Bill Sharp, Director
Transition Centre © July 2020
Permission to use content for non-commercial purposes only is grant with acknowledgment of source: www.transitioncentre.org.
The stunning and tragic developments of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis give us pause for deep reflection. It has changed our daily lives and introduced us to new social patterns. It has taken many lives. It has caused a decline in the global economy compared to the Great Depression. It has tested our economic, social and political systems severely.
As this is written, some months into the crisis with a resurgence of cases on a rocket trajectory, nobody has a clue how long it will take to recover some semblance of normality. A number of transformative shifts have already occurred that will have unanticipated consequences to how the immediate future unfolds. We call them the “new normal.” These trends must be factored into any recovery plan.
The first of these, of course, is the pandemic. It will have to run its course and that could take some time. A pandemic is a force of nature. It has its own rules and that must be clearly understood. It has no regard for ideology. Reopening was clearly premature as evidence by the frightening resurgence of new cases and rising death toll.
But this pandemic is also a wakeup call. There is a long list of pandemics over the course of human history. Plague is one of the four horsemen. Coronavirus has been known for some decades, but this was a particularly virulent strain. The threat of recurring pandemics can no longer be ignored. Like other natural disasters, we will have to think about what happens when another occurs. We will need to build this contingency into our community’s resiliency model.
The shutdowns caused massive closures of business, education, government and other employers with a devastating impact to economies around the world.
Within a few weeks of the outbreak and shutdowns, unemployment was approaching record levels. The official (U3) unemployment rolls are only a partial count of loss of employment and income. There were nearly half again as many people receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for a total unemployment rate of 18.6%, in May 2020. About one-third of the unemployed went back to work in May and June and then a second wave of COVID-19 devastated the country.
U3 unemployment is defined as people looking for work. Offsetting the official unemployment figure, however, two in five people in American civilian labor force were categorized as “discouraged,” or no longer seeking employment. It is unclear how these tens of millions find a living. They are by no means all on public welfare.
We are a long way from having any real information about the impact of COVID 19 on the US and world economy. It almost immediately became the fourth deepest economic downturn in 150 years. We are dealing with a massively complex system of many interrelated parts. We have not begun to see the long-term effect of unemployment and decline in economic production. We must accept that recovery will be slow. Responsible leaders in business and economics think it could take a decade for the economy to recover to its 2019 level. But we are not, as they say, “out of the woods” yet.
A new variable has also been introduced into the political-economic equation, a cost of doing business, is the acceptable loss of life (measured in the hundreds of thousands). This attitude tests the legitimacy of the economic system itself.
We will argue that localizing economies to a community level is the direction we must take to create a workable, secure and equitable economy.
Social Dislocation and Adjustment
The third pressing new normal is mandated social distancing. With business and other offices closing, many people were able to continue to work at home. Yes, we already had a powerful digital media, but this event took it to a dramatically higher level of acceptance. Zoom has joined the top ranked applications along with Amazon and Google. Working at home proved workable for those who were able to do so. Many businesses are planning to continue distance working; in no small part because they can cut the cost of office rental.
For many, these structural changes are unsettling. This shift in lifestyle has been a blessing for others. Many, at least in the suburbs, want to continue to work at home, surrounded by their family, spending more time working around the yard and watching sunsets. For those crammed into apartments it may feel more like imprisonment.
There are other dimensions to social distancing that affect the structure of our daily lives. For example, roughly a third of the American food budget goes to purchasing food away from home. Fast food establishments with takeout windows of course quickly adapted. Many indoor restaurants shifted with greater or lesser success to curbside takeout and delivery. Many have been and will be forced to close. Some large national franchises, which have been iconic hangouts, are closing stores and shifting to on-line sales. A “kitchen” food service business model was already established. They have no dining tables. Rent and payroll are greatly decreased by this model.
Retail outlets have been equally affected. Consumers shifted to online buying. An already established trend now enormously accelerated. Package delivery had already increased some 20% in 2019. There were already a growing number of vacant store fronts and now there will be more.
