Dialogue on Leadership: Rob Hopkins on the evolution of the Transition Towns Movement

Yesterday I was able to spend time with Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Towns Movement. Below is the transcript from the interview I recorded with him.

If you are not familiar with the Transition Towns movement, you may want to read this article first:

Totnes: Britain’s town of the future

Dialogue on Transition

Rob Hopkins

April 17th 2012, Totnes

What was your vision for the future when you were developing the Kinsale project? This was before Transition Towns came into being. Had your vision developed much?

There wasn’t really a vision beyond it being a project. It was a question that had peaked my curiosity about in terms whether you could apply the principles of permaculture to whether a community could make an intentional descent from the oil peak. I had written a very loose project brief. Then we saw “The End of Suburbia”. It was a big road to damascus moment.

In March of that year I thought we could pull the different groups into a book. When we had done that we printed a few copies of the book, as an end of course year book. We had a big conference in Kinsale, and copies of the book were there. Richard Heinberg took and copy as said “this is amazing” and that is what started the train of thought that there was something here that needed a deeper exploration. It was a good year later until the term Transition Town was brought into play.

When you started to develop Transition Towns in Totnes, could you foresee how big it was going to become at that point? How did your vision develop?

When we moved here in September 2005 I met Naresh in a pub and we spoke about Peak Oil. At that stage we didn’t know what it was other than that we were fired up by peak oil work. We didn’t have a vision of something that would go viral all over the place. We showed a film at the second event, and it was sold out and we were turning people away. I sent a text to Naresh who wasn’t there saying “something’s happening here I don’t know quite what it is.” People like Sophie Banks came in with other pieces of the puzzle and the conversations were really useful.

People in the street started to ask “what next”. We then had the unleashing event in 2006, and we felt that something was moving. And then people started getting in touch asking what we were doing, what was it? A few people from Lewis and Brixton and asked what it would look like in their communities.

When we started to look at what it would look like when it scales up was when we were designing Transition Network, early 2007 when we met up with Ben and Peter Lipman. We met in Bristol and asked what it would look like if there was a network designed to support this? How would we design what transition is and how it works. That was when we started to think about how the spread would work.

When you were thinking about it as a network, to what extent were any models of organic systems inspiring you? Did you have any systemic inspirations?

Very much. We wrote a booklet “Who we are and what we do”. We wanted to design something that was self-organising from the outset. Something that wouldn’t need constant spoon-feeding and holding at the centre. Something that could go viral. The initial analogy we had was that it was like a cell, and that the Transition Network wasn’t the cell but the cell membrane. Within that Transition could spread, and grow and emerge and self-organise and find its own shape and form and we just provided that outer membrane that moderated the input and output of stuff. This always felt like a useful analogy.

I think I read “The Web of Life” at that time which was very brain shifting. It was very intentional that we wanted Transition Network that remained a small organisation and we wanted as much as possible transition network (small n) to be able to organise itself. It still stands really. We felt that if we ended up being the same size as the Soil Association the thing would have gone horribly wrong. We wanted to remain small and nimble and playful. That has really worked. People come to us and say it is amazing what Transition Network does, but we don’t do all of that (Bristol Pound etc).

That is not what we do. We tell stories mostly, and provide resource and support.

When you say you tell stories, could you talk a little about this?

A big part of my role is telling stories really. The film we have just brought out brings together stories about what Transition Towns are doing all around the world. On the websites we gather stories about what all the projects are doing. We do a monthly round-up and a podcast speaking to some of those people. The Transition Companion is a lots and lots of stories.

That’s the meat of Transition I think. You’ve got behind it and intellectual architecture of what Transition Towns is and why people do it and all that kind of thing, which is there if people are interested in it. But for most people what is Transition? It’s my friend Dave doing that thing over there. It’s where they have planted all that stuff around the Town Hall. It’s those stories of what Transition actually is for those people. In terms of having a network which is able to give itself good feedback and give itself that self-referring nature to it, those stories are fantastic. People realise that they could do that. That’s what gives it the dynamism.

How would you evaluate the change of the concept between the launch of Transition Town Totnes and where the Transition Movement is today?

When we launched Transition Town Totnes we didn’t really know what it was. That day was the first day we called it Transition Town Totnes. I don’t even know if we used the word “resilience” at the talk that night. I think it was basically saying “peak oil – gulp! We’d better do something, what do you reckon?” was basically what it was.

In the primer we had the 12 steps which were very useful and a lot of people liked that sort of thing. Some people didn’t. And the in the new book we went back out to everybody again and said “what are you doing and how is it going?” and they would say “well we started on number one, and then we didn’t really understand number two, so we went to number four, and then we went to number 12, and then we did a load of other stuff that wasn’t in there at all, and then others did it completely different. Nobody had really gone 1, 2, 3, 4…” Those that had had found it intensely frustrating and over prescriptive.

