Transition Culture

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30 Apr 2014

Giuseppe Feola and Richard J Nunes on researching Transition


One of the most in-depth pieces of research on Transition published recently was Failure and Success of Transition initiatives: a study of the international replication of the Transition movement by Giuseppe Feola and Richard Nunes at the University of Reading.  Giuseppe is a lecturer in Environmental Development whose research focuses on issues around how sustainable development is pursued by local communities. Richard lectures on real estate and planning at the School of Real Estate and Planning and has a background in architecture and subsequently then trained as a planner. He is interested in human and environment interactions, looking at aspects of policy and governance specifically.  I caught up with them via Skype to find out more about the paper, how it came about, and what they concluded.

I wonder if one of you might just start us off with how the study came about and what you did?

Giuseppe: We’re both interested in this type of movement, like the Transition movement and grassroots innovations. We came to realise that in the literature there are many studies that contribute to what can be called the success of this type of grassroots initiative or to their failure, but these studies usually address or take one or two case studies.  They go in depth into analysing the experience of one particular community or one particular initiative, but there’s no overview of more general patterns.

We were unsure whether the results of the studies could be generalised through other communities and other initiatives. That was the spark of the study. What we tried to do was a different approach, a complementary approach to this in-depth research.  We tried to research whether there were general patterns as well as across countries and different geographical contexts, urban and rural contexts, different countries. Not because there’s anything wrong with looking at single case studies in depth, but just because we might learn different things and we might confirm and challenge some of those results if we look at it in a more comparative way across different contexts.

We carried out an online survey asking a lot of questions about characteristics of the Transition initiatives and different factors that the literature suggests might play a role in the success of the initiatives. Also, critically of course, on how the initiatives themselves would define their success. We analysed this in a quantitative way, using statistics. This is mostly a quantitative study, and we came up with some patterns of factors that are associated with different levels of success of local Transition initiatives.

You developed a typology of Transition initiatives. Could you explain what that is to the layperson?

Giuseppe: You’ve got this long list of factors which might be external factors like the context, what type of local authority it is or if the media are more friendly or less friendly in a particular location, whether there are more or less resources available, whether the founding group of the Transition initiative was large or small, the age of the members involved in the Transition initiative and so on.

One might think you put all of these things together and come up with a formula of what you need to have to put together a successful initiative. This is not what we did. We tried to identify when some of these factors like the examples I just made came together more frequently. How frequently they were associated with high levels of success defined by the Transition initiatives.

For example, we found out the rural initiatives are more often successful than urban Transition initiatives, that co-operation with other actors like local authorities, media or also local businesses favours success more often than not and so on. This created four different levels of combination of these different factors, associated with four different levels of success of the initiative, if that makes sense.

What were the things that you felt constituted the key elements behind the success of the Transition initiatives? Were there two or three that really stood out to you as being the key things that made a big difference?

Richard: You can probably work back from where some initiatives identified weaknesses. I would say group governance within the initiatives itself where communication was good and membership or engagement of members was strong, that would have been a successful factor. We also identified, building on what Giuseppe just pointed out, in our concluding discussion, the role of place.  The connection to places may encourage that success.

Transition Town Lewes raised £310,000 to cover local brewery Harveys' roof in solar panels. Photo: Southern Solar.

We also identified historically the background where members are coming from, so the extent to which they’ve been engaged in other initiatives before or even the extent to which places have a history of campaigning or active engagement on environmental issues and so on. These are some of my overall impressions that I brought to the discussion with Giuseppe.

When you say ‘place’, do you mean places that people feel a very strong affinity to or places that have that sense of being a very vibrant place rather than a satellite town or a dormitory community?

Richard: Yes, an extension of place identity, whether that’s through social networks, the amount of time that an individual has been in that place. One of the concluding discussion points that we had was the difference between urban and rural Transition initiatives, the fact that the rural initiatives have been more successful than the urban ones is possibly due to a lot of the mobility that happens in larger cities, hence possibly the attachment to a place is less than the attachment to a place in a more rural environment perhaps.

But these are all areas that we would have to research more extensively because this survey is clearly just a cross-sectional study so longitudinal states would be necessary to really scientifically establish these conclusions.

Having conducted one of the most in-depth studies of Transition, did you get a sense that you were looking at something that was vibrant and growing or something that was stagnant or something that was contracting? What was your take on that?

Richard: The project started with the intent of trying to understand both diffusion and scale-up, and this study is focused on the diffusion aspect, how it’s spreading out and so on. That’s where the factors of success and failure come in. In terms of the actual scale-up, we’re not addressing that so there may be healthy movement in terms of the existing initiatives now scaling up. It might not be expanding, but because it’s not expanding doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy or it’s still not a vibrant movement. It’s just that taking some of these initiatives are just maturing and going a step further in terms of scale-up, but the study’s not necessarily looking at that.

