Transition: designing a better world for tomorrow

Policy makers, company leaders and social movements are becoming aware of the many problems facing the planet today. And they want to make an effort to create something new. Different and better. A term that seems to be catching on to cover this process is transition

Transition is dreaming with your eyes wide open


High food prices, increasing oil prices, exhaustible raw materials, global warming and the credit crisis…these are all symptoms of a system in trouble. From North to South experiments for a new approach are started up.
We are hitting our economical, ecological, and social boundaries. Through many scientific reports, policy makers, company leaders and social movements are becoming aware of this problem and want to make an effort to create something new. Different and better. A term that seems to be catching on to cover this process is transition: the changeover from the current society to a new one, a society with a high quality of life but at the same time a small ecological footprint, less dependence of oil and raw materials, and with a different approach to time and space.

The society of the future


Mid-February the British government announced that it wants to build ten climate neutral cities by 2010. The inspiration to do this came from pioneers like Hammarby (a redeveloped industrial park south of Stockholm), Vauban (an ecological neighbourhood with passive houses and local work opportunities in Gelderland). Earlier this year Costa Rica and oil-exporter Norway promised to become CO2-neutral by respectively 2012 and 2030.
When the Dutch government had to review its fourth national environment plan, about eight years ago, our northern neighbours started with transition management in politics. Since then, the approach has made its way to help give form to policies regarding mobility, energy, agriculture, biodiversity and the use natural resources. The inspirer of this approach is Jan Rotmans, connected to the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and director of the Dutch Research Institute For Transition (Drift). For twenty years already Rotmans concerns himself with what he calls ‘the art of changing’.

Into a new era


The transition management is blowing over from The Netherlands to Flanders. In 2004 the Service for Environment, Nature and Economy of the Flemish government took initiative for the transition arena Living and Building Sustainably. Two years later the public Flemish company for waste products (OVAM) lay at the base of Plan C, a transition arena for sustainable management of materials.

One of Plan C’s insights is that the government cannot manage the problems on its own anymore – hence the name. Business as usual (plan A) is not an option. Leaving the solution to politics and the business world (plan B) is not sufficient. That is why there is a need for a Plan C in which the government, the business world and the citizens handle together. ‘Different functions in our society are reaching a deadlock’, says Michael Van Lieshout from Pantopicon, process guide of Plan C. ‘It is about a lot more than only peak oil and global warming. There is also the scarcity of raw materials, the mobility problem and new diseases.
These are bullets that are shooting holes in our system. The time to draft up a new system has arrived.’ This process is not so much about the question whether a car will drive on bio fuel or hydrogen. It is about the question whether we can provide in our mobility. Some people are comparing what is happening now to the transition from hunters and gatherers to farmers, or the transition from the sailboat to the steamboat –which was the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Shrinking mountains of waste


One quarter of the European Co2-expulsion comes from the production and processing of materials, transport not included. Besides, the biggest part of those materials, come from outside of Europe. ‘The use of materials not only needs to shrink drastically, the energy used in the production process needs to go down as well. It would be nice if, furthermore, the raw materials would be more localized to shorten the material circles.’ That was the basic assumption of OVAM, that –under the impulse of Walter Temps- took initiative in 2006 for a transition arena for sustainable material management.
Jan Verheyen, responsible for communication of Plan C: “For 25 years already OVAM has been working on a transparent waste management, focused on recycling. We are also getting good results in this. But waste arises at the end of the chain. We want an integral approach in which we have an impact on the full stream of materials and where we can intervene from the beginning. That is why we simply need to get other parties involved.’ In Plan C government representatives sit together with academic experts, companies, and social groups.