So we asked what did you do then? “Well we did a bit of this and a bit of that, and then it kind of felt like it was a different stage. All of a sudden we were Transition Whatever and we needed a bank account to become an organisation. So the new book is about the ingredients. It’s about everywhere does it differently, and they put things together in the different way. This feels like a much more representative model to me of what is happening.

Nowadays if someone had not heard of the Transition Town Movement, how would you summarise what the Transition Movement is?

It’s tools and ingredients for people who want to make their communities more resilient in uncertain times. And that thing of uncertainty is a universal experience.

In communities, they feel that the key things on what their well-being depends are less and less things that they have direct control over. So I guess Transition is really that focus on community resilience, and brings in Peak Oil, climate change, economics, water, whatever. I think where Transition is really focussing now is that idea of community resilience as economic development. That is where the jobs, the livelihoods, the skills the training is going to be in the next 5, 10, 20 years.

There is no cavalry coming to the rescue of Totnes, Brasilandia, wherever, it is down to ordinary people to make that happen.

It has been very interesting here in Totnes. About three years in to Transition here we have started to shift the language to being around social enterprise and the new economy for the town of Totnes. It has completely shifted the dynamic of who gets involved and how it’s perceived.

Transition has been fantastic at the community level, but large organisations have just as big an impact on the environment as the community. What activities are happening to bring in large organisations?

This is really interesting. There is Transition Training Consulting which was set up to do this. They set up the Energy Assessment Tool, to look at where is the vulnerability. Training on resilience for businesses. The experience was that in spite of a lot of promotion, no one seemed to be that interested.

They did do some work for the National Trust and some other people. But the Reconomy project which Transition is doing, it’s really about refocussing on supporting Transition projects to bringing ideas through to being a viable investment for a social enterprise.

Here in Totnes for example there are lots of people with ideas which are emerging and needed to be supported like the Atmos project. We are trying to put a structure underneath these which is about supporting these projects so that they can be investment ready. Some people who get involved in Transition are sometimes not comfortable with business and thinking like a business. So there is a cultural push to say that we need to make this happen and to support it. So Reconomy is really about building a bridge between the two things.

So we had a local entrepreneurs forum, which brought together people with ideas for new businesses with people who offer mentoring and investors. We had a Green Dragons Den event. This kind of thing feels like the best place where our energy is put. Helping Transition Initiatives bring forth that new economy rather than knocking on the doors of existing business. There are other people who have better ins to these organisations who can take all this stuff about Transition and resilience in to them.

Businesses who are interested in Transition will ask what data is there to show how successful this movement is, before they will get involved. What kind of evidence is there to show the success of the movement? Are you collating forms of evaluation? How would you evaluate the success so far? 

The fact that it has spread is not necessarily evidence that it works. Academia tends to work on a lag to what is happening. There has been quite a lot of academic work on Transition but I am not too sure how much of it is useful, for example looking at the demographics of who gets involved.

There is my PhD which was a detailed case study of Totnes. This has surveys, focus groups and interviews. What is useful is that you get a sense of how it spreads. It is that analogy that Transition is like a micro virus, and inoculant, that you put into a community and it runs and it fruits in some places you expect and others that you didn’t, and how it spreads by word-of-mouth, and people pick up on things they see. How it starts to change the story a place tells about itself. It is a cultural process rather than an environmental process.

The Transition Streets work is probably the best bit of research we have on how Transition makes change happen. I think the most interesting thing is one of the word clouds where people are asked “what benefits do you feel you have got from being a part of this?” and it is all community, streets, neighbours, and climate change and peak oil appear tiny.

Normally the environmental approach has been to look and go at these things directly. But Transition takes an oblique approach. If we run around saying we need to reduce oil, and that is the push, well maybe it is more skilful to be able to say that we are about building communities, bringing people together.

There are people involved in Transition Streets who cut their carbon by 1.3 tons and saved £600 a year. But actually the top benefit when you ask them was getting to know their neighbours and feeling more a part of their community.

It is a quality not a quantity.

Exactly and this is what is really impressive about that research.  Now that we are five years into doing Transition what we are looking to do is to pull together evidence that this works.

I think it is really interesting that thing of forming a group to cut carbon emissions and build resilience and the key thing that people notice is the fun. One of the counsellors I spoke to in Totnes said that the key thing that seems to me that Transition has done is that it has brought everybody closer together. And that is what people pick up on. What I might do is go and visit some of the places that are doing some of the most interesting projects and really look at that aspect of it.

Certainly the Transition Companion has lots of case studies of projects. I am really interested to go to Bath and West Community Energy for example and talk to the people who bought shares in it and ask them why did they do it? What do you get out of being a shareholder? Why does it matter to you? There is something different in buying shares in Bath and West Community Energy than buying shares in Waitrose. There is an intangible thing there that is really useful to nail down.

Thank you very much Rob. Really interesting!

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