In his presentation Creating Change in a State of Political Gridlock at the University of Tasmania, René Kemp put forth a bureaucratic blueprint for the guided evolution of the systems which directly and indirectly govern our society. He called this transition management, and it is more than just a buzzword. As I interpret it, the key to transition management is that the burden of creating change shifts from Government to individual and groups of individuals. The burden of Government becomes to produce the optimal conditions under which that change can progressively occur. Transition management recognises that shifts in public thinking in combination with feasible opportunities to break with the status quo can produce lasting change.
When discussing sustainability transitions, Kemp suggests that ‘prices should “speak” the environmental truth’. Having his mind and research firmly focused on policy and process, Kemp did not venture much further than that into the practical, but he need not as other researchers are busily working away in diverse areas of interest. Having been to some of their presentations and read their publications I see time and again the potential for the cross fertilisation of ideas and collaboration. Herein begins my story on a convergence of complementary ideas…
In July 2014, economist Rana Roy gave a talk at the Department of Treasury and Finance in Hobart, titled Valuing life and health: the cost of air pollution. Roy, in discussing his research which led to the OECD publication The Cost of Air Pollution expressed the imperative need for a more human measure of value. Suffice to say, I’d never expected to hear a man of traditional economics utter those words. Hold that thought, and also keep in mind the more recent words of René Kemp, that ‘prices should “speak” the environmental truth’. Now hold on tight, because we’re about to cross no man’s land smack bang into another discipline.
May 2014 saw the release of architect Steven Fleming’s book, Cycle Space. At Hobart’s Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) Fleming gave a small talk which made it clear that in his mind Urban Design and the Cycling Renaissance was much bigger than Copenhagen bike lanes and mimicking Amsterdam. He delved into the history of our urban environments and explained that while cities such as Amsterdam have been wonderfully retrofitted to be more pedestrian, cyclist, mass transit and automobile friendly, that, fundamentally they were designed for horse and cart. Concepts were presented with velodrome like pitched cycleways snaking through previously under utilised city corridors and buildings with ramps as entrances not unlike Mayan temples. Fanciful? Absolutely, but the message taken was that the first step in changing our cities is broadening our ideas of what our cities can become.
Muddle these ideas with those of landscape architect Marieluise Jonas who discusses the blurring of private and public space as a way of enlivening our urban environments , and a long term plan for change à la Kemp’s transition management and we might distil two areas upon which a city could focus its energies:
Encouraging the informal use of public space such that everyday citizens become agents of urban renewal. Examining the legal grey area surrounding private use of public space would be a good first step.
Disseminating the idea that our cities of the 21st century can be more than middle-age cobblestones and 20th century concrete tilt-slabs. Crowdsourcing, the organised collection of contributions from communities, is all the rage for business start ups, so why can’t a city like Hobart Tasmania begin to crowdsource its ever evolving design and possibly even crowdfund these future developments? Could we have a City of Hobart trust where the ratepayers of Hobart could park their superannuation, such that their funds are invested closer to home on projects which benefit them?
I’ve digressed, the point is that we could direct the transformation of our urban environments by crowd-sourcing for ideas and connections while facilitating experimentation in under-utilised public space with private participation. That, to me, would be the beginnings of guided evolution in the civic arena.
Come October 2014 and the good ideas kept flying in with David Orr, chair of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College Ohio delivering his seminar Politics Beyond Left and Right: Politics and Economics in a Hotter Time. He discussed the College’s instrumental role in reinvigorating Oberlin, a fading town at the heart of the United States Rust Belt. It began with building the Adam Joseph Lewis Centre For Environmental Studies which amongst other efficiencies can purify its own wastewater, inclusive of human excrement, using an adjacent wetlands. Students actively monitor the wetlands which processes 700–1000 litres of wastewater per day[pg. 24, 3]. In this way, the Lewis Centre has become more than just a place of learning, it is the subject of learning. Discussed by Professor Orr with equal enthusiasm was the idea of prioritising local investment. What started as just one green building for the Environmental Studies faculty has marked the beginnings of an efficient and inviting precinct for the entire town. I left the seminar wondering what the results of a collaboration between Orr and Lietaer would be.
In 2012, Bernard Lietaer, a researcher and policy advisor on monetary systems co-authored Money and Sustainability: The missing link. Lietaer along with Christian Arnsperger, Sally Goerner and Stefan Brunnhuber describe our current global economy as a complex system with a fragile predisposition[Chapter IV, 4]. They observe that the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–08 is just one of many economic collapses which occur on a regular basis, statistics showing that on average there are 10 countries a year in financial crisis [Chapter III 2.Systemic Crises, 4]. The solution? To increase the resilience of our economies by transitioning from a monolithic monetary monopoly (national currencies floated on the foreign exchange issued into circulation as bank debt) to a diverse currency ecology. In practical terms this means that we can evolve our ideas of what money is, how it is issued and who issues it, and also that currencies can be designed for specific purposes. Federal and local government bodies, such as councils here in Australia, can legitimise these complementary currencies by taxing or collecting rates in them, and in turn benefit from the freedom of circulating currency without bank debt, independent from the whims of a consistently turbulent global market.
Now that we know a bit more, let’s go back to that collaboration between David Orr of Oberlin College and Bernard Lietaer, complementary currency advocate. Would the result be a complementary currency for Oberlin, or possibly even Ohio state? Such an innovation might grease the wheels of local commerce by providing businesses an outlet for their excess capacity. Closer to home in Tasmania and there’s the current topic of local government amalgamations. In The Mercury newspaper researcher in local government, Brian Dollery, is recorded as stating that council amalgamations were expensive and did not always solve problems of financial sustainability . His suggestion was to:
“Keep the political structure local and change the service structure.”