Schools and universities closed and made a dramatic shift to online instruction. Local schools are an institution and will likely seek to reopen. District school systems have consolidated schools into massive campuses. They are crowded environments. The demands for the safety of children, teachers, staff and others is daunting. Even if schools do reopen, there is likely to be some impact in educational market innovation.
A well-established pattern of recreation was also upset and just as the season begin for many of these activities. It caused cancellation of group activities from sporting events to concerts to children’s activities. Tourism and business travel declined to a trickle.
The American health care system, one of its largest industries, has also been put to the test in terms of both its capacity to provide services and also in terms of the economic impact it has felt. Hospitals are seeing an at least three-year recovery scenario. The cost of hospitalization for COVID is staggering. As with the economy in general, it is time to look at our assumptions and practices about health care.
The massive social protest over the death of George Floyd clearly revealed the depth of both the immediate anxiety and long unresolved social issues. It is clearly evident that an ideological polarization is developing in the US (and elsewhere) – which some have called a “second civil war.”
These issues have been simmering for decades. Confidence in government has steadily ebbed. The functionality of our economic system is being challenged. A divisive political system will be put on trial and this will have long-term social and economic consequences. The national political system that forms in 2021 will be faced with problems not seen since the Great Depression and equity could well be the cardinal issue. For better or worse, the new administration will be mandated to make changes if it can.
A New “Rustbelt?”
Colleges and universities closed with spring break 2020. They quickly adapted to online instruction. Distant learning was an already established technology for many of them, but it was an alternative. The economic impact of closures on brick and mortar establishments is staggering. Many of these intuitions will close.
Even if there is a return to campus Fall 2020, a significant reduction in enrollment is expected.. On May 12, 2020 the California State University system, the fourth largest in the country, announced it was cancelled classes on campus for the fall semester. It found the risks much too high to justify business as usual. Most colleges and universities continued to plan for reopening. The resurgence in COVID-19 will put this plan to a test. In any event, a continued shift to online instruction will likely occur.
Relatively little has been said about the communities that host their students. College and university town economies are founded on housing, feeding, clothing, transporting and providing services to students. Athletic and other events also draw considerable revenue to both the institution and the surrounding community. Small towns with large institutions of higher education are highly dependent upon them for their economy. Continued closures, even partial, would be devastating to those economies.
During the last quarter of the twentieth century, globalization caused the closure of factories across the country. They became known as “rustbelt” communities. Small communities with big colleges and university could become a new “rustbelt.”
It really comes down to the economy. The economic system has come to define every aspect of our society. Economic leaders are becoming increasingly skeptical about a quick recovery. It will likely take several years merely to stabilize the economy to some degree; and that depends on the pandemic running its course. Again, the longer this last, the more local businesses will fail. The longer this last, the greater the need and opportunity to seek alternatives. The sooner we start the better.
There has been evident weakness in the America economy since at least the beginning of the rustbelt era; since at least 1980. Recovery from the 2008 Great Recession was slow. It appears that considerable subsidies were pumped into the economy; something of a continuation of quantitative easement started in 2008, to drive growth. Yet even today, roughly one-third of the counties and about 40% of small towns across the country are classed as ‘shrinking.” That number will increase. Larger cities are also failing. If not shrinking in population, they have growing poverty, crime and addiction and declining resources to work with.
Supply chain disruptions due to shutdowns tested the definition of essential and non-essential services and probed the strengths and weaknesses of our economic system. Corporations with massively centralized supply chain management actually thrived while smaller chains continued to have empty shelving. We have thus become more dependent on a global economic system.
The federal government has invested trillions into attempting to stall the economic collapse. Tax revenues have fallen. Much of the spending for economy recovery will become national debt. State and local governments cannot incur dept. A number are already facing bankruptcy. The impact on government services at all levels will also be tested. Again, local communities will be forced to find their own resources.
