Empathic Urbanite

social business for urban development

Rob Hopkins on becoming a Community Hero

Now that my blog is started, there is no stopping me! I bring you an interview with another hero of sustainability today, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement. Rob was named by the Independent in 2008 as one of the UK’s top 100 environmentalists, is the winner of the 2009 Observer Ethical Award (Grassroots Campaigner category) and was also in 2009 voted the Energy Saving Trust/Guardian’s ‘Green Community Hero’. I’ve also added a link to his inspirational 2009 TED Talk at the end of this post.

I love the Transition Towns movement and would love to be involved in one. I’ve even thought about creating a Transition Town myself in Spitalfields, where I live. But I know I could never really put in the time that it deserves. But starting a new company I thought perhaps I could at least build a company with Transition values. So I was over the moon when Rob agreed to give me some advice on exactly this.

Is the concept of an isolated ‘Transition Company’ viable?

Rob: “There is already such a thing – have a look at our REconomy project where we are encouraging Transition Enterprises. The Transition movement has created guidelines for people like you to create a business following Transition Principles [see end of post]. And we are already seeing investors taking an interest in Transition Enterprises.

More and more Community Energy Companies are starting up. Although part of a Transition Town, Kingston’s veg and fruit box business “From the Ground Up” is a good example of a Transition Enterprise that can be viable outside of a Transition infrastructure. A model is definitely emerging.”

I really want to be able to increase the social and cultural assets in my community (as well as financial assets). How do I measure the value I create beyond money?

Rob: “This is where permaculture thinking is very useful. Permaculture is about whole system thinking, about diversity, values and interactions and will make a good foundation for choosing the things you will measure. In Totnes, we have a Gardenshare project, where old people who have gardens they can’t physically do anything with and young people who could garden, but do not have access to one, are paired up.  As well as measuring the produce from this project, we also measure the interactions – the social bonds, the friendships that we create that would never have happened without the project.

For your company in particular, I’d recommend you look at the Third Age Foundation, founded by Mary Nally. They have the best examples of building community assets that are not monetary.”

To become a pioneer of sustainable business, I need to first of all to survive. But this sector is extremely competitive, mainly because workers are paid very little. How can I stay competitive and not exploit workers?

Rob: “You can stay competitive by reducing your reliance on fossil fuels, one of the highest costs in any business. The fact that your workers are all local, and they’ll be walking and cycling, is already impacting oil prices. Look at both what your company spends its money on and what your workers spend their money on when purchasing for your customers. Your workers will buy groceries for the old people they care for, why not buy locally sourced food? In this way you can play a big role in urban development and your competitiveness is not then dependent on what you pay your workers.”

Rob left me with lots to think about – not least, applying permaculture thinking to measuring social impact. I love that concept and will play with it for a bit. In the meantime, here’s the full list of the principles of permaculture and watch out in a few weeks for my transformation of these into social impact indicators.

  1. Observe and interact. Take time to engage with nature, so we can design solutions for our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: Develop systems that collect resources when abundant, & use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation & accept feedback – Discourage inappropriate activity so systems continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services – Make the best use of nature’s abundance.
  6. Produce no waste – Valuing and make use of all the resources available to us, so nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details – Step back and observe patterns in nature and society. Details come after.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate – Put the right things in the right place, so relationships and support develop.
  9. Use small, slow solutions – easier to maintain than big systems, better use of local resources, more sustainable.
  10. Use and value diversity – reduces vulnerability to threats and takes advantage of the environment.
  11. Use edges & value the marginal – often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

You can download the Word document defining Transition Enterprises by clicking here.

Read more about Rob Hopkins here: Rob’s blog, Transition Culture

Watch his 2009 TED Talk here: Transition to a world without oil.

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