Dreaming with your eyes wide open


“Dematerialising”, decreasing our use of raw materials drastically, does not need to be a dark road of suffering. It can be a relief and make life lighter, as is shown by the image of the future of Plan C, a projection the group made towards a society in 2030, with few raw materials. The image of the future goes from a society with iPods, over people sharing cars, to refrigerators that can change colour in order to adapt themselves to the interior.
To be able to evolve towards this type of society, five different paths or areas were identified. Closing smart researches how all raw materials that are used in a production process can serve again as a raw material after their usage. Past scarcity designs new, intelligent materials –like a combination of a mobile phone, computer and agenda, or multi-functionality of furniture, vehicles or clothing. At your service designs models for leasing and borrowing. Green chemistry seeks for sustainable synthetic materials and, finally, the Awake society thinks about how the ordinary consumer can get involved in all these developments.
Koen De Maesschalck from Colruyt is one of the inspiring figures of Plan C. He sees the plan as a great opportunity. ‘It is like standing faced to the future and dreaming with your eyes wide open.’ In 1990 De Maesschalck launched an environmental programme for Colruyt. De Maesschalck: ‘I never experienced any contradiction between ecology and economy. By working in a cost-cutting way, we are the company with the lowest prices.’ Colruyt recycles its own waste at a maximum scale.  Using deepfreeze boxes instead of cases with glass doors yields a saving of for million euro. And by slightly changing trucks and the ways of packing, one can save five million kilometres per year. 
De Maesschalck calls it a matter of mindfulness: dealing with things in a more conscious way and taking on a different attitude towards all materials and goods that are used. A mentality of using, instead of consuming. De Maesschalck: ‘A company also has a social role to fulfil and can provide expertise.’ But it goes further than that. ‘The evolution of people comes down to the development towards an autonomous creature that can help itself in an industrialized society without needing the group. Today we are going towards an evolution in which we need the group to be able to survive ecologically.’

Old wine in new bottles?


Is Flanders ready for such a big transformation? ‘Flanders has never been strong in long-term thinking’, remarks Michael Van Lieshout. ‘The first environmental master plan only came in 1996.’ Erik Mathijs from the work group Awake Society points out another fundamental problem: ‘Localisation of the economy contradicts our tradition. Flanders is a logistical centre. To be able to rebuild this, a change of mentality is needed, just like with parts of a car or eating less meat.’
Another difficulty, says Mathijs, are the contradictory messages that people are receiving, from the government as well as from the world of advertising. ‘We need to decrease our ecological food print, but at the same time economic growth continues to be our principal goal.’ Critical voices believe Plan C focuses too much on technology and pays too little attention to the social dimension. And this when the social dynamics in Flanders could be a positive breeding ground for networking.
The process in Plan C is still young. The phase in which thoughts need to find their way to concrete experiments, is yet to come.  Some people are afraid that the government is going to want to keep too much control, given that the government is seen these days as a hampering factor for a progressive ecological policy, while it is also essential for the transition’s success.  Jan Verheyen from OVAM: ‘for us, Plan C is about getting to know ways for the future. The experiments as such are not in our hands. But it is certain that a trail of sustainable material management in the future can only become more and more important. We definitely want to keep on supporting this for a while to come.’
KULeuven-researcher and publicist Peter Tom Jones, who was involved in Plan C since the beginning, alerts trifling with asymmetrical power relations. In transition processes both the powerful actors and the little players are sitting at the table, but their vote is not always of the same weight. In the Netherlands big players like Shell, Essent and Electrabel took over the process in transition arena Energy. The niche players, with little alternative companies, are sidetracked.

Trip to the south


‘What is unique about the transition arena is that in this arena a group of people who ooze a vision and who represent a social weight, sit together. A group of people who, because of their charisma, can achieve that groundbreaking experiments that are opening up new horizons are given an opportunity,’ says Michael Van Lieshout. Whereto these experiments lead, cannot yet be said exactly. ‘I picture it like a trip to the South. We are all on our way, but do not know yet if we will arrive in Spain, Italy or Greece. Neither do we know in which vehicle we will arrive, or when we will arrive. While being under way, we evaluate and adjust. The journey itself is just as important as the destination, because this is where interaction takes place, where we learn from each other and from the experience. Or, saying it with Jan Rotman’s words: ‘it is about the interaction between persons and systems. Five persons can make the difference. Front-runners, with a long lasting breath. Because we are dealing with a process of decades.’

More info on transition processes can be found on www.transitie.be (only in Dutch), www.urgenda.nl and www.ovam.be/jahia/Jahia/pid/1607

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