We are at a turning point and we have choices. Will it be a return to business as usual or is there something now perhaps more desirable? Indeed, will it even be possible to return to business as usual? There are many powerful variables at work. We need to better understand the nature of the problems we are dealing with. We need information to do that. We need a system of evaluation that will give us realizable, and not just hoped for, scenarios. And we need to decide how we will invest in first recovery and second, assuring sufficient local resiliency to not have to do this all over again in a few years.
The Transition Centre business model has always focused on the local community and how to make it more resilient. We have been fortunate to acquire a great deal of information, to develop methodologies, to identify key principles and best-practices and to configure alternative approaches. Our Blueprint proposes a transformative program for making communities more secure.
The Transition Centre’s approach is not radical. It has no ideological or utopia objective. We don’t dwell on theories about who did what. We don’t expect someone else to fix the problems. The problem is the problem. It is what we are currently experiencing. Our definition of problems is based on a practical appraisal of the facts of life. As presented below, we do have certain core principles. They are about practical, community-based, solutions to problems.
The Transition Centre Resiliency Blueprint is the product of a long evolution. The history of Transition Centre can be found at this Link.
In short, we see the need for a more practical and localized program of community self-determination. We believe our framework has considerable potential for addressing the issues of the event we have labeled the 2020 Crisis.
The Mission of Transition Centre:
Promote and develop an integral design for strong, local, human-scaled, self-sufficient and sustainable economies and communities that have the resilience not only to overcome the inevitable challenges arising from economic uncertainty, climate instability, resource depletion, and other inevitable challenges, but to thrive.
The Vision of Transition Centre:
Resilient communities building on local resources and regenerative economic development.
The Objectives of Transition Centre:
1. Transition Centre promotes effective community-level programs for rebuilding local economic resiliency and a growing level of self-determination.
2. Innovative organizational leadership capable of guiding the transformation of communities, from villages to urban neighborhoods, to achieve resiliency.
3. An integral ecosystem architecture and blueprint for a resilient community and local economy.
4. A comprehensive learning institute to provide the knowledge, skills and psychological preparation to achieve transformative change.
5. Provide materials and resources to assist communities to achieve resiliency.
Our primary objective is planned, purposeful change. Our first plan sought to encourage localization of the central Pennsylvania economy. Central Pennsylvania Local Economy (CPaLE) was published in 2008. The project started with intensive research into the regional economy. In 2014 Transition Centre produced the Centre Sustainability Master Plan(CSMP). That came out of a two-year project involving over 200 individuals.
Like many, we started with the idea of sustainability, which is managing things to achieve balance, but subsequently shifted to the idea of resiliency, which is transformative change. The progress of this development can be found at our history link at the top of this section.
With mounting evidence of the lack of global progress in the pursuit of sustainability, including mitigation of climate change, we asked two questions:
1. Do we know what we have to do to achieve a sustainable future?
2. Do we have the capacity to do so?
There is a third question: If not, then what?
In response to those question, and particularly the third, we begin a major revision of our basic program. After three years, with a theme for each year, in January 2020 we begin a systematic inventory of our community’s numerous accomplishments. We begin to plan a Vision 2050 exercise.
We had three objectives:
1. Update our master plan to reflect the current state of the community.
2. Access the adequacy of our response, i.e., the two questions.
3. Shift focus to achieving a more robust community ecosystem with the objectives of safety, security and stability over the long term.
Transition Centre defined three top priorities for the development of Resilient Communities. A page for each of these can be found at our website.
1. Learning and Leadership
The question of capacity to guide change took top priority. It answers the “third question” stated above. We must acquire the capacity for transformative change. We must acquire the knowledge and skills needed and above all prepare people with the requisite abilities and motivation to address mandated by this incredibly complex time.
Leadership is about taking responsibility for achieving greater community resiliency. It is not hierarchical but rather collaborative. It is founded on consultation, not direction. But it is not passive. It seeks to achieve necessary objectives. This does require a plan and organization. Those require effective management.
