Tuesday 3 July 2012

Welcome to our regional weeks from the East!

This is an introduction to the regional weeks on the Transition Network Social Reporting Project.

Welcome to our first Regional Week where the Social Reporters and their guest bloggers will be introducing their respective regions. Forming networks of Transition initiatives is one of the key ingredients in the third stage of The Transition Companion and one of the main reasons we began this blog was to hear voices and experiences from inititiatives all around the UK and connect up the dots. We plan to run our regional weeks every two months, beginning in London in October.

We're kicking off in the East, which was a hot topic amongst the Eastern initiatives when we were setting up gatherings and a support network in 2009. What defined Transition East? How could we form alliances and give each other a hand? East Anglia is a bio-region characterised by its waterlands - slow rivers, fens and marshes - and the arable land that grows much of the country's grain. Its heartland is Suffolk, Norfolk, east Cambridgeshire and north Essex. The geographic East of England encompasses all those counties, plus Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. We decided to include all the counties, though in practice (due to distance and cultural orienteering of places and people), it is mainly East Anglia.

Many of us that met at the first gathering in Downham Market are still in touch with each other. We don't visit each other as much as we did (blame peak oil!), but we know who to get in touch with in a string of market towns and communities across the region: ranging from Shane Hughes in Bedford in an arc that crosses the estuaries and big sky country, down to to Graham Burnett in Southend-on-Sea (here teaching permaculture in Bungay). We help kickstart new initiatives, we speak at each others' events. We meet up in all kinds of situations, in farms and in church halls, at events ranging from an agricultural meeting in Ipswich, Cambridge storytelling in a Norwich school, a Transition Talk Training in Colchester, Festival of Transition in Stowmarket, and at the Waveney Greenpeace fairs.

So here to map out how it all began is Gary Alexander, Trustee of the Transition Network, founding member of Transition Diss and Diss Community Farm, and the originator of the Transition East regional support group (here on the right setting off to the Transition Conference 2011 - the top pic from a Transition Suffolk meet-up is from Rogueing in the Wheat and other Transition Gatherings by Mark Watson). Charlotte Du Cann

Transition Towns, but also regions, nations and world? by Gary Alexander

I’m very pleased to have been invited to open the series of reports on the role of regional networks in the Transition Movement. I have thought that to be very important since I first became active in Transition, and I’ve been involved in various ways, from helping to set up ‘Transition East’ (East Anglia in the UK) to the National Hubs.

If we are to pioneer community solutions to peak oil, climate change and especially our economic challenges, these must be inherently collaborative. Market-based solutions, where people are working against each other, where the purpose of an activity is to make money rather than promote the wellbeing of people and planet, are at the heart of our problems.

But it isn’t obvious how such a collaborative culture would work, at all scales. Most Transition groups and their activities are separately cooperative, but too often individual projects are not actively linked to other activities either locally or elsewhere. They miss out on the mutual learning and support that could make all the difference between success and failure.

These are some of the issues that have led to the spontaneous formation of regional groupings all over, which might be within a large town or city, a region of a nation, or a national group in the case of the new national hubs.

To give you a sense of how this can work, and also how difficult it can be, I’ll describe some of the events in Transition East over recent years, as I have experienced them.

TIs in East Anglia, UKBy 2009, there were a growing number of Transition Initiatives around East Anglia, ranging from large and well established in Norwich and Cambridge, to tiny and aspirational in some rural places. Several moves to bring us together arose spontaneously: a Google group for discussions, a blog, and many of us had met at a Training in Norwich. Then Downham Market organised our first Transition East Regional Meeting. It was like a mini-version of the Transition annual conference, with open spaces, mappings and shared meals for about 40 people from about 12 initiatives.

Downham MeetingAt it, we proposed setting up a regional network and also a regional support group composed of people who would co-ordinate the regional network and take an overview of Transition in our region. We found a lot of enthusiasm for this.

Our idea was that the purpose and function of the regional support group would be based upon ‘viable system’ principles. It certainly had no power or authority. (How could it?) It would be to promote information sharing (What’s going on & is it going well? Help with difficulties.), Synergy (How well are groups interacting, working together?) Liaising and Planning, Identity and Policy (What are our values? Policies? Goals?) The image was of the various transition groups and projects in our region working together as though we were a single organism!

The regional support group met several times, and in itself was a useful sharing of information between different groups, but it was more about what was happening and what immediate problems we were facing than the more ambitious functions above.

Later in 2009, there was a second regional meeting in Diss. The Diss group organised the hosting (venue, food, transport), while the regional support group organised the programme. One useful innovation was a ‘transition troubleshooting’ session, similar to an open space, but concentrating on the difficulties groups were having (conflict, burnout, lack of volunteers and resources...). Charlotte Du Cann contacted all the initiatives in the area and produced an excellent report.

transition suffolk attendeesThe following year there were no full regional meetings, but there were a couple of smaller, sub-regional meetings, each with people from a few initiatives. These were both provoked by the Stoneleigh talk at the national Transition Conference, predicting economic collapse in the near future! What should we do about that?

Old Hall communityMost recently, in late 2011, there was a regional meeting at Old Hall community, in East Bergholt, with about 40 transitioners from 13 initiatives. We had a fascinating tour of the community, which had been running for about 40 years. There was an interesting proposal for an East Anglian transition currency that we could all use. As the years had passed, it was clear that some ‘Transition’ groups were no longer active but in their place were active ‘transition’ projects (and especially food projects), not officially connected with Transition Network, more autonomous but still with the same spirit. For example, Transition Diss was no longer active, but Diss now has the Diss Community Farm.

Disscussions at Old HallWhere does this leave us? We had very ambitious plans for our regional network, way beyond what we achieved. (And perhaps this is true of most transition initiatives as well.) Very little happened in the aftermath of these events. Not much was actually implemented. But every event and meeting we held was quite universally appreciated by all who attended. We could all see how much was going on overall, so our own little parts seemed more significant. We could share our difficulties with people who faced similar ones, which felt great. We enjoyed ourselves in good company and had excellent pot-luck shared meals. Isn’t that enough?

Perhaps, if and when Stoneleigh’s predictions come home to roost (and that still looks likely to happen soon!) we will be forced to take much more drastic actions than we are now and all these preliminary actions will have paved the way.