Regional development as the third wave of eco-social innovation


Tackling environmental, economic and social challenges with new viable alternatives.

By Daniel Wahl.

All around us environmental, social and economic crises are converging at local, regional and global scales. It is becoming self-evident that the side effects of the globalising, neoliberal development model are neither good for most people nor the planet. Something needs to change. The writing has been on the wall for a number of decades, and the number of people involved in prototyping viable alternatives is rising steadily.

Waves of transformative innovation: prototyping pathways towards thriving together

I have just come back from a meeting on the island of Langeland in Denmark. I sense that meeting might somewhat gain in significance over time, when we begin to see with hindsight that a transformative innovational impulse gained in intensity at that point and contributed to a process of cultural transformation in ways that we will end up giving historic importance to. Waves of transformative innovation in cultural patterns are more defined when we see them play out over time. Maybe that meeting will one day be considered as an important impulse in a third wave of eco-social innovation rippling out from the small nation of Denmark?

1st Wave – Danish pioneers innovate models and processes for co-housing communities

For many decades Denmark has been pioneering social innovations. There is a learning-by-doing spirit that connects people committed to trying different ways of living together, often learning from the past to co-create a better future.

In the late 60s and 70s the first experiments of the co-housing movement tried to recreate the social cohesion of village community life by innovating intentional communities with shared amenities and increased collaboration in managing collective spaces, and sharing the benefits and responsibilities of living-in-community. Since then and from Denmark the co-housing movement has spread around the world and is still gaining in popularity.

2nd Wave – Danish ecovillage pioneers unite intentional sustainable communities around the world

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the impulse to study the differences and commonalities of larger and established intentional communities around the world in order to learn how to better co-create pioneering sustainable communities came yet again form Denmark. It led to Robert and Diane Gillman’s ecovillage report that inspired the creation of the Danish Ecovillage Network. Only a few years later, the Global Ecovillage Network was founded at a sustainable communities conference at the Findhorn Foundation in 1995.

Ross Jackson and his late wife Hildur Jackson were not only involved in both of these waves of innovation, it was their vision and their philanthropic generosity that enabled these impulses to more fully unfold their potential in the world. It was also Hildur´s inspiration that lead to the creation of Gaia Education to support people in gaining the capacity to apply whole systems design to the co-creation of sustainable communities and ecovillages.

We seem to be witnessing and participating in a third wave of eco-social innovation, and yet again Danish pioneers ready to experiment with new models of regional development are at the forefront of adding to and supporting this global impulse.

3rd Wave – Danish eco-social innovators are testing prototypes for regional development

Our meeting on Langeland was yet again made possible by the support of Ross Jackson and Gaia Trust. Ross sees regional economic development as the third wave of innovation that will ripple out from committed Danish experiments with viable prototypes to learn from and emulate.

Yet again Ross is strategically investing in the support of pioneering experiments aiming to create inspirational models, patterns, principles and processes for others to carefully adapt to the bio-cultural uniqueness of their own regions. He once wrote a short little book on the ecovillage movement, entitled We are doing it! This sums up the spirit of ‘building new models that make the old obsolete’ that all three waves of Danish eco-social innovations have in common.

Bioregional Design Education: One of Gaia Education’s Growing Edges

At the 10th anniversary gathering of the global network of educators supporting Gaia Education, in Scotland in 2015, I suggested that the next evolutionary step for Gaia Education was to develop a longer programme that would support bioregional or island scale relocalisation processes. Hildur, Ross, Helena Norberg Hodge, Jane Rasbasch, Jillian Hovey, Claudian Dubos, May East and many others immediately supported this new impulse and Gaia Education took a strategic decision to develop a new Bioregional Development Education (BDE) programme.

During its first 10 years Gaia Education successfully established the EDE face-to-face programme and the GEDS online programme as effective ways to inspire global-local agents-of-change. Both courses build capacity for whole systems design as it is applied to the community and village scale.

Many of the necessary transitions towards regional (circular) patterns of production and consumption, a material culture based on regeneratively grown biomaterials, local food, energy and water sovereignty, and thriving regional economies, require collaboration and coordination between communities at the bioregional scale.

There is an important need to support regional networks of communities and committed individuals to take the thriving future of their regions into their own hands. Such a programme should support people to work effectively for relocalisation and the creation of cooperatively structured bioregionally focussed regenerative economies. That is what the new 10-month programme sets out to do.

It took 7 years to develop the EDE curriculum before Gaia Education was launched in 2005. The BDE will be created much quicker as it builds on the processes and content held within the existing face-to-face and online programmes and combines them into a regionally focussed learning journey that blends both approached with project and design work in peer-groups launching new enterprises, cooperatives, educational projects and social and ecological regeneration initiatives in the region for the region. The first prototype experiments are scheduled to launch later this year and next year.

AndelsTanken Denmark and the Regional Development Project on Langeland

Collaboration with the regional cooperative development initiative underway in Langeland was an opportunity for Gaia Education to partner with AndelsTankenDenmark as a ‘third wave’ pilot project pioneering a cooperative enterprise centred approach to rural regional development. Inspirations for the work on Langeland are projects like the Timbaktu Collective in India and the Emilia Romagna regional cooperative cluster in Northern Italy.

All around the world there are disenfranchised rural communities facing unemployment, over-aging, land-flight of the young towards the cities, closing schools and abandoned farms. In many rural areas of Europe and elsewhere in the developed world ghost-towns and ghost-villages are proliferating in places away from the urban centres that have been the supposed “winners” of economic globalisation. About half of the global human populations are now living in cities, yet a quarter of these urban dwellers live in slums! While cities only occupy 3% of the Earth´s landmass, they are responsible for close to 80% of the energy use and 75% of carbon emissions.

