31 Jan 2014
Ben Brangwyn on the scaling up of Transition internationally
In a guest post, Ben Brangwyn, Transition Network’s International Development Co-ordinator, tells the story of the scaling up of Transition Network internationally, the emergence of the international Hubs and where it’s all going now.
This is a little tale of the spread of Transition internationally. We think it’s a relevant story for Transitioners because of the parallels that happen across all sorts of levels of scale. Some of the conflicts, dynamics and prejudices that I see in my own life also show up in some way in our little organisation of Transition Network, and are reflected back in the Transition groups here and the wider movement around the world. Perhaps some of this international expansion story may yield insights that will help your local initiative with the challenges of maintaining momentum, staying true to the values that inspired you to start or get involved in your Transition group, finding the right balance between exerting control and “just letting go”.
In the beginning…
Transition Network started up on a wing and a (non-denominational) prayer at the end of 2006 in the hope that the early social experiment started by Naresh Giangrande and Rob Hopkins in Totnes might replicate broadly elsewhere. The initial design, with its simple “12 Steps” and “7 Buts”, already had that flavour of replicability that my earlier jobs in business had trained me to spot. And by that time, a few very smart people in early adopter communities in the UK – Lewes and Stroud in particular – were already playing with the idea.
We concentrated on the UK at first, setting up the website, going on the road, connecting initiatives, sharing learnings, writing blogs, putting flags in googlemaps, building a mailing list, launching a newsletter. We even put on our first Transition conference early in 2007 in Stroud – Richard Heinberg played a big role there.
It was clear that we needed an international perspective – Richard Heinberg had told us that, and the levels of interest we were getting even in 2007 from not just English-speaking countries like New Zealand, Canada, USA and Australia but also Italy, Spain and France told us the same thing.
But how could we, as insular, parochial and culturally myopic Brits help catalyse transition in places we’d never visited and which had cultural nuances we couldn’t even imagine?
Beyond the shores of the UK
Before we could figure out a sensible answer, two initial examples quickly showed us that this had already started. First, we saw that people in Spain, Italy and Germany were translating articles and material from our website and adding it to blogs over there. Then, a “Transition Italy” website popped up. We expected that this would get noticed by appropriately concerned potential transitioners in those countries and accelerate the adoption of the Transition model there, and we also suspected that without some kind of coordinating group at the centre in those locations, their initial efforts might get diluted somewhat.
That central coordinating group seemed like a crucial piece of the puzzle for local initiatives. And at a broader level of scale, we’d set Transition Network up as a central resource to “Inspire, Inform, Connect, Support and Train” communities to adopt and adapt the transition model to transform their own locale. In the spirit of scaling up, might we see in some kind of wonderful fractal way, something happen at a national level along similar lines?
First National Hubs
Pretty soon, at the end of 2007, Ireland popped up on the radar. We already had excellent relationships with highly motivated and capable people who had been working in this field for ages, and this made it easy to start off the conversations about a group starting up to represent Ireland and Northern Ireland nationally.
Another island nation turned up next – New Zealand. The guy who we’d recently seen videos of doing awesome Transition presentations said he’d be prepared to help catalyse and support Transition there. Based on our conversations and the available evidence, it looked like if he couldn’t help Transition scale up there, no one could.
Next, we were approached by a pre-existing organisation in the US to represent transition over there. And now, in terms of scaling up, the stakes suddenly took a stratospheric leap – the USA population is getting on for 100 times bigger than New Zealand. The appeal of an existing established and influential operation taking on this catalysing and supporting role was very seductive. On the other hand, how on earth could we make sure that Transition Networks aspirational mishmash of values – experimentation, playfulness, inner/outer, empowering the genius of the local community, non-confrontational, local variability – were replicated appropriately in an organisation in a far away country where we didn’t have any real influence? Should we just go with the flow, or should we start exerting influence strongly? This really was too big to screw up and so, after many brain aching conversations, we came up with a thing we called a “memorandum of understanding” to negotiate the relationship between Transition Network and this new “hub”. Crucially, that memorandum stipulated that the people who were in key roles in that hub had to be in a local initiative.
This last critical criterion proved to be the most effective in maintaining those values and was, I think, a key bit of magic fairy dust that helped build out this fractal model. It’s as though actually getting involved in a local initiative really encourages the playfulness, the collaborative and the systems thinking approach that underpins Transition. Obviously this criterion also is exclusive – if Transition isn’t your thing in your own community, then maybe you’re not the right person to inspire, support and represent Transitioners in your country. This criterion really helped us collaborate well with the US and establish a relationship with an embryonic Transition US and Resilience.org that seems to have really helped replicate the values and approach of Transition in that massive country.
Before the end of 2008, another five hubs had emerged – Scotland, Japan, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands. Scaling up was happening, and yet it wasn’t entirely obvious to us how each country was adopting and adapting the Transition model. Were Transitioners in, say Japan, staying true to the initial values and aspirations that started off Transition in the first place? Should the Transition model change in the light of new things learnt elsewhere?
The Training World Tour
By now, Transition Training was getting into full swing, and a proposal came forward for a trans-global training tour. This would be perfect to help replicate a more refined and nuanced Transition model internationally, to train up an international network of trainers, and to bring back the experiences of other places to enrich the stories of Transition and to evolve how Transition was communicated generally. Sophy and Naresh went to seven countries, training transitioners and trainers in the US, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. (Since then there have been another seven or so ‘Train the Trainers’ and now there are trainers in twenty four different countries, with the training having been delivered around thirty different countries).
