Newsletter No. 1 / February 2015
Welcome to the first TESS Newsletter
This eNewsletter covers findings and upcoming events of the “Transitions to European Societal Sustainability” (TESS) EU research project. The aim is to keep all relevant actors in the field of sustainability transition research up to date with regard to the innovative potential of community-based initiatives and their social, economic and environmental impact as well as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions due to their activities.
I) TESS in a nutshell
Across Europe, grassroots community-led initiatives have emerged to deal with the big challenges of the early 21st century at a local level. TESS is researching these community-based initiatives’ (CBIs) economic, social, political, technological and environmental impacts as well as their effect on greenhouse gas emissions. We are also examining initiatives’ success and growth to determine how policy could encourage the further development of grassroots action across the EU.
The project consists of several stages. In 2014, the research partners compiled a database of community-based initiatives in their respective regions. We also prepared the qualitative and quantitative methodologies to examine initiatives’ development patterns and multiple impacts. In 2015, we are conducting interviews with our study initiatives as well as carrying out work to evaluate their impact. Integrated analysis of our results in late 2015 and 2016 will feed into academic publications, recommendations to policy-makers and training events for community activists. For details on our research approach see here: http://www.tess-transition.eu/research-approach/
II) TESS News
TESS mid-term conference 27th May 2015 in Edinburgh, UK ‘Societal Transition – Are we doing enough?’
We invite you to attend the TESS mid-term conference on Wednesday 27th May 2015 in Edinburgh, UK. The theme of this event is the role of transition in addressing the societal challenge of moving from a high-carbon society to a low-carbon society. The event is for researchers, policy makers and those involved in community-led activity who share interests and ideas on sustainable transitions, societal change and community-led action. The event will include
- a debate by leading experts from different fields on the role of transitions in addressing the effects of climate change across different sectors (public, private, voluntary)
- presentations on the latest research from TESS, looking at the contribution of community-based initiatives to societal change
- a series of mini-symposia discussions on topics relating to low carbon transitions, community-based initiatives and sustainability
We will meet in the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (http://edinburghcentre.org/). Book the date right now and register to attend: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/tess-mid-term-conference-tickets-15480877722
Arguably the most important aspect of TESS research is interaction with the case study Community Based Initiatives (CBIs). As researchers, we recognise the value of a two-way exchange of information and support to foster mutual understanding and trust. TESS is an outward looking project, and we are keen to ensure our results are communicated to a range of audiences, across geographies and through a variety of channels.
An interactive website, www.sustainable-communities.eu has been developed by TESS to enable this information exchange and provide communities with additional, helpful resources.
- A user friendly and attractive interface
- A map of CBIs across Europe
- A project blog, written for community audiences
- Stories from the CBIs involved in TESS
- Emerging concepts and policy from transition research
- Newsfeed of related transition stories
- A network page with Facebook feed and sign up to Project Dirt (a bespoke community social networking site)
- Images and resources
We are striving to improve the website continually and would welcome your comments and suggestions.
III) TESS Research Updates
Inventory of community-based initiatives – catalyst to a sustainable society
The development of local areas as well as well-being and environmental activities are increasingly based on the activities of local communities. Different kinds of community based solutions are a growing trend throughout the whole of Europe. Through their actions communities have the chance to gain significant social, ecological and economical benefits. Also recognised is their potential as a catalyst for wider sustainable transition.
Responding to the effects of climate change is creating a significant reorientation of economy-, energy- and environmental policies. Daily we hear from the news about events related to the current crisis in economy and energy. Usually these events are also closely connected to environmental issues. Various agreements and framework programmes are being drawn up to reach an international commitment to shared aims and objectives for a more sustainable future.
At the same time growing expectations and interest have been focused on grassroots actions. Communities are considered to be one of the most notable catalysts for societal transformation. Moreover grassroots organizations are able to act as channels that increase the involvement and activity of local people. In literature, functioning community based initiatives (or CBIs) are known as social innovations. In that case the promotion of the community’s mutual issues, transition orientation and strengthening the sustainability of the community are implicit in their actions.
