Rob Hopkins

Global thought, Local innovations

Rob Hopkins is the instigator of the international “The Transition Towns” movement, which supports many environmentally responsible initiatives carried out by both municipalities and citizens. Its primary goal is to unleash our imagination in order to inspire the desire and the courage to act.

How does the Cities in Transitions movement build on an optimistic vision of the future to create concrete initiatives?

The Transition movement can be considered in many ways – it is an economic development strategy, a community development strategy, and a set of tools for ensuring that groups can work together more compatibly. I think of it as a powerful imaginative process. The expectation of the Transition is to ask the types of questions that we can no longer rely on politicians, universities, and schools to ask.

The imagination needs space. It needs places where people can come together to ask “What if?” questions. Albert Einstein said that his best ideas came to him when he rode his bicycle through the forest. As we work longer hours and spend much of our time in front of screens, that space for imagination is gradually disappearing. The Chief Executive of Netflix recently stated that their biggest competitor is sleep. We live our lives surrounded by things that devour our time. Anxiety, systemic racism, economic exclusion, education systems based on testing, business culture, political austerity – these are direct attacks on the collective imagination. Since the mid-’90s, the imagination curve has decoupled from the IQ curve and steadily declined. This is meaningful because we cannot build what we are unable to imagine. If an architect cannot produce a vision for a building, it will never get built in the way it was imagined. If a society cannot imagine a future without prisons and war, a future of social and racial equality, it will never take such a form. If our ability to imagine is diminishing at a time when our survival depends on it, this has a fundamental impact on society. We must acknowledge imagination as a universal right. A widespread strategy for imagination begins with education, universal basic income, and a four-day workweek. If we do not set out to create the conditions for people to live imaginative lives, we will have missed our window to make necessary and urgent changes.

According to John Dewey, a British educationalist, imagination is the ability to see things as they could otherwise be. Where are the places where people are both reimagining and rebuilding the world? The Transition Towns Movement seeks to identify these places, stir them up, and generate them. For me, the Transition is one of the many expressions of the radical public imagination.

Do you have any examples of actions by citizens and communities that are nourished by these imaginations?

The Transition Towns Movement is an extraordinarily diverse movement. To create a new economy it includes commons, cooperatives, local currencies, blockchain, and municipal or citizen investment in community projects. What unites these local actions are the values of fairness, justice, inclusion, diversity, and sustainability. These initiatives are emerging in so many places. We are still in the early stages, however, compared to where we were three or four years ago, the movement is becoming more mainstream. This is because it proposes actions that are universally replicable.

To give you a concrete example, in Liege, Belgium, they have an amazing project called “The Food-Belt,” which reimagines the city food system through the creation of a feeder belt. The cities of Bristol and Bath have created their own community-based energy companies. As an alternative to the banking system, the company in Bath has raised 30 million pounds of investment from local people to complement its own investments. In many cities, cooperatives produce renewable energy and allow the community to own a portion of the energy generated. In Bristol, there are businesses that accept the local currency, the Bristol Pound, which exempts them from having to pay local and property taxes.

Regarding architecture and urbanism, let me tell you about the urban laboratory, “The Ministry of Imagination.” Located in Mexico City, its creator, Gabriella Gomez-Mont, created the laboratory to function as a department – similar to traffic or green space departments – that imagines and develops proposals for future city concepts. In Bologna, the “Office of Civic Imagination” is a similar project. The municipality realized that people were disengaging from public life and decided to open a series of laboratories in different districts of the city. Following the model of citizens' councils, each lab organizes events to gather proposals from the community. Many of the proposals received have exceeded expectations, incentivizing the city to support the realization of specific projects. The city has committed to providing equipment, land, and vacant buildings. Several streets have been pedestrianized and universities have participated in the process. Since its inception, over 500 pacts have been established.

These are two great examples of collaborative intelligence, empowerment, and imagination in a time where imagination is gradually being sidelined, marginalized and ignored. If you create conditions that encourage people to use their imagination and share their ideas, you're empowering them twice. First, you are giving them the power to imagine; second, you are giving them the power to act. This approach is more rewarding than merely hoping for improvement in the next election process.

What about architects?

For architects, the consultation phase is a key opportunity to make a difference; this process must be creative and inclusive. The idea that we can engage with local people on large building projects is a dream come true. For example, there is a museum in the north of England, in a city called Derby, that was reimagined with the help of the local community. They wanted the building to be a celebration of making. As a result, the architects included a making workshop within the museum itself, adding to the transformation of the building and the collections within. When the prefiguration ended and construction had to begin, the architects went a step further and reimagined the construction process. Rather than giving the plans of the building to a large construction company to undertake, they broke the building up into small chunks to allow the community to be co-producers at every step of the process. 

Lastly, architects must consider the materials they use and where they are sourced. I spoke previously about how, one day, we might see a city sitting within a food belt in Liège. Why not consider a building materials belt? Imagine designing projects that can be built by local people with no previous experience, using local materials and money, with strong environmental and social requirements. This is what we should all collectively dream of.