Each era of human history has its own form of leadership. The emerging leadership style of the twenty-first century is integral, holistic and comprehensive. It involves the capacity to see the larger view, to understand the dynamics of a social ecosystem, and to organize the fragmented disorder of daily experience into a methodical framework. It is locally focused and practical. A model of this form of leadership can be found at this link. An introduction to the first level of our program for leadership development can be found in Self-Reliance: Achieving Personal Resiliency and Independence (Link). We are also developing a resiliency leadership bootcamp program.
2. Resilient Communities
As noted, Transition Centre is taking “resiliency” to a higher level. It is not about dealing with problems as they arise but rather forming a community able to rise above virtually any challenge. It is about building a new, regenerative economy, a strong sense of community and the organizational capacity needed to achieve this. We have described a community as an ecosystem (link). As such it is an integral system.
3. Foodshed Strategy
Listed third by my no means the least is food. What is a foodshed and why is it important? Our reasoning can be found at this link. Foodshed Strategy is the cornerstone of resilient communities. It draws on resources already at hand. Revenues produced from local foods stay in the local economy and support continued development.
In mid-March 2020, of course, things changed. Our three questions and our three priorities became imperatives. To respond to the 2020 Crisis, we began by updating our Blueprint to its current form; of which this is a summary.
Why a Blueprint
This document is a blueprint. It is not a plan. It is a synthesis of planning efforts. It draws on our accumulated experience. Our community is fortunate to have a large number of innovative sustainability programs and projects. We also drew from what was learned in other communities. This model will continue to evolve as we gain an understanding of this unfolding crisis. This executive summary provides an introduction to our new business model.
Resilient Communities starts with an understanding of the need for a vision for a clarity about the future the community’s needs. A vision must be vivid if you expect to achieve results. It needs to be comprehensive, an ecosystem perspective, that understands how all the parts fit together. It is a big picture.
The process requires a clear statement of a problem. Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, was asked what he would do if given one hour to solve a really important problem. He said he would spend 59 minutes defining the problem. Often, when the problem is clearly defined, the solution is apparent. And the energy spontaneously appears to mobilize planning, organization and execution.
Our Blueprint is intended to provide a framework that can be used by any community.
The first priority, as stated, is leadership: one or more people taking responsibility for the transformation of their community. It requires, as Margaret Mead made clear, the formation of a small group. That group creates a preliminary vision. It networks and brings interested parties into the conversation. Things take their course from there.
A Vision of a Resilient Community
The vision of a resilient community will likely contain these parts:
· A safe and healthy place to live
· A place where natural features are cherished and preserved
· Economic security despite global uncertainties
· A place where we feel we belong and are proud to be a part of
· A place where people care about each other
The vision establishes the identity of the community. It tells us what we must accomplish to bring our community to maturity.
With a vision in mind we begin the plan. There are three components of the Transition Centre Resiliency Blueprint Template:
2. Core Action Modules
Achieving these will require an organized effort.
There are three parts to resiliency assessment:
1. Community Asset Mapping: A comprehensive assessment of natural features and resources, people, built environment, civic resources and businesses of the region.
2. Assessment of consumption and external dependencies: Reliable estimates of the quantities of things consumed by the community. Where do goods and services come from and what are the risks to this supply chain?
3. Assessment of economic potential: What is the potential of the local community to produce the goods and services it needs to achieve greater self-reliance, reduce dependencies, and preserve the environment? What capacities must be developed?
Core Action Modules
The Transition Centre Resilient Communities Blueprint is founded on a series of action modules. Each module represents a plan in and of itself that is taken on by a dedicated work team. It should be clearly noted, however, that these modules are not developed independently and in isolation. They must be continuously assessed in terms of how they contribute to the overall vision and how they interact with each other.
These modules are drawn from a synthesis of basic human needs derived from the sustainability literature. Granted, there are other ways to approach this and you are encouraged to be innovative.
