for people to find relevant advice and resources.  

Also, after a while, it is increasingly evident that core groups, once they have generated some momentum and if they wish to really scale up their activities, need some support for the core of their work.  One of the arguments Transition Network has made repeatedly to funders has been that if they really want to see Transition scale up, one of the most skilful ways is to resource Transition groups to have someone who holds the centre.  Without this, there is a danger of ending up with what people are increasingly calling ‘The Doughnut Effect’.  

With the Doughnut Effect, the initial founding energy of Transition finds itself pulled first into working groups (food, energy, etc) and then into projects and then into the creation of new social enterprises and businesses.  Less and less energy is available to hold the centre, to keep linking the different strands of the group’s work together, to keep telling the story of why Transition matters and how these different elements are part of that.  The danger is that in a few years, what’s left is a few cool projects and a dim and distant memory of a Transition group to which those enterprises have a historical connection.  

A healthy Transition initiative.  In this case, Crystal Palace Transition Town.

… as opposed to:

A doughnut.  Not the same at all.

REconomy, Totnes.For example, Transition Town Totnes has had, for the past 3 years, a paid central co-ordinator/manager, which has enabled the production of the Local Economic Blueprint, a whole programme of REconomy events and the new REconomy Centre, the impending Atmos Totnes project, Transition Homes, the Food Link project, the monthly Film Club, the Mentoring and Wellbeing Support programme, lots of networking with other organisations, the regular Skillshares, the recent ‘Caring Town’ conference, and much more.  There is a sense that all those things sit within the context of Transition Town Totnes.  

Transition Town Brixton, on the other hand, doesn’t have that role.  While it has achieved an incredible diversity of great projects, it is, according to Duncan Law from the group, starting to notice the Doughnut Effect kicking in, with no-one there to hold that central piece.  The group recently produced a Local Economic Evaluation (like Totnes’).  I recently asked Duncan what difference having a paid core person would make to their ability to implement the Evaluation report:  

“Oh, it would take off. It would take off. If those of us who are passionate about this could spend more of our time following the leads that that passion throws up, we would be able to have a seismic effect on the direction of Brixton.  As it is, for me, I haven’t got time to build on the REconomy report.  I could be doing it full time, and I would if I could, and we would be able to achieve everything that we set out in that report, if we could just get 3 or 4 people working on it for a sizeable chunk of their week”.

Transition Network continues to try and impress on funders the potential leverage of their funding if they are able to support this work with Transition groups.  Bringing in this kind of support, whether from local or national philanthropists, or, in time, from local entrepreneurial activity, will be key to scaling up. Such an approach is also key to enabling the creation of new enterprises and businesses, offering the right support to enable people to start building livelihoods around Transition rather than imagining the transitioning of their local community can just be done on their Wednesday evenings.  

3. Bring forward investment for Transition enterprises

If a Transition initiative has reached the point of feeling it has the momentum to commit to scaling up what it is doing, and has managed to bring together the people, the passion and the skills to start making a new economy happen, how best to bring in the necessary investment?  At the local scale, there are many ways: crowdfunding; funding applications; community share launches; philanthropy; local investors.  But thinking about scaling up also requires thinking about investment more systematically as a movement.

David Holmgren recently published a new paper, Crash on Demand, which has been creating a buzz online and which I’ll be writing a more detailed response to later this month.  In it (among other things) he argues the need for the creation of new channels for investment so that people can move what assets they have into institutions and models that will underpin the economy that will define the new post-crash, low carbon ‘earth stewardship’ world.  In the context of the current push from and others for fossil fuel divestment, he writes: 

“Divestment must always be balanced by a conscious plan of re-investment that doesn’t simply recreate the problems in a new form”.  

One of the strands of Transition Network’s efforts, through its REconomy work, has been that of creating an investment model that can enable people to invest in Transition on a larger scale, building in the need for ‘at risk’ support to help get new enterprises off the ground.  Matching up the opportunities to shift investment from the high carbon economy to the Transition one will be one of the key pieces of work needed over the next few years.  

This also picks up on US philanthropist Peter Buffett’s excellent recent article The Charitable/Industrial Complex, which argues that US-based philanthropic organisations are “searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left”.  A well-presented opportunity for such bodies to shift their core endowment into bottom-up community resilience initiatives would be a paradigm-changer.  Buffett continues:

“What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Foundation dollars should be the best “risk capital” out there.  There are people working hard at showing examples of other ways to live in a functioning society that truly creates greater prosperity for all (and I don’t mean more people getting to have more stuff). 

Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.  It’s an old story; we really need a new one”.

Scaling up will require some mature thinking about how to bring the resources of philanthropic organisations to unlock much of what we already know is possible. 

4. Become better storytellers

What do you say when asked “what is Transition?”  Chances are that what you say, what you’re wearing when you say it, the language and terminology you use to describe it, make a substantial difference to the degree to which your message is taken to heart.  It is really important that Transition finds new ground to stand on, ground that is distinctly its own, not the safe, traditional territory of the green left.  I have taken great heart over the last year from the mature discussion around fracking within the Transition movement rather than an instant dash to dismissing it out of hand, the story of Transition Laguna Beach and how it mindfully considered how it would present itself to its more right wing neighbours, and the response to my interview with Dr Sarah Wollaston MP.  

