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Dawn on the ivory tower

Dawn on the ivory tower

Having stumbled bleary-eyed from Euston Station at 6.30am on Wednesday, and on my second coffee of the day (I average 2 a week), I found myself sitting in Market Square, Kingston upon Thames, full of anticipation for my first Transition Research Network (TRN) conference. TRN is an informal group of researchers and activists connected with the Transition movement and aims to create conversations between academics and communities, which promote effective community-led action towards fossil fuel independence.

Concerns over climate change and the declining availability of cheap energy have pushed energy security to the top of policy agendas - which means there are funds to be had. I could not have attended without the promise of a travel refund, made possible by support from Energy Security in a Multipolar World, an interdisciplinary research cluster led by the Universities of Exeter and Sussex. In grassroots movements such as the Transition Network, communities are increasingly taking control over both the production of energy and its use but to learn from all this activity, we have to collate and analyse outcomes - something only an academic thinks sounds exciting!

Community-led research

So while Transition is 'flavour of the month', it's vital that we make full use of this potentially transient flow of research funding to get some good data out there. However, research agendas remain controlled by academics, their interests, and those of their funders, not by communities, and the practical benefits of research for community action are sadly lacking. So the purpose of this conference was to develop a community-led agenda for energy research. Research is all well and good but we need practical outcomes which actually help communities, rather than documents which merely gather dust in some departmental library.

During the day, we explored the challenges facing community energy initiatives and the contributions academics can make to overcoming these. Academics need to work with communities, rather than on them - being involved with the community and taking a more ethnographic approach, rather than merely observing them from the sidelines. There are challenges in compiling data on something as nebulous as 'communities', but challenges are what Transition is all about. One challenge is translating the soft side of Transition into practical projects which engineers, architects and planners can relate to. There is a huge resource to be tapped from retired professionals - if we can get them off of the golf course! We also need to address social issues like fuel poverty, not just large infrastructure projects.

An impressive list of intentions was compiled at the start of the day, including community engineers, using DECC's Heat Maps, fuel poverty, knowledge exchange, how communities can access information, engaging planners via the Localism Bill, job creation and several other worthy aims. First we looked at what researchers and communities need and can offer. In short, researchers can offer academic rigor - ideas which mainstream decision-makers will believe, while communities offer a bit of realism - what will and won't work in a particular location.

Tyranny of Transition

After a fabulous lunch which could have fed the 30 participants many times over, Open Space exercises looked at creating intermediaries to bridge the communication gap between academics and communities; how to engage the wider public in Transition; collecting community case studies; and using students both for research and action on the ground. The second Open Space session looked at potential research collaborations, including whether Transition is 'fit for purpose' (how are we going to make a difference in the limited time available?); using cloud computing; energy cooperatives; and the 'tyranny of Transition' - inclusivity and exclusivity. This was my favourite discussion of the day. The group was led by Sam, who had recently completed an MSc in Climate Change Management and was looking for a strong research topic for her PhD. Sam had only discovered Transition 3 weeks previously and was full of passion and excitement over the possibilities she saw in Transition. There is a real lack of understanding of the Transition movement in the wider academic community, demonstrated by the fact that Sam's supervisor had initially dismissed the Transition movement as 'peripheral' without actually knowing what it was.

So does Transition exclude academia, unless the community in question happens to have a strong academic link? Some of the academics present were also involved with setting up Transition initiatives in their locality but this is the exception. Language is another factor of exclusion and there is a definite role for intermediaries, those who can speak the language of both academics and non-academics. The apocalyptic nature of Transition, even if not expressed as such, can also exclude the wider public from engaging. And then there's class. Even in Brixton, the organisation of Transition tends to be a middle class pursuit. However, the projects themselves see a lot more cross-class engagement. I guess it's not surprising that organising meetings and the like does not attract the young and the marginalised but, as Martin pointed out, they can organise a party! Most people will get involved if the outcomes seem worthwhile and relevant to them.

While time did not allow for all of the aims listed that morning to be achieved, or even discussed, 3 definite research outcomes were distilled from the discussions by Audley, an academic and one of the facilitators:

The tyranny of Transition and how to reduce barriers to joining Transition initiatives for marginalised communities
How to engage society at large in the Transition agenda
Investigating the role of intermediaries in the relationship between community groups and others such as policymakers and businesses.
So with my doggy-bag of surplus lunch and some veg bought from the market adjacent to the venue, I headed back to Euston for the Sleeper train home happy in the knowledge that up and down the country, Transition is creeping up the ivory tower like the light from a cloudless dawn.

http://www.transitionnetwork.org/stories/mandy-meikle/2012-10/dawn-ivory...