Community based action is usually defined as local, relatively flexible way of working that is organized in an informal manner and is mostly based on volunteering. Local communities are divided into both official and unofficial bodies and also other forms of activity. For example in the local democracy model of the city of Oulu in Finland the official bodies are represented by regional teamwork groups which use the human resources of the city. Unofficial bodies, also known as partnership actions, are formed by residents’ associations. Other ways of action are e.g. village associations, that are more independent and mostly based on voluntary work. A further look at the differences amongst European CBIs can be found in this blog post.
These independent solutions are kicked off by the basic needs and hopes of ordinary people in the area. Their primary aim is to advance the living conditions and well-being of the local people. Furthermore some CBIs also aim to combat climate change; for example food co-operatives, urban gardening projects or energy co-operatives that use local renewable energy. Their actions are based on communality i.e. promoting social sustainability. These actions promote the transition to a low-carbon society, defined by the EU as a society that has reduced GHG emissions by 80% from the current level by the year 2050.
The TESS project mapped numerous European CBIs during the spring of 2014. The mapping was done in six different countries, using the same criteria. We were particularly interested in the fields of energy, waste, transport and food because of their potential in contributing to the reduction of GHG emissions. One important point was that the action had to be started by the local community. It was also considered important that the action had been going on for at least one year so that we would be able to analyse the history of the CBI.
This international mapping work identified 270 CBIs that fulfilled our criteria and were interested in collaborating with us. In all countries the CBIs were located primarily in urban areas. During the interviews, we found out that a majority of CBI’s had not been started to reduce GHG emissions but rather to employ local people, promote regional social cohesion and the quality of the environment. Therefore the CBIs actions can also be viewed from the perspectives of entrepreneurship and empowerment.
Most of the CBIs mapped by TESS were found in the field of food (table 1). These include food co-operatives, urban gardening projects but also different associations and organizations where food was the focus. The second largest fields in the mapping were waste and energy, although there was great variation between different countries. Based on the collected data for example the Scottish CBI actions seem active and abundant. The fewest CBIs were found in the area of traffic, although in Scotland there were plenty of them. Most traffic actions were related to car sharing and promoting cycling to school and work.
Community based actions are clearly developing into a significant part of the economy of the countries participating in the study. To grow and to develop every social innovation needs funding and resources. This can be facilitated more readily through politics and policy making to encourage local innovation and action. successful, well-resourced community based initiatives can benefit society through social, environmental and cultural effects. Their potential in the transition movement could be recognised more widely through the implementation of suitable supporting mechanisms.
Research approaches on success factors and constraints for transition trajectories
It is increasingly recognized that mitigating climate change adopting a one-dimensional approach, such as top-down pricing, for example, is unlikely to succeed (Osman 2010). Low-carbon societies require the presence of informed citizens who are not only consumers and customers, but also (pro-) active participants in community initiatives and politics (Middlemiss and Parrish 2010; Peters et al. 2010a). In sight of this, one part of the TESS research is based on extracting qualitative and quantitative information about the critical factors beyond initiatives’ emergence, persistence, replication and scale-up using a number of case studies.
So far, current accounts of community-based initiatives lack a common structure for assessing and comparing success-factors of community-based initiatives. While the main factors that benefit the emergence of community-based initiatives are roughly known (Sarkissian et al., 2009), research on the development of initiatives over time, on the ways they spread in space, and how multiple factors work together to up-scale them is very limited. Thus analysis goes beyond the identification of traditional success factors, such as the committed individuals, the existence of a crisis favouring creation of new initiatives, strong resources and infrastructure, the understanding of cultural community contexts, and consensus-based decisions (i.e., Middlemiss and Parrish 2010; Holland 2004; Kemp et al. 1998; Sarkissian et al. 2009). In TESS, we not only examine the factors that contribute to the success of single community-based initiatives, but also study how they manage to establish themselves over time, create spill-over effects, and facilitate broader transitions. We contribute to a much needed understanding about internal niche processes (processes at the initiative scale), especially the role of identity and group formation, and how social practices become transformed and persist over time (Seyfang and Haxeltine 2012).