By the levels of interest and response we saw in the wake of this tour, training is an incredible effective means of scaling up. Not just in terms of existing transitioners getting in-depth exposure, but in terms of those people then being able to communicate some of the benefits of getting involved to others in their community.
Questions of relationship between Transition Network and Hubs
I wonder about the relationship between Transition Network and the National Hubs. Does it replicate in any way the relationship between the core group in a Transition Initiative and the theme groups or projects that emerge from it? What kind of influence is it appropriate to exert? How do we best support them? To what extent should we get involved if there’s a conflict in a Hub?
We’re still feeling our way through these questions, and the MoU has been a useful instrument for establishing a baseline to these relationships. But not everyone felt an agreement was necessary. New Zealand, for instance, didn’t feel that any formal arrangement was appropriate, exerting a level of independence from the “British imperial overlord” which initially came as a surprise, and then became completely understandable and taught us that these relationships worked best if they were invitational rather than imposed.
This question of dependence on, or independence from, a coordinating body shows up everywhere in Transition and Transition groups have used a variety of devices to broker their relationship with theme groups or projects – there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
The Hubs find their voice
It’s been interesting to see how the Hubs have grown from being a set of separate entities to having their own sense of collective identity and are exerting a stronger and stronger influence on what we do at Transition Network. It’s mirrored how much attention we’ve been giving the entire international dimension of our work here.
The first time we really noticed “international” as a collective voice was at our conference in 2011 in Liverpool. We held a meeting on the last day to talk about international matters. Sixty international transitioners turned up and we were all taken by surprise at the numbers – even though by then another eight Hubs had formed.
It was a year later at the London conference in 2012 that we were able to achieve our broader aspiration to help the National Hubs to become a cohesive group. This was really helped by a rather wonderful individual who had come forward from Brussels to offer her services in helping us with international matters. During the follow-on day to this conference designed specifically to nurture the embryonic group of National Hubs, several working groups emerged covering: Funding, Decision-making, Comms and “Family”. These groups intended to carry forward the collective intentions of the group. A big question here was whether Transition Network was sufficiently resourced and focussed to support this happening. I don’t think we were, and in the end, only the Funding group really delivered on their aspirations.
At this point we realised we were going to have to devote more time and attention to the whole challenge of “going international” if we wanted an international network of Hubs – crucial in our mind – to take off. Our funders had convinced us that we had a sufficiently suitable international recipe and approach, but organisationally, we lacked the strategic capacity to move properly in that direction without potentially losing impact in other areas we were also focusing on. It was clear we needed to substantially reconfigure and strengthen our organisation before making this leap.
Could this be true for local Transition groups? That in order to effectively broaden their impact they’d need to do some powerful internal work to raise capacity within the core team? As I write this I’m struck by how this also applies at the personal level – if I’m going to broaden the reach and impact of my work, I need to pay a lot of attention to my own inner capacities to handle the diversity, workload, potential conflicts and sheer complexity that this might bring.
At each of these levels of scales – international, local group, personal – this “restructuring” in order to be ready to scale up can initially be disruptive. Much soul searching, a lot of difficult work, high levels of uncertainty as these shifts take place. I’ve certainly seen it as Transition Network went through its own reorganisation process, and I’m certainly still going through my own process as I get to grips with the role of International Coordination.
The Hubs get their own conference
I felt it to be a massive milestone in Transition Network’s history. Here were forty individuals, from around twenty countries across Western and Central Europe, from the Far East, from South America, from Scandinavia all coming together to create a cohesive network of national level practitioners. In terms of scaling up, this was, as our US transitioners might say, a “whole new ball game”.
This disparate group coalesced into a set of working groups along the similar lines as London meeting. Now that we have significant dedicated resources helping them, we can see that these working groups are already delivering against their plans. In a very grown-up process of self-determination, they’re answering the questions: “What is a Hub?”; “How do we create a culture of family across our Hubs?”; “What platform should we use for collaboration?”
Is there a mirror process happening in Transition Initiatives? Are the theme groups and projects asserting themselves in as part of a movement towards greater self-determination and greater levels of cohesiveness? Could this be happening at regional levels within countries where a centrally placed resource helps the region coalesce as a cooperative group and become a learning network? In our experience at the National Hubs level is that this only happens when we at the centre are able to support them through this process.
What’s the International picture now?
We’re starting to plan for the National Hubs conference for 2014. The working groups are convening and pursuing the priorities set at the 2013 meeting in Lyon. Other National Hubs are emerging to join this network and enrich its understanding of social change. Transition Network is able to call on this group to help refine its messaging, strategies and priorities.
We’ve got a way to go, but for the first time since this funny little idea with its wildly ambitious dreams got off the ground in 2006, I’m feeling that we’re really getting to grips with what scaling up internationally really means.
The short term future, as ever, is a mystery to me and I’m expecting it to be full of surprises and challenges. I’ll struggle forwards with all my prejudices, uncertainties and sense of the enormity of the tasks ahead. And again, I’m sure I’ll be struck by parallels across all the levels of scale I’m working on. If the aspirational mishmash of values that work at my personal level – experimentation, playfulness, inner/outer, non-confrontational, respecting local variability, systems thinking – can work in the projects that I’m involved in locally, and also in our little organisation Transition Network, and then beyond that within this growing network of National Hubs, then I see this level of alignment at different levels of scale being a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.
My intuition is that the more we see these parallels and the more fractal this model of transition appears at these different levels of scale, then the stronger and more robust we’ll all be in the face of challenges ahead.