In terms of the actual expansion, I think we would need further studies to really determine the geography, let’s say, of Transition. Though some initiatives clearly are formalising, others are not. When I was talking to a colleague of mine just earlier today in Brazil, she was noting that oftentimes many individuals who are involved in Transition are also involved in other movements or other campaigns or other initiatives out of Transition, and so you might find that a lot of these individuals drive different movements, different initiatives at different points in time and there can be a slow down of this vibrancy around Transition but it can pick up with new engagement, new members and so on.

I think it really is quite variable. It would be very difficult to say where the movement stands on an international level in terms of its vibrancy or its health.

You place Transition in the wider context of what Gill Seyfang and Noel Longhurst call ‘Grassroots Innovations’. What’s your sense of the potential that grassroots innovations have to scale up, and what are the challenges that they face in doing that?

Richard: Actually there’s a lot of potential at the moment. I’m currently investigating community food enterprises, looking at the scale-up of alternative food networks and there are many initiatives around food within the Transition movement. Clearly funding is one. Issues of group governance is another, so a lot of this comes up through the survey in terms of success and failure, so I think a lot of the points I would raise in the paper would be issues to be addressed in the scale-up as well.

Transition Kensal to Kilburn's Field to Fork Cooperative packing veg boxes. Pic: Emiliano Verrocchio

Giuseppe: I think from the study, it’s quite clear that there is this potential and there’s an interesting exchange between the local level which is very diverse and the international or global level and they’re all played by Transition Network for example in the case of the Transition movement as a centre of exchange, learning, an engine of collecting experiences, collaborating, favouring learning basically, learning processes.

This process of learning is where I think the potential for innovation lies because this fertilisation of different contexts and experiences that in their unique contexts take their unique form. But then there’s the global level and the network elaborates this. It was quite clear that those Transition initiatives that had stronger links with Transition Network and had gone through trainings and had followed certain principles more closely, they were actually doing more stuff, more things on the ground.

In that sense, going to your question of the potential for innovation, I fully agree with Richard that there’s a lot of potential and this process of learning and fertilisation I think is really what makes me think that the potential is there and probably not fully exploited yet.

In the paper you write “Transition initiative members tend to focus on internal and overlook external factors of Transition initiative success.” What did you mean by that?

Giuseppe: We found that there’s a lot of focus on the number of members. On leadership, on group governance which are of course important factors, and they are internal factors. They concern how the group and the members interact amongst themselves and how they organise themselves and so on.

But our analysis also took into consideration contextual factors and external factors so the role for example played by the local authority, local business, the fact of being rural or urban and so on. They were mentioned by the Transition initiatives and we found out that actually they do play a role, they might constrain or enable the Transition initiative.

Our conclusion was that perhaps many Transition initiatives tend to focus on their internal governance, because of course it’s the first thing you want to do to reinforce the group and make it work internally. But actually thinking about the medium or long term success of that initiative, we shouldn’t forget about the context and interaction with other actors and the constraints of being in an urban or rural context.

One of the things from reading it and being very involved in Transition that was a bit frustrating was the degree to which you focused on the 12 steps of Transition, which is a model that we haven’t really used since 2010, which seemed a little bit out of date somehow. Why was the decision taken to focus on that?

Giuseppe: There are two reasons, both very practical. It’s fully clear to us that of course Transition is not all about following a sequence of steps. We wanted to compare the subjective, so how Transition initiatives themselves define their success with something more objective that we could measure just observing the Transition initiatives, not asking them directly. The 12 steps together with the size and the duration of the initiative served this purpose, so this was one of the reasons.

r3 Razia Ross (left) and Michelle Yang (right) from Transition Town Boroondara. Credit; Peter Campbell

The second reason is that more recent elaboration of those 12 steps, like for example the ingredients, were a lot more recent, so we couldn’t ask about the ingredients to initiatives that had a longer history.  We had to ask the initiative about something they were more familiar with, and they were more familiar with the 12 steps, which have a longer history. They are not the most up to date thing, but since we are asking about the history of the Transition initiative itself, the 12 steps also serve that purpose.

One of the findings that struck me was when you said that the more Transition initiatives there are in a place, then the better they tend to do. There seems to be a positive reinforcing thing. It reminded me of research about how the more solar panels go up on roofs, the more people put up solar panels. There’ this cycle. Is that me misreading it or was that an observation that you made?

Richard: I think it’s a fair observation that we deduced from the concentration of initiatives in a place or a locality, and how they might explain some of the crossover of that learning and exchanging information. We fully realise that there is also the internet and other channels for disseminating information but the element of proximity of initiatives we still hold to be an explaining factor for this diffusion, and that’s why we have it as one of the discussion points.