The plan modules can be organized into a number of broad categories:
The natural environment defines the place we live and the natural resources that define the region. There are two general categories in the plan:
1. Land, Water and Natural Resources
2. Parks, Open Space, Recreation
Built environment includes:
1. Places we live, work and play
2. Transportation infrastructure
3. Utilities infrastructure
4. Communications infrastructure
Consumables include both raw materials and finished products and services:
4. Other material resources
It is not the dollar value of these things but rather the actual quantities consumed.
The REconomy framework (link) addresses how these goods and services can be produced more reliably in the local market thus giving the community greater self-reliance and security and retaining a greater share of revenue within the community. This model restructures the economy, preserves and even restores the natural environment, and provides incredible potential.
What do we do with everything left over after we have consumed the list above? Solid, liquid and gaseous wastes tend to accumulate in landfills, go into the air or settle into the soil and watershed. Our proposal is zero waste. Waste products are potential raw material for economic development. Nature waste nothing.
Creating the type of community we love to live in is a matter of making it a good place to live and that involves conscious attention to all the modules above. In addition to these there are several specific modules to address.
1. Community Development
3. Education and Training
4. Public Safety/Emergency Management
5. Recreation, Arts and Entertainment
A description of the fifteen Core Action Modules can be found at this link.
Component III: Implementation
A plan is intended to achieve an outcome. This is essentially a business plan. It’s what you need and how to use it to get the job done. There are eight modules to this part of the CSMP:
1. Economy, Finance and Enterprise
2. Community Ecosystem Map
3. Centre Sustainability Organization/Community
6. Education and Outreach
7. Communications Infrastructure
8. Local Government
Appended to the Blueprint are three sections including:
1. Critical Resources – a comprehensive list
2. Economic Blueprint – a sector by sector analysis of your economic potential
Core Principles of the Blueprint
There are a variety of distinctive principles upon which the Transition Centre model is based. These principles have been developed through an extensive search of literature, exploring best practice communities, a long ongoing dialog in our community and experience. We believe these principles are universally applicable.
We believe communities can create a better future for themselves. The Blueprint is explicitly localized. That does not mean closing down retail outlets and interstate commerce. It is about producing more of what the community can locally and thus removing unnecessary dependencies on distant markets.
Localization is first and foremost about working at a scale you can more readily understand and have control over. Our community is our home. We have a better understanding of it than we do the larger world. And we are more likely to have the ability to affect changes.
Our view of localization is grassroots – from the ground up. It is not a job for government agencies or nonprofits to do for you. They don’t have the staff or funding. It is about individuals taking responsibility rather than expecting some outside resource to fix the problem. Community resiliency must involve a broad spectrum of its residents. Local governments and nonprofits are already supported by groups of volunteers who possesses a broad array of knowledge and skills. There are many other talented people in the community. These human resources must be effectively organized.
The driver of our model, as noted, has always been global resource scarcity. The global economy is almost totally dependent upon non-renewable resources that we are exploiting as if there were no tomorrow. The classical ideal of sustainability, of insuring there is enough for future generation, is no longer achievable. Continued global population growth, even under sustainable economic development, increases demand for these resources. We believe each community should live within its means; which brings us to:
Community as Ecosystem
The foundation for the Transition Centre Resiliency Blueprint is that a community is an ecosystem. The model treats a community as an organically whole system. Community as ecosystem is integral and comprehensive. It includes the built environment, the people who occupy it and the surrounding environment from which the community can draw its needs. It is about how these parts interact. The Transition Centre Blueprint thus seeks to be a comprehensive and systematic architecture that ensures the well-being of all parts of that ecosystem. Nature seeks harmony. Human beings have the capacity to employ these natural principles in a purposeful and creative manner.
Vision is the stage setting of the model. A clear and compelling vision of what is to be accomplished must be achieved. It’s not only what it looks like but what it would feel like to live in. It’s about the fundamental values of the community. The importance of a vision is not a new idea but rather goes back at least to the time of the ancient and wise King Solomon: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs, 29, 18). Vision is one of the root principles of wisdom. A vision is about what attracts and motivates people to participate.
