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(Re)designing the Regions – a four day learning experience to engage, share, and learn from a number of small and large scale systematic transformation projects across Europe.  (Re)designing the Regions offered a unique perspective rarely tackled – to bridge micro-experimentations with macro-transformations. The format was interactive, varied series of learning journeys highlighting small scale experiments showcased either through a consistent format of presentations or site visits in Malmo and Copenhagen, alongside presentations and discussions about macro-frameworks from some forward-thinking organisations.

The criteria for selecting the conference participants followed the logic of Karl-Henrik Robert founder of the Natural Step and MSLS who stated, “I don’t believe that the solutions in society will come from the left or the right or the north or the south. They will come from islands within those organizations, islands of people with integrity who want to do something”.  Along the same lines, the conference brought together an intimate group of activated citizens who believed in the power of design and innovation irrespective of their position.  The gathering united people from an impressively wide range of disciplines and organizations including policy makers, government actors, public sector consultants, health care innovators, social and service designers, community development practitioners, as well as sustainability, and innovation organisations.

The seminar sought to shed light on a couple of thought-provoking questions:

–       Can ‘acupuncture’ of micro-projects achieve systemic change in a city or a region?

–       What tools are needed to activate and support local projects?

–       And how can design-based approaches enable planning by project?

While the sheer amount of interesting case studies from participants was astounding, the pressing question for me was  “how can we instill a sense of resourcefulness and collaboration to achieve both the local benefit and the large-scale impact?” something we so urgently need today.

I confirmed that creative communities are already showing their ability to innovate as they face the brunt of mainstream development and the socio-ecological crisis.  Despite adversity, citizens are taking ownership over their communities and creating relevant, forward thinking solutions of local scale.

The organization ‘Businesses for Local Living Economies’ (BALLE) provides a great example of this by demonstrating how local businesses can benefit from the local stewardship of the natural environment by promoting fair wages and smarter budget allocations that account for local needs. Additionally the trend of local living and sharing learning at a larger scale is gaining momentum through initiatives such as Transition Towns, la 27e Région’s Territoires en Résidences, Global Ecovillage Network, Slow Cities, Design of the Times Festival (DOTT), Urban Villages, ICLEI, the Oasis Game, Bioregionalism just to name some of the most inspiring ones.

Unfortunately, the connection between initiatives is often lacking. This creates the perception that only spontaneous disparate projects, rather than a systematic shift, is underway. There is enormous potential in open source technologies and developments hold incredible potential to share learning’s to propel society towards the thriving society of its dreams.

I came to (Re)designing the Regions as a recent graduate of Masters in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability with a thesis directly on ‘Collaborative Services: Communities Innovating Towards Sustainability’.  I was fresh with insights about the lack of vision and foresight that often prevents these interesting mini projects from being replicated. Very rarely are these experiments conceptualized in a broader framework/ region/ network.  While I did not come away from the program with any precise answers to my difficult questions I did leave with a renewed sense of possibility.  The plethora of projects, combined with the willingness to learn from each other in order to become more sustainable and cooperative are further proof that community-designed solutions are on the leading edge of the most effective and viable ones for the future. The examples presented over the course of the four days were some of most progressive across Europe – from the DOTT Festival in the UK, Young Foundation’s LaunchPad and Social Innovation Exchange, Sustainable Everyday Research and DESIS network, WWF One Planet Mobility, UK Building Schools of the Future programme, and Inciative Joven from Estremadura region in Spain to stimulate youth enterprises for public sector, in addition to all the different local living labs for social innovation such as Medea Lab’s “Living Labs” in Malmö and CopenhagenMind Lab a Danish Ministry do-tank, and MidtLab.

The demonstrated potential to foster social cohesion was for me an exciting element of the micro-project examples. Visiting a number of interesting grassroots initiatives around Malmo such as a community garden, community centre, and cohousing apartments it became clearer that participants in these service innovations rely upon each other in order to maintain it.  While a question reemerged for me that we had looked at in our research: “how could the longevity of the service be instilled when the success is often so tied to one charismatic committed leader?”. Our thesis research identified how integrating a core team of 5-7 individuals who practice alternative forms of servant and active leadership for the whole community, who plan from the outset their own demise it can help avoid burnout, over-dependence, and service breakdown.

These services can help foster sense of collectivism by encouraging people to work together for a common goal, sharing resources and tools, often without realizing social ties and trust are built and strengthened.

I was also enthused with the growing nature of participatory bottom up innovation, which beyond existing are being increasingly recognized, illuminated, and connected to larger frameworks. A positive indication was the way the movement is beginning to be supported on multiple levels by municipal, regional, national, non-profit, corporate, European, and international institutions. I believe it is this intersection for collaboration where change occurs and offers the most potential, scaling up, and keeping pace.  A number of experts my thesis team had interviewed provide insightful additions in this regard. Philine Warnke (senior researcher at Competence Centre Foresight Innovation & Technology Management) explained these community-initiated projects are a major indicator of social innovation and technology, but are yet to be funded/ fostered as such. As Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Towns movement – which aims to equip communities with the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil with socio-economic relocalisation) discussed collaborative services and social enterprise is the next step for transition towns and he feels is the only way the movement can grow in the communities it can offer the most for and far into the future. Charles Landry (urban innovator and founder of Comedia Consultancy) coined the phrase “creative bureaucracy” a concept referring to an enabling policy that allows making mistakes and experimenting (while using municipal resources). Landry’s concept of a creative bureaucracy refers to the idea that having successful community initiatives supported by municipalities often outweigh the price of wrong turns along the way. As these experts and others at the seminar agree we are only beginning to explore these unique partnerships between bottom-up, public sector, governmental, and strategic.

Participants and presenters discussed the importance of having overarching systems and frameworks and a shared vision.   In my discussions with participants I found there was discrepancy amongst the understanding of what exactly this would mean on the ground and how it could be fostered. I would like to support a comprehensive call to arms for the various projects to coalesce around cooperation and to showcase the potential for systematic transition towards sustainability.  My research had focused on applying strategic sustainable development lens with the objective of discovering what advice could be offered to communities wanting to cultivate successful Collaborative Services that move society towards sustainability. We focused on creating assessment and evaluation tools for communities and uncovering some of the ‘ingredients’ to support a more strategic approach in the shift.  In remembering the constraints and set backs of some of the initiatives we studied I am still curious after seeing these impressive projects at the seminar if the projects had clear definitions of sustainability?  If not how is the initiative sure it is supporting a move in the right direction, that it offers a flexible platform, and that it provides sufficient return on investment (in a holistic sense of community capitals or well-being for example)? What are the collective tools for dialogue for groups and communities of practice to create a shared vision of success and collectively determine strategic guidelines, actions, and tools to follow through on it.

Redesigning the Regions provided an uplifting journey I look forward to continuing.  The conference opened up many interesting potential partnerships. Thank you to all the participants, presenters, and organisers who made these days so memorable and inspiring!

This summer 2010 I will embarking on a learning journey with fellow change agents and social pollinators called Curb to Curb * City-to-City which is part of a larger movement we are calling Curbside Conversations. We will be seeking unusual conversations in public spaces to stimulate meaningful collective action towards sustainability. I am very interested in sharing with and learning from the progressive and passionate individuals and organisations I have met while attending (Re)Designing the Regions and feel it is just the beginning of witnessing and supporting macro-transformations initiated by the ingenuity of communities creating micro-experimentations.

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