Transition is a social technology designed to work at the local level, where finding common ground and building networks of relationships matter the most.  It cannot be seen as left wing, right wing, liberal, pro-growth, anti-growth, or even necessarily as “green” or environmentalist.  In a recent interview in Resurgence magazine, businesswoman and Dragon’s Den TV panellist Deborah Meaden said: 

“I think greens need to stop calling themselves greens.  Everybody has an image of a green individual and I don’t think I am of that ilk.  I think that makes me more powerful, because people have not put me in that compartment.  When I speak they listen in a different way … behaving well is the issue, and as long as it’s wrapped up in this separate green issue, it’s not going to be accepted by the mainstream.  So we need to engage a little bit more and say ‘green’ less often.  Sustainability is common-sense behaviour.  It’s what we should all be doing.  It just needs that common voice that says that this is what we’re talking about”.  

The other part of becoming better storytellers is Becoming the Media, getting better at telling the stories of what we’re doing.  One of my key observations from my recent trip to the US is that SO much is happening there on the ground, but most of it is never reported.  We need to continue finding creative, touching, dynamic ways of telling the stories.  

5. Build an evidence base 

Transition has been framed from the outset as an experiment. But are we able to say now that Transition actually works?  And if so, how do we know?  How can it avoid the traps of some related movements, for whom sometimes ‘solutions’ that are presented have very little underpinning them other than goodwill and hope.  But an evidence base is building, and the Transition Research Network are doing a great job keeping track of that and seeking to ensure that research on Transition serves the wider movement and the initiatives concerned, rather than just the needs of the researchers.  

Much of what we do here is to try and capture the experience and stories of what Transition initiatives are doing, whether through blogs, our news feed, or our monthly roundups of what’s happening in the world of Transition. Embracing the idea of building an evidence base and pulling that information together will be a key part of being able to show that this works, or doesn’t.  


Of course, as I mentioned at the outset, one of the dangers of writing a piece that presents these 5 suggestions for scaling up Transition is that it leads people not doing them to feel somehow inadequate. The point of this is not to say that if your initiative is struggling, or small, or focused on a handful of small projects, that somehow it is further away from scaling up, somehow less valuable.  The way I see these five factors is that they can also be used on any scale of Transition initiative.  For example:

Create a learning network: link in with what Transition Network is publishing, with Transition training, connect with adjacent initiatives and meet up to share experience.  Make a conscious effort to make use of it as best as you can.  Make sure someone in your group subscribes to the Transition Network newsletter, keeps an eye on the homepage for news and blogs, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. There is a learning network already in place around you. 

Support and resource core groups: be mindful that being able to increase the impact of what you’re doing needs the due level of attention paid to the health of your core group. Making sure that some (or ideally all) of your core team have done Transition Training will really help. Pay attention to strategies to minimise burn out.  If your group reaches the point of needing a paid core person (you’ll know when you reach that stage), give some thought to creative ways in which it might be possible to achieve that.  

Bring forward investment for Transition enterprises: investment can come in many ways.  You might invite people to support the group’s work with a monthly standing order, and, at your public events, to invite people to support in that way.  You might take the idea that everyone in the community is an investor whatever they have to offer and run an event like a Local Entrepreneur’s Forum, which is a great way to network with investors and entrepreneurs in your community.  You might seek out prominent local philanthropists and invite their support for aspects of your work.   

Become better storytellers: might it be the case that the way your group explains Transition, the way it comes across, is a turnoff to more people than it inspires?  How do you explain what you do?  How do you use the media channels available to let people know what you’re doing, and how they might get involved? 

Build an evidence base: Keep some kind of a record of events, how many people came, key learnings, high points.  Keep the posters.  Take photos. See the Transition ingredient ‘Measurement’ for more ideas.  


Ultimately, the thing about Transition, and scaling it up, is that we have no idea where the tipping points are.  That’s the key thing that gives me hope.  Who was to know that 4 years after I wandered into a film company’s office in Totnes and saw an 1810 £1 note issued by the Bank of Totnes framed on the wall, and wondered “what would happen if we printed some new ones?”, that the Mayor of Bristol would be taking his full salary in the city’s own currency and that the Bank of England would have published a paper on its position on local currencies.  

I’ll leave you with this story, told by Paul Loeb, which he cites as “a reminder of how powerful a community based on conviction can be, even though the members of that community may be unknown to each other, or be living in different places or historical times”. 

“In the early 1960s, a friend of mine named Lisa took two of her kids to a Washington, DC, vigil in front of the White House, protesting nuclear testing. The demonstration was small, a hundred women at most. Rain poured down. The women felt frustrated and powerless. A few years later, the movement against testing had grown dramatically, and Lisa attended a major march. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby doctor, spoke. He described how he’d come to take a stand, which because of his stature had already influenced thousands, and would reach far more when he challenged the Vietnam War. Spock talked briefly about the issues, then mentioned being in DC a few years before and seeing a small group of women huddled, with their kids, in the rain. It was Lisa’s group. “I thought that if those women were out there,” he said, “their cause must be really important.”