Newsletter No. 4 / February 2016

Welcome to the latest TESS Newsletter, with updates on recent research findings and dissemination activities. This newsletter focuses on research findings on some of the most important factors for the development, up-scaling, and diffusion of community-based initiatives.

Learn more about TESS through our animated video and hear others’ perspectives through the TESS Talks. Enjoy reading, watching and listening!

Table of content

Singing from different hymn sheets? Negotiating tensions between aspirations of community initiatives

Confronting or collaborating with the local government?

Going for social aims or for financial sustainability?

Changing people’s behaviour or changing ‘the world’?

In interviews conducted as part of TESS with members of community-based initiatives, we found that tensions between different goals and ways of working of an initiative underpin the everyday work of many groups. These can be both a source of constructive change and a factor that holds the initiative back.

We focus here on the aspirations and rationalities of an initiative, i.e., its goals and ways of working to achieve these goals. For example, an initiative might strive to provide healthy and affordable food to its members (an aspiration), while trying to empower everyone to actively participate in the work (a rationality). Another initiative might develop renewable energy on their land (an aspiration) with the rationale to become financially independent from short-term funding. In principle, there can be as many aspirations and rationalities as there are members in an initiative. Sometimes, an individual member might themselves feel torn between different ways to go!

We worked with five initiatives in three countries (Finland, Scotland and Italy) as part of TESS and found that while some of these different aspirations and rationalities might be compatible with each other, there are tensions between others, usually because the prioritisation of one aspiration or rationality constrains another one.

“I think another challenge though is to have projects that don’t conflict with each other, and actually keeping to an overall theme might be quite difficult…”

For example, a strong focus on financial viability and business thinking might limit the opportunities for projects that have largely social aims and do not bring in money, thereby compromising the reason why an initiative was founded in the first place – and vice versa: An exclusive focus on aims such as empowerment and social inclusion without a consideration of funding sources might make an initiative vulnerable in the longer term.

In other cases, there are tensions between views on the extent to which an initiative should be political and/or radical. While some members of an initiative may consider it essential to work towards systemic change to address current unsustainable lifestyles at their roots (for example, encouraging a move from fossil fuel investments to renewables), other might believe that change comes about gradually through incremental changes in people’s behaviour (for example, saving energy in the home through switching off appliances).

“People who work in the public sector… …seem to use words like ‘debate’ and ‘report’ and ‘consider’ a lot, whereas those of the sort of private sector tend to think about ‘action’ and ‘achievement’ and ‘doing’.”

What role do such tensions play in the development of the initiative? Are they creative, or do they hold the initiative back? How do initiatives deal with them? First of all, it is probably helpful to recognise that such tensions are an integral part of the work of a community initiative. A constructive engagement with diverging aspirations and rationalities can lead to reflexive adaptation in the way an initiative works, but will also help to not lose sight of the wider, long-term aims. Some initiatives provide the opportunity to reflect on and negotiate aspirations and rationalities as part of their regular meetings. In others, specific directions of an initiative, such as a strong business rationality or a pronounced (a)political stance, might be closely associated to individuals and their role in the initiative. In these cases, differences in direction might be more difficult to negotiate as they touch on the personal. Sometimes, aspirations might be portrayed in a particular way for strategic reasons, in order to be inclusive, obtain funding, or to not lose support of a certain group of people with diverging views:

Often, the importance of aspirations and rationalities might change in response to the situation an initiative finds itself in, for example, the financial situation, a push from other actors and institutions (such as peer networks or funders) or the involvement of influential individuals with particular views:

“We don’t want to scare off the more traditional people, because there are a lot of people with very traditional attitudes who will probably come round if something’s explained to them, but if we called ourselves a…you know, environmental group or something, they would just have a fit…”

Overall, our findings show how community initiatives are far from being static bodies with a unified ‘mission’ and ‘vision’. Instead, community initiatives are probably better understood as places of constant (re)negotiation of aspirations and rationalities – whether these negotiations are open or hidden. In some cases, especially where tensions are not constructively addressed, this can lead to the withdrawal of previously active members, or a stalemate situation which might block decision-making and further development and adaptation. However, where tensions are seen as a catalyst of positive change, they can provide opportunities for reflection and innovation.

