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FaST-In: Failure and Success of Transition Initiatives

Short project description

Introduction

The Transition Movement originated in Totnes, Devon (England) in 2006 and rapidly spread worldwide (Hopkins, 2011). It is a transnational grassroots social movement that seeks to deal with climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy (‘peak oil’) through the promotion of collective action at community level (Hopkins, 2011). Such initiatives are real-life social experiments that represent niches of innovation, or potential precursors of a more widespread transition toward sustainability (Seyfang and Smith, 2007).

A growing body of research on transition initiatives exists, though little evidence exists on the replication of transition initiatives. In fact, while earlier studies have tended to privilege success stories, more recent works have started to highlight research gaps and possible drawbacks (Walker, 2011). Community-led transition initiatives often do not operate smoothly as idealised, inclusively, and supportive entities (Mulugetta et al., 2010, Walker, 2011), and do not develop easily, and often fail. For example, it has been noted that communities often struggle with securing and sustaining participation (Seyfang and Smith, 2007; Wells, 2011; Smith, 2011), while ideological disputes, little ethnic diversity, poor financial resources, and weak links with the wider community have all be pointed out as weaknesses (Hoffmann and High-Pippert, 2010; Smith, 2011; Wells, 2011). Finally, it has been shown that the proposed narrative of transition might influence the interaction between mainstream actors and the innovative niches, thus determining the possibilities of success of the latter (Feola, forthcoming).

Objectives

This project is a comparative study of the international replication of community-based initiatives of the Transition Movement. This is the first study to internationally compare these transition initiatives.

The study sets out to comparatively investigate factors behind the success and failure of transition initiatives internationally. It aims to provide the first insights on how influencing factors might interplay in different geographical contexts, and cause the success or failure of transition initiatives. By examining where the institutional and micro-political power bases that support grassroots innovations reside, this study will inform community efforts to replicate transition initiatives and fully deploy their transformation potential.

Methodology

This research entails both secondary and primary data collection. The former consists of data mining from the Transition Town Network website for background data on the initiatives. The latter takes the form of an online survey of transition initiatives in different countries. The online questionnaire is structured in several sections covering: i) the definition of success for a transition initiative, and ii) factors such as resources, organization, context, which the existing literature suggests might play a role in the successful development of transition initiatives. Correlation analysis of influencing and contextual factors data and the success/failure of transition initiatives is carried out with the software SPSS.

Summary of results

We find that the success of transition initiatives is defined according to (i) social connectivity and empowerment (i.e. social links to members of local communities, building capacity and empowering social actors), as well as (ii) external impact (i.e. contribution to improved environmental performance or socio-technical innovation). We also conclude that TI members tend to focus on internal factors of TI success, and overlook external ones, which may be related to a lack of awareness of their environment, of skills to engage with it, or the need to focus on the most controllable factors in early stages of development. Nevertheless our results do suggest that, whilst there is no formula for more, or less success, TIs can be arranged into four clusters of variable success and failure. Among the characteristics of successful TIs are: a large number of founders, a good representation of diversity in the broader community, the presence and size of a steering group, the organization in thematic subgroups, the official TN recognition, the acquisition of a legal statutory form, specific training in transition and permaculture practice, resources (time and external funds), location (rural, rather than urban), a favourable context (i.e. perception of the TI by other actors), and cooperation with other actors (e.g. local authorities, business, media, other TIs). 

Finally, we shed light on some key open issues in transition theory with regard to (i) the combination of different forms of transition, – lifecourse, environmental and political-economic – which assumes a consolidation and standardisation of learning processes that may drive the replication of GIs;  (ii) maintaining the compulsion to act through reiterated narratives of risk-laden futures, seeking to reinforce alternative practices across scales (from local to global);  and (iii) the emplacement or spatial contexts of transition initiatives. First, our research suggests that TIs remain largely determined by situated processes despite their interdependence with a global action network like the TN. In other words local contextual factors largely determine the success and failure of community initiatives. Second, whilst the TN seems capable of generalising organisational principles of ‘transition’ from unique local experiences that may have global application, our results suggest that the transfer of these principles to urban TIs might be less effective due to unfavourable conditions (high social diversity, low attachment to place) that are not compensated by their interdependent links to global action networks. Both observations arguably have significant implications for future research on the growing interest in low-carbon urban initiatives and merit future investigation through longitudinal studies.

Organizational structure

This study is led by Dr. Giuseppe Feola and is part of a wider set of complementary on-going and planned studies on transition initiatives. It is carried out in collaboration with Dr. Richard Nunes of the School of Real Estate and Planning, University of Reading.

Funding

School of Human and Environmental Sciences (SHES) and Henley Business School (HBS), University of Reading.

Related publications

Feola, G., Nunes, J.R. 2014. Success and failure of Grassroots Innovationsfor addressing climate change: the case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.11.011.

Feola, G., Nunes, J.R. 2013. Failure and Success of Transition Initiatives: a study of the international replication of the Transition Movement. Research Note 4, Walker Institute for Climate System Research, University of Reading. 

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