We will not be able to create more sustainable and regenerative cities without strengthening the regions they need to be connected with in bioregional collaboration. The only feasible response to global warming will require more people to engage with organic and regenerative farming practices to restore soils, secure regional food sovereignty and resilience, and grow the biomaterials that will help us to gradually ween our culture of its addiction to fossil fuels and resources.

We need models and successful experiments in creating thriving bioregional economies and cultures. Luckily many regions, often islands like Langeland – are already pioneering this “third wave” of socio-economic innovation. Our gathering at Kragholmgaard, a recently adapted farm and vocational training centre now used by AndelsTanken as their base on Langeland was part of this growing impulse.

Niels Holck, Sine Pejs, Camilla Nielsen-Englyst and the team from AndelsTanken did a great job pulling together local and regional development experts, educators and community activists and created a programme that balanced learning form each other with co-creative dialogue.

Training for Multipliers – Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals locally and regionally

May East facilitated Gaia Education´s new Training for Multipliers aimed at stimulating conversations about the local and regional relevance of the Sustainable Development Goals and achieving the UN’s ‘Agenda 2030’ through local implementation – one community at a time. The training enables local people to identify existing or potential initiatives that could help SDG implementation in ways that fit the local conditions and culture.

For this training a number of local teachers, politicians and community workers joined the group gathered by AndelsTanken. The training is based on the use of a set of SDG Community Implementation Flashcards I developed in collaboration with Alexandre Pereira and May East. The training structure and the use of the cards enable even unexperienced facilitators to replicate the training of multipliers after having experienced it once. The 61 cards contain more than 200 questions crafted to spark culturally creative conversation. They invite local communities to take an active role in making the United Nation’s ‘Agenda 2030’relevant to people and place, so they feel inspired to implement the SDGs locally and regionally.

Designing a Regional Development Training

The final three days of the gathering were specifically focused on supporting the AndelsTanken initiative on the island of Langeland. In particular, to draw on those present to help with the development of a ‘Regional Development Training’ they will be offering in August 2017.

I presented the current state of development of Gaia Education’s ‘Bioregional Development Education’ programme and helped to frame how the creation ofregionally focussed circular biomaterials economies powered by renewable energy with its associated increase in bioproductivity, carbon sequestration, and the regeneration of healthy ecosystems function will be central to the transition towards diverse regenerative cultures everywhere.

Ross Jackson offered his perspective on the importance of strengthening cooperatively structured regional economies as one of the best ways to help communities to thrive. Ravi Logan, a life long activist, community organiser and regional development specialist from the PROUT Institute in the USA, who offered a wonderful historical reflection on the three waves of social innovation from a North American perspective. We also listen to an excellent prerecorded presentation by his colleague Jason Schreiner on ‘Strategies and Lessons for Building Localized, Regional Economies’.

Soeren Hermansen, the director of the Samsoe Energy Academy, inspired everyone with his deeply entertaining presentation style. Soeren was centrally involved in successfully turning the small island of Samsoe into the Danish renewable energy island. Since then Soeren has been helping communities around the world to work on their own energy transitions. His Pioneer Guide is sharing the lessons, processes, and practices learned while working on the Danish prototype project on Samsoe.

Bernard Lietaer, the world renown specialist in complementary monetary systems offered a sharpe analysis of how our currently dominant monetary systems is structurally driving a series of unsustainable practices. He inspired all present with a wide range of examples of how regionally or locally focussed currencies can be designed to work in parallel with the existing money system in ways that create diverse benefits for the regional economy and its communities.

Tina Clarke, an experienced environmental and social activist, community organiser, and transition town trainer from the USA offered some interesting lessons she learned in over 25 years of working towards positive change at the scale of local communities and regions. She discussed how focusing on local community resilience can be a very productive way to advance climate action and local economic well-being.

Among the rich diversity of offerings to inform our co-design of a regional development training were also a presentation by Ana Carolina Beer Simas of the University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, about a bioregional development project that is under development at Céu do Mapiá, a community in the middle of the Amazon, where Gaia Education has offered some support in creating the AmaGaia initiative.

Johan Fast the local agroforester gave an overview of the farm cooperative project that has already started on Langeland, and the whole group had an opportunity to see some of the initial projects launched by AndelsTanken Langeland, including the highly innovative AndelsButik, a local cooperative shop that will offer local producers direct access to the local market.

After all this rich input, stimulating dialogue and fascinating visits of good cooperative initiatives that are already taking shape on the island of Langeland, the time spent on co-designing the Regional Development Training for August was somewhat cut short. This left the local team with the challenge to integrate all the rich lessons and diverse contributions of the gathering into a training that will help the people of Langeland take the thriving future of their regional economy into their own hands.

Cooperative and participatory regional development is the a new wave of innovation that will drive the transition towards diverse regenerative cultures. The creation of bioregionally centred circular biomaterials economies that help to increase regional resilience through strengthening regional food, water and energy sovereignty is not only a path towards thriving regional economies, it is also the implementation pathway of ‘Agenda 2030′.

We need to make the Global Goals (SDGs) our local and regional goals, working with people in place to create a better future for all of humanity. We will all create this path by walking it together, co-creating bioregional initiatives that are rooted in place and enabled by global collaboration and exchange, just like our gathering on Langeland.


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