For further information on aspiration and rationalities please contact the author


Transition imaginaries and contribution to a wide societal change

Currently, an open debate exists concerning issues of equity and inclusion within community-based initiatives (CBIs). This debate mainly derives from the fact that initiatives tend to be composed of a relatively homogeneous group of people, more specifically educated white middle class members. This brings to the fore questions such as:

  • Are initiatives inclusive enough?
  • Do they consider the needs of more disadvantaged populations?
  • Do projects benefit socially vulnerable residents? Such questions have been raised by those who see such CBIs as mere alternative

Such questions have been raised by those who see such CBIs as mere alternative market places for those who can afford them. In the TESS project we address this debate starting from the fact that part of the initiatives’ ability to create a broader and stronger impact is based on their members’ ability to imagine and then commit to a wider societal change beyond a change in, for instance, consumption practices or travel behaviours. We have therefore completed qualitative research to examine in-depth the imaginaries of change and justice of members of grassroots initiatives. We conducted semi-structured interviews among members of 12 initiatives in 6 countries (Italy, Spain, Scotland, Finland, Rumania, Spain) in order to analyze what type of transition is imagined by members of CBIs and how, under this imaginary, do they see their contribution to a wider social change. Preliminary results show that participants envision a very pragmatic change, and their imaginaries are based on goals such as economic autonomy and environmental ameliorations. In the case of more professionalized community initiatives, their imaginary of change is constrained by the need for economic sustainability and financial survival, which prevails over the desire to address more structural social or environmental needs and transformations. In the case of more informal volunteer-based initiatives, their every day precariousness limits the resources available to meet the broader social impacts they have been able to envision and project as a collective.

“Under my view the objective of this movement if you would call it such, is that I made my numbers. I like numbers. I say, here at the farm we feed 200 families. How many projects like ours should be in Barcelona metropolitan area to feed the city? How many families are there? 500,000 families? 2,500 projects like ours. And I don´t see it so difficult.” Co-founder, co-owner and worker of a farming project

The changes that most CBIs envision takes place outside the state and consists of individual behaviour change. The goals of CBIs are related to awareness raising and the creation of new imaginaries, while their members leave advocacy and negotiations for more structural changes to other more politicized actors (which in some cases, CBIs work closely with). They often are only one piece of a broader network in which they do not see themselves playing a more engaged role. While initiatives claim they are unable to cope with equity or inclusion issues, they believe that their power as a social movement and their irruption as new political actors in the socio-environmental arena will help change power structures, which will ultimately benefit the whole society. They envision their work as having a “trickle-down effect”.

Partly due to the focus on the individual level rather than the collective one, it can be argued that the social change many CBIs envision is societal rather than social. In fact, addressing structural issues such as environmental inequities and social justice is assumed to be “others’ responsibility.” Yet, while the inclusion of more marginalized populations might require additional resources and time – which CBIS currently do not have – their visions seem to reveal a lack of imagination about/interest to increase diversity and facilitate the participation of historically marginalized or vulnerable groups. CBIs are thus said to be colourblind: They claim that they are open to everyone, yet they do not seem to be able to take measures to ensure a greater heterogeneity of members or to ensure that their projects reach more socially vulnerable groups.

“I think that because there are so incredibly many people working in the initiative, this awareness will be transmitted into so many minds. So that everyone works as a person who spreads the idea within his or her social circle. And this living of an alternative model has, as I believe, often a greater influence than a political announcement from the top. Because it affects us more …” (Member of a CBI related to food waste in Berlin)

To summarize, our initial results show that participants’ imaginaries of change constrain their ability to have a wider impact on society. While the current work developed by initiatives has a real societal impact, our findings show that CBIs should reflect on the type of possibilities they are opening for broader social change – especially one related to social inequalities.

For further information on transition imaginaries please contact the author


Recent TESS scientific reports

If you are interested in more information about the success factors of community-based initiatives, please have a look at the recently published report Summary reports on case study findings.


The TESS video

A quick animated guide to TESS, which shows how community-based transitions can contribute to societal change.


TESS Talks

In the TESS talks policy makers, researchers and activists give their personal views about the big-picture economic importance of community-led initiatives, their role in filling the democracy gap and the realities of day to day management. Five interviews were carried out with Bill Slee, Tom Henfrey, Wladyslaw Senn, Wendy Price and Ottmar Edenhofer.

Watch the videos of the TESS Talks in the Resources section.