Transition Culture

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

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12 May 2014

Transition Emerging: a snapshot from Canada

We are grateful to Rivka Kushner, Chris Buse, Blake Poland and Rebecca Hasdell for the following, which came in just slightly too late for our month on impact but which we’re posting anyway.  The Transition Emerging Study: Examining the Trajectory of the Transition Movement in Canada looks at the work underway to understand Transition in that context.   

“How has the Transition movement unfolded and taken root in Canada, what seems to be working, and how do we know? These are core questions guiding the Transition Emerging Study (TES), which seeks to understand how initiatives are seeking to build community resilience in the Canadian context. 

The Transition Emerging Study starts from the premise that Transition Towns are an intriguing  example of how social movements are responding to emerging global and local challenges. We are interested in Transition initiatives as places where cultural change occurs through creating new spaces for social learning about how to ‘live well in place’ in preparation for an energy-constrained, economically uncertain, and relocalized future.

The purpose of the study is to generate information about ‘lessons learned’ and ‘promising practices’ of Transition initiatives that can be useful to Transition movement leaders, participants, and for people engaged in environmental and community development work. Below, we briefly describe the TES research team, the study’s methods, and what we have learned so far about the emergence and impact of the Transition movement in Canada. 

The Research and Advisory Team 

TES is a three year research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada . Our  team includes social science researchers from 7 universities across Canada, and students in several of these institutions. A Movement Advisory Group, comprised of Transition leaders across Canada, meets several times a year and advises the team on methdodology and study implementation including issues of relevance, fit, utility, and knowledge translation.  

Research Methods 

TES utilizes a range of methods to help answer our research questions. It can be thought of as a collection of smaller studies, where each study informs the next. Table 1 outlines each phase of our study and the associated timelines: 


We are currently in Year 2 of the study. The Web Scan consisted of an exploratory analysis of TIs in Canada through online searches. This provided the foundation for our study because it generated a database of TIs in Canada, preliminary information about where TIs are located and how long they have been active/inactive, and the range of activities taking place. The Founder Survey was an electronic survey that was completed by TI (co-)founders and steering committee members identified through the Web Scan.

The survey included questions about organizational and logistic matters, events and meetings, perceived strengths and impact of TIs, and challenges facing the movement. Our next data collection method was 20 in-depth interviews of TI (co-)founders and steering committee members, sampled from the Founder Survey to give us a range of initiatives based on location (e.g. urban/rural/suburban, north/south), size, length of time in operation, and ‘vitality’ (level of activity).

These interviews provided a personal narrative of how the initiative emerged, how it operates, who is involved, and key challenges and successes. A second TES survey was directed at TI participants, regardless of level of involvement.  The survey asked participants about their perceptions of the TI, involvement in activities, individual environmental practices, and the diversity of participants in the TI. 

Transition in Canada 

From the Web Scan, we know that as of 2012, there were 88 TIs at various stages of development in Canada (this includes several that have gone ‘dormant’). TIs are spread throughout the country, with the greatest number initiatives in the province of Ontario (43). As illustrated in Figure 1, there was a steady increase in the number of new initiatives from 2008 to 2011, with a peak in 2011 and a decrease in the number of new initiatives in 2012.

* Only initiatives that have an indicated date of establishment were included.

Among the 47 TIs across Canada that participated in the Founder Survey, the average age of TIs was between 2.5-3 years. Most TIs had 6 or more organizers (67%), though one third of TIs had 5 or fewer organizers (33%). About half of initiatives met once a month (50%). TIs are responsible for organizing numerous events in their communities. Of all TIs surveyed, 19% held multiple events in a single month, 38% held events roughly once a month, and 21% held an event every 2-4 months.

Over a two year period, most TIs engaged in the following: meetings, booth or display at community events, speakers, skill development workshops, education or awareness building events, an email listserv, and celebrations. Many TIs also had newsletters and work bees. Other events included film screenings, training programs, and events and programs around food. 

Perceived Impact of Transition 

A question in the Founder Survey asked participants to describe the perceived impact of the TI on their community as either strong, moderate, weak, or no impact. One third of (co-)founders and steering committee members across Canada reported the perceived impact to be moderate (32%). More than half of TIs reported having a weak impact (53%), while a small number of TIs reported having no impact (8%). No TIs reported a strong impact. Regional variations are observed: for example, in Ontario most TIs reported having a moderate impact on the community (62% vs 32% for Canada as a whole) and one third of TIs reported a weak impact (31% vs 53% for the country). 

An open-ended question in the Founder Survey asked participants what event organized by their TI had the greatest impact in the community and why. These included film screenings, public forums or conferences, and potlucks or local food events. Indications of impact most frequently mentioned were attendance (including the addition of new people), new connections with other organizations or key contacts, the creation of new projects or working groups, learning a new skill, having fun, and feeling ‘moved’. A few participants attributed the high impact to successful awareness and promotion of the event.  

In all, TIs in Canada are still relatively young and (co-)founders and steering committee members have varied perspectives on the impact of Transition and Transition events on the community. Our data suggests that many TIs are using size (attendance) and growth (number of new participants, new connections, new projects) to assess the impact of Transition-related activities.

It is notable that visible, action-oriented measurements of impact such as size and growth are likely important metrics for initiatives trying to get established in a community. However, it appears that ‘soft’ measures related to the psychology of transition and ‘inner transition’—while perhaps more difficult to measure— (e.g. having fun, and inspiring others), also merits consideration in terms of assessing the ‘success’ or ‘impact’ of TI events and activities. 

Our analysis is preliminary at this point, and many questions remain unanswered. In the coming months we will be deepening our analysis of the data we have collected, and reaching out to the movement to share what we are learning and generate new insights through a collaborative learning process of regional dialogical workshops using a “Structured Story-Dialogue” method. 

Upcoming Results 

Join the TES Facebook page and check out our website for study updates, research results summary flyers, and more. Get in touch with us by leaving a comment on our website, Facebook page, or by emailing us at