Importantly, while community-based initiatives often renew social relationships and draw on neo-communitarism and empowerment discourses (Walker and al. 2007), they challenge key aspects of social organisation in the economy and enter into conflict, at times, with broader structures and constraints, for instance zoning and other land use regulations (Peters and Jackson 2010). They can thus face political opposition. On the other hand, policymakers who are committed to support low-carbon initiatives are often faced with the challenge of connecting together effectively a diversity of priorities at the community level (Peters et al. 2010). At the local scale, authorities have a key role to play in their capacity as a political interface between citizens and higher government policy (CSE 2007), but such local level authorities do not always make full use of their possibilities. As a result, community-based initiatives are not always visible and well-supported (Bergman et al. 2010). When funding runs out, community-based initiatives cannot always become institutionalised, consolidate learning, make durable links with other networks, and lead to wider social changes and larger transitions (Seyfang, 2009; Smith 2006, 2007). Apart from that, community initiatives are often vulnerable, being dependent on volunteers, strong social structures and expert advice (Heiskanen et al. 2010). It is thus essential to understand how successful initiatives work.
TESS will furthermore evaluate the factors that have encouraged behaviour change and allowed the new technologies and business models used by innovative community-based initiatives to emerge and establish themselves over time. We will assess how they have become adopted by other projects, sectors, and by higher institutions and industries.
Importantly, community-based initiatives often involve a more democratic and fair participation and engagement of participants leading to greater say in decision-making and leadership. TESS will thus assess if initiatives empower traditionally marginalised groups and if, in turn, this their participation strengthens transition to a low-carbon, just, and resilient society.
First results of the research are expected by the end of May 2015.
IV) TESS case studies – the Casale Podere Rosa in Rome
Casale Podere Rosa is a non-for-profit association established in 1993 in a peripheral area in the north-east of Rome. It manages an old countryside building, a library and some fields on behalf of the local Municipality. In over 20 years of activity it has developed a wide network of activities with the aim of protecting the natural environment, supporting social and workers rights, spreading and promoting an environmentally sustainable way of living and a life-style based on better and minor consumption. Its activities include but are not limited to a solidary purchasing group, an educational botanic garden, 100 allotments in one urban garden, a farmers’ market twice a month, an organic restaurant, the management of the “Ecological Culture Centre” library, energy production through solar panels and more. Around 500 people and more than 100 families in the neighbourhood benefit from and contribute to its activities and its presence strongly shapes the current identity and quality of the surrounding area.
These achievements, which are quite unique in the urban scenario where the initiative is settled, are the results of specific and careful management of the relationships with the local institutions and of an ability to take advantage of the peculiarities of its neighbourhood, about which the founders and participants of the initiative have a deep knowledge. The emergence and the strength of this initiative comes from the working class background of the neighbourhood and from its history of social struggles during the ’60s and ’70s, which in the ’80s evolved into a concrete commitment to the protection of the local green areas, threatened by an aggressive urbanization plan. A coordinated action involving a significant part of the local community managed to save the neighbourhood park (more than 50 hectares of mostly abandoned fields) and to obtain the nearby old building to keep working for a more environmentally sustainable and equitable urban life.
The variety of the association’s activities, the peculiarity of the reasons behind its emergence, the choices made in over 20 years to guarantee its persistence and the plans for its potential development, make it an highly significant case study for the TESS project. A qualitative and quantitative assessment of the environmental, economic and social impacts of this initiative will clarify the links between territory, communities’ needs and bottom-up contributions. This assessment will also analyse the environmental impacts, including its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, within three different domains: food, energy and waste. Finally, the TESS project will also try to identify the main constraints which prevent an initiative from growing further in a South-European context.