We either accept “business as usual” and bear the consequences, or we attempt to undertake change. Change can be driven by necessity, but this model is not simply opportunism. To have transformative change requires purposeful action. Our age is complex. It is in a state of continuous emergency. Our institutions are designed to maintain some semblance of order. They aren’t working well. A lot of people want something different. But it takes more than wanting it and more than asking for it. It requires doing what has to be done to achieve it. Apple provided this perspective (link).
Resiliency, as noted, is about going beyond emergency management. It is no longer about adapting but learning to thrive on challenges. It is about a desire to do more than just go with the flow. It is about understanding the nature of the forces we are dealing with. It is an intentional and creative effort to make our communities and or personal lives the best they can be.
Learning and Leadership
The human brain is an organism for learning. Solving problems is what nature created us to do. We learn in order to solve problems, but we also learn to build character and virtue. As problems and crisis mount, as existing intuitions and methods prove inadequate, we must innovate and refine the art and science of learning.
Transition Centre recommends a community university that provides a full-spectrum, life-long curriculum of adult learning. With effective learning we believe that many can find a capacity for leadership in some area of the life of the community.
Leadership is not authority, not dominance, but rather stewardship and inspiration. It is a consultative and collaborate effort.
Where people work together there must be organization. Under a plan roles and relationships are formalized, tasks and objective assigned and monitored. This requires organization and effective management. It is through community organizations that visions are turned into reality.
The Transition Centre Resiliency Blueprint is an economic plan in a broader perspective. The sustainability triptych includes environment, society and economy. The weak link in that pattern is between the environment and the economy. Our objective is a regenerative economy – a REconomy (link. That means an extensive overlap of all three sectors.
At the heart of the model is resilient business: A business model that pursues innovation, efficient use of resources and strengthens local economies through development of latent capital and human resources found in the community. It is an entrepreneurial program – social entrepreneurship and business development. It requires a sound plan. It requires people to take risk. It takes hard work
If you want change, it must pay for itself. There is not, in fact, enough outside money to make the necessary changes. The capacity to produce wealth, real wealth and not illth, is mandated for every community.
The idea that ties this model together is the fact that Ecology and Economy have the same root. Eco means homein both words. An ecosystem is natures economy. Traditionally, communities have formed more or less spontaneously just as natural ecosystems do. Unlike the rest of nature, however, we have choice. We don’t always make the right choices.
In developing our master plan, we did considerable research into the emerging literature on sustainability planning. We sought the qualities that made these plans work. Or not. The importance of the planning process must be emphasized.
The word “plan” is not a noun, it is a verb. Planning is a process, not a thing. It is an art and a science. The purpose of a plan is to solve a problem or get something you want. It starts with an exacting statement of the problem/objective and a compelling reason to address it. It is not complete until its objective is satisfactorily achieved. Planning starts with learning and comes to fruition through action – often a good deal of trial and error. Since we have objectives that have not been achieved before, or achieved under different circumstances, we need to continuously learn and adjust.
Vision 10 – 10
Achievable objectives are essential. We have adopted the Japanese idea of Kaizen – starting with small steps.
Transition Centre developed a Vison 10 – 10 framework: an objective of achieving ten percent of any goal, such as local food or energy, within a timeframe of no longer than ten years (preferably much less) for each module. We find this gives a better feel of achievability than taking on the whole sector. It allows us to lay the groundwork, run pilot models and refine the process. Once we achieve ten percent, we have the infrastructure for moving to the next level. We believe that the best place to start is with local foods.
In our study of notable sustainable communities, we found that they each have their own culture of sustainability. We made a list of more than 30 of these places. We conducted more in-depth case studies of several of these, including Corvallis, Seattle, Portland, Burlington, Oberlin, and Boulder. The players in this emerging culture include a broad spectrum of interest such as business, government, nonprofits, education and people at large in the community. A lot of work went into making those communities more sustainable. In short, a culture is something people join; the values, norms and daily practices are established and comfortable. We found our home community an evolving culture of sustainability and worked to nurture that process.
A community has a much better prospect of providing opportunity than blanket regulatory agