grassroots innovation

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Dr Richard Nunes is a lecturer in the School of Real Estate and Planning at Henley Business School. His interest lies in innovation systems, industry restructuring and its implications for local and regional economic development. His current work includes community efforts to replicate sustainability transition initiatives, and policy efforts to scale-up ‘grassroots innovations’ into more systemic approaches to sustainable development.

In ‘My Hometown’, from his 1985 Born in the USA album, Bruce Springsteen takes a nostalgic look at his hometown of Freehold Borough, New Jersey, at the economic tensions of a working class community. Nearly three decades later, in ‘Death to My Hometown’, off his Wrecking Ball album out next week, Springsteen’s ‘angry patriotism’ over the financial crisis, a corrupt Wall Street and growing income inequality is combined with a sense of defiance and hope – “Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got….Bring on your wrecking ball”.

This verse from the ‘Wrecking Ball’ track recounts the recent demolition of the Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, New Jersey) – an analogy to the economic and social blow of the global financial crisis. In a Paris press conference last month, at the Théâtre Marigny, Springsteen claims that “previous to Occupy Wall Street, there was no push back at all”, saying this was outrageous: “a basic theft that struck at the heart of what America was about, a complete disregard for the American sense of history and community.”

However, the decampment and exodus of Occupy LSX (London) from St Paul’s Cathedral earlier this week is not a sign of a movement gone or forgotten. As former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral  Dr. Giles Fraser, who resigned in protest at plans to forcibly evict Occupy protesters, states: “You cannot evict an idea.” There is an element of truth to this assertion. Indeed on the day of Occupy LSX’s eviction from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral by legal mandate, more than 60 Occupy groups and 30 environmental, food and corporate accountability organisations united in more than 100 events across the globe on February 27, 2012 in Occupy Our Food Supply – a global day of action to end corporate exploitation of food supply systems. Among the many Occupy groups and participating organisations were Occupy LSX and Reclaim the Fields UK.

‘Occupy’ has created a space for dialogue. It has been populated by individuals, organisations and movements including the Transition (Town) Network – a transnational grassroots social movement that seeks to deal with climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy (‘peak oil’) through individual behavioural change and collective action. The Transition Movement has its origins in a small English town (Totnes, Devon) six years prior to Occupy Wall Street (Zuccotti Park, NYC) on September 17, 2011. After his visit to the Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement, found that “what Occupy is doing that matters so much is that it is holding a space. It is holding a space where the discussions can take place on their own terms about what is broken and what needs fixing”.  Is it is an angle from which local Transition groups can take forward their efforts to make communities more resilient?

Erik Curren, for the Post Carbon Institute, acutely questions: “How should people in the Transition Movement wear the mask of Occupy?”  The debate on how to engage the Occupy movement is clear: Occupy and the Transition Movement are two faces of the same coin of socio-economic and environmental ‘spatial justice’. Peak oil and climate change are a threat to just forms of economic development, and economic reforms alone are partial at best without a transition from fossil fuels to more resilient, lower carbon systems. But Occupy reminds Transitioners that peak oil and climate change cannot be addressed adequately without democracy and fairness within economic systems.

To what extent and under which conditions can the Transition Movement contribute to the mitigation of high unemployment and hunger in cities of the global north and south alongside its efforts to address climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy? Answers to this question raise a number of concerns regarding the ‘scale-up’ of community-based social innovation and enterprise for gradual radical transformation. All things considered, the Janus faces of Occupy Transition are underpinned by the energy of mutual defiance and hope, and creativity as in Occupy Our Food Supply – embodied in community initiatives such as Transition Heathrow. From ‘Transition Town’ to ‘Hometown’ the Ballerina is to the Bull (in the iconic image of Occupy) as Bruce Springsteen is to the Wrecking Ball. “Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got….Bring on your wrecking ball”.

For introductory notes on new pilot research on Community Planning and Transition go to: http://www.reading.ac.uk/rep/transitionresearchreading

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