The idea being that different councils could specialise in different services, and sell those speciality services to each other. Would a complementary currency which facilitated council-to-council trade in times of dollar scarcity help our local governments alleviate their financial woes? Perhaps a good place to start would be a timebank: a complementary currency where the unit of trade is time. The Australian state of New South Wales is currently experimenting with one of the largest timebanking initiatives in the world, with positive outcomes .
In their report, Lietaer and co-authors emphasise that our economy is a complex system [Chapter IV, 4], as opposed to the closed system it has been assumed to be in traditional economics. In a closed system, we are aware of and can feasibly monitor all inputs and outputs. While there is no universally agreed upon definition of what a complex system actually is, one important idea from a 20th century pioneer in complexity theory, Friedrich Hayek, is that precise predictions cannot be made about complex systems, only predictions about patterns.. Such discussion of complex systems brings to mind a book on a complex biological system which we are all familiar with: the human body. So you Think Medicine is Modern by Australian doctor, Eddie Price, suggests that our current medical system is based on outdated 20th century science that wrongly treats the body as a closed system, when in actual fact, it is undoubtedly a complex system. He argues that this archaic view of the body as a machine has lead to the compartmentalisation of medical education and treatment, the false idea being that each component of the body can be treated separately from the rest. In simple terms, he says that we need to consider the body as being greater than the sum of its parts and that the observance of patterns in medical diagnosis should in some cases, take precedent over complicated attempts at obtaining precise measurements.
It is tempting to continue to wax lyrical about complex systems and their seemingly boundless relevance. However, I remind myself that this article is about interdisciplinary ideas and the evolution of systems. It is with that in mind that I bring us nearer to the end of our wordy journey. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari paints a picture of the distant past, present and future of our species. He argues that above all else, it is our ability to imagine, to believe in what is not visibly real, that has enabled us to rapidly transcend biological boundaries [Chapter 2. Bypassing The Genome, 8]. Harari considers religions as systems of ideas which enable the organisation and cohesion of societies, and treats more recent ideologies, such as liberalism and nationalism similarly [Chapter 12. The Worship of Man, 8]. One implication of Harari’s work is that historically speaking, we’ve been transition managing, that is, evolving the systems by which we live, for as long as we’ve been able to imagine them. The difference now is that with work such as that laid down by Kemp, we can do it with awareness of precisely what we’re doing.
Our story today began with René Kemp and his ideas on the evolution of societies systems, which he calls transition management. In briefly discussing evolutionary concepts, Kemp mentioned “survival of the fittest” a concept commonly associated with evolutionary theory. This is of particular relevance, as proponents of the status quo often use this theory of competition to argue that our systems are in their current state natural and thus, precisely as they should be. Stefan Klein, author of Survival of the Nicest, suggests that “survival of the fittest” is not the best or only evolutionary concept by which to live our lives. He suggests that:
“…our ancestors first had to become the friendliest apes before they got the chance to become the smartest apes”[Introduction, 9].
Klein paints a compelling case for altruism as a successful survival strategy but just as importantly, emphasises that altruism is not a given. There are conditions in which we are naturally compelled to act generously and others in which we act competitively. Consider that for a moment, and remember Rana Roy’s work on a more equitable measure of value for our economies; David Orr’s ideas of sustainability and education through local action; Inspiration from Steven Fleming’s cycle city concepts: our cities of the 21st century can be entirely different from those of the past; Bernard Lietaer and co’s solution to economic instability and scarcity: a monetary ecology; Eddie Price’s call for ‘modern’ medicine to move into the 21st century by embracing complexity science; Yuval Noah Harari’s insight into the success of Homo Sapiens: our imagination and ideas are our best assets; and finally, a gentle way for us to begin putting all these great ideas into practice, René Kemp and co’s transition management, the evolution of the systems by which we live our lives. We have an exciting and challenging future ahead of us.
Kemp, René. 2015–02–04. Creating Change in a State of Political Gridlock. Presentation, University of Tasmania, Hobart. Download presentation handout
Jonas, Marieluise. 2014–08–23. Contested Terrain’s Of Uncertainty. Presentation, University of Tasmania, Hobart.
Peterson, John E. 2011. Early Adopter. High Performing Buildings. Download article
Lietaer, Bernard A. 2012. Money and Sustainability. Axminster: Triarchy Press. ASIN: B008OKF99U.
Lohberger, Loretta. 2015–02–13. Expert opposes amalgamations. The Mercury. Download article
Smith, Max. 2014. Timebanking Trial Evaluation Summary. Universities of Newcastle and Wollongong. Download summary
Hayek, Friedrich August von. 2015. Prize Lecture: The Pretence of Knowledge. Nobelprize.org. https://web.archive.org/web/20150219211916/http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html
Harai, Yuval Noah. 2015. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Vintage Digital. ASIN: B00K7ED54M.
Klein, Stefan. 2014. Survival of the Nicest: how altruism made us human and why it pays to get along. Scribe. ASIN: B00KMLQTUM.
Rana, Roy. 2014–07–24. Valuing life and health: the cost of air pollution. Presentation. Department of Treasury and Finance, Hobart. Download presentation slides
Flemming, Steven. 2014–05–07. Urban Design and the Cycling Renaissance. Presentation. IMAS, Hobart.
Orr, David W. 2014–08–31. Politics Beyond Left and Right: Politics and Economics in a Hotter Time. Presentation. University of Tasmania, Hobart.