Giuseppe: All initiatives are in theory networked, but some have more contact and exchange with other networks than others, and this was associated with success, so that’s where this conclusion came from.

One of the surprising findings for me was that diversity and inclusion was lowest among urban groups. I would have thought it would be the other way round, because urban communities tend to be more diverse to start with. Did you have an explanation for why that might be?

Both: No, we didn’t.

Richard: I think you have to remember that this is one cross-sectional study. There’s still potential for exploring a lot of these aspects in more depth. If you think about large cities, there are areas that are more and less diverse. Many of the initiatives did claim that they reached out and they were inclusive.

Transition Kensal to Kilburn's 'community allotment' on Kilburn underground station.  Photo: Chris Wells.

But being able to explain why a community fully representative of its cultural diversity is not engaging in this initiative, we couldn’t explain that. The initiative can only remain open and make claims that it’s open and it’s inclusive. If the wider community, the wider populace in that area is not engaging with the initiative, we couldn’t explain that through the study. That would have to be a different study altogether.

Having immersed yourselves in what’s already been published about Transition in the last 7 years or so, what’s your sense of how good the existing research base around Transition is? How thorough and comprehensive it is?

Giuseppe: There’s a growing body of research on Transition and it’s good. The short answer would be that there’s a lot of good work done on the Transition movement in particular and the area of grassroots innovation in general.

We tried to complement other approaches. There tends to be a few, even one initiative in these studies, so there could be a little bit more diversity of approaches to look at Transition from different angles. This is what we tried to do, to look at it from this more international angle.

One thing perhaps, in the literature that we also tried to do is to look at cases of failure and not only at cases of success. One tends to focus on those case studies that are particularly interesting because they succeed in having an impact on the community or bringing their initiative forward. Perhaps it also helps to look at those cases where Transition initiatives stop, for example. To look at why they stopped and look at the other side of the coin in a sense. This can also help to confirm theories that we’ve got on why the Transition movement and grassroots innovation successfully spread and diffuse or not.

Is your intention to follow this up with subsequent research?

Richard: Yes – we have discussed this and we have continuing discussions on what might be our Transition research programme or masterplan as we’ve referred to it a couple of times already. The point that we noted in the paper about the need for longitudinal studies, I think that’s important. If we’re going to talk about what the lasting impact of Transition is, we certainly do need these longitudinal studies.

They need to be cross-sectional as the way that this survey has been carried out, but in terms of looking in some depth, case-study based research which there is a lot of at the moment, I think it would also be important to begin to think about where Transition happens even within organisations, so a Transition from within. Not within in terms of individuals but actual organisations.

My colleagues in Brazil are currently taking some of those principles, some of that Transition ethos to big global organisations and are they’re starting to carry out a lot of the same processes that Transitioners are carrying out in communities, but within the workplace. I think research at that level – I think activity of that nature should also be looked at in terms of lasting impact.

Our theme this month is around impact, the impact of Transition. From your perspective of having reviewed the research and the wider context of grassroots innovation and the wider field around that, what’s your sense of the impact that Transition as a movement has had over the last 6 or 7 years?

Giuseppe: I think the impact was in two main areas. One is the social impact. This has to do really with building community. The fact that there’s an active group of people interacting, being together, building a sense of community, conviviality, organising itself based on democratic principles of decision making; these are the things that were mentioned very often in terms of impact in our study.

Edible Gardens tour, Totnes 2010.

The other one is the external. Sometimes it’s technical, sometimes it’s economic. Through the projects that the initiative brings forward, which of course can be in different areas like energy, food housing and so on, this is the other type of impact.

I must say, at least from our study, the impression in this first area (building community and networks and social capital) is that it is predominating compared to the other one. Presumably because many Transition initiatives are just starting, and there tends to be a focus more on internal aspects rather than on the external. This might be explained by this sort of dynamic, but overall there are these two areas. Internal, social impact and external impact in the community through the projects that are carried out.

Richard: I would probably build on that by saying that some of the work we’re currently looking at in terms of community food enterprise, that enterprise element is being enabled through building up the community capacity to raise awareness about particular issues, bringing about a greater critical mass behind such entrepreneurial projects, facilitating that scale-up in a way that ensures that scale-up is sustainable and can be resilient in the interests of the local community and so on.

That’s essentially where there is some scope for exploring where this social innovation also blends in with technological innovation even. The incorporation of new technologies into projects that are community supported. That’s where I get quite excited because I came at this project from that and from looking at regional development and innovation policy.

Having had a background in community planning and economic development, I extended that into this idea of eco-entrepreneurship and social innovation. That’s how I came into this project and met Giuseppe and then we started talking about Transition. So I get excited by projects like REconomy and discussions about scale-up. I think that’s where a lot of the future of the grassroots impact is going to be.