Monday 9 December 2013

Why our cities are going to change

I spent the last few days of last week teaching at Schumacher College. My task: to talk about how to change the world.

This involved talking about how to get politicians onside, and what makes them tick as a breed, and I found myself taking at not altogether welcome sideways look at myself – one foot ion the world of idealistic green economics and the other in the world of formal politics, in the shape of the Lib Dems.

The trouble with talking to idealists about parliamentary politics is that, for very good reasons, it looks like the art of compromise. From outside, it can look a little grubby. From inside Westminster, of course, the outside world looks alternatively feckless, sometimes apathetic and occasionally raucous.

None of these impressions is accurate, but they don't help communication.

I had to remind myself afterwards why I feel so hopeful about the future. The main reason goes back to the Schumacher Lectures in Bristol some years ago.

I gave my habitual seminar about the future of money and, to my surprise, over a hundred people turned up in the morning and another hundred in the afternoon, and that was just the fringe.

After one of these seminars, a very attractive girl called Rowena came up to me and asked my advice about how to start a goat farm.

This is not something that I've ever been asked before, but it occurred to me that – for the first time since the 1890s – there was a group of young people who interpreted their radicalism in terms of growing stuff.

They were a subset of a much larger cohort of highly intelligent, highly motivated group of 20-somethings, who might best be described as social entrepreneurs. They are now active in most cities and towns in the UK, often through the Transition Towns movement.

It must have felt like this in the 1930s, looking at the new cadre of young enthusiasts who were socialists in those days socialists and realising that –  in a decade's time – they would be running the cities.  And so it proved.

I feel the same now.  In a decades time, those young people will be in their 30s and running our cities. A decade after that, no Westminster government will be able to act without them. They represent the future, and it is now steeped in transition economics.

The only thing that can stop them is the way that our Westminster politics manages to stay insulated from almost everything. There is a hideous self-perpetuating element to it, talented, intelligent, imaginative - and yet still boneheaded.

The phenomenon I’m talking about goes way beyond the Transition movement, but Transition provides part of the inspiration - which comes, in this case, from Rob Hopkins and his emphasis on the critical importance of doing things - hence his new book The Power of Just Doing Stuff.  Previous local green action, like Local Agenda 21, was all about begging the local authority to do things - Transition realises that, to make things happen, you have to do it yourself.

The lesson here is partly for the Transition movement itself.  It needs to rise to the next challenge.  Now they are influencing city government, or just beginning to.  Within a decade, they have to run the places.

What this means is not that they will be a political party, or an opposition administration in waiting, but that their skill at making things happen will make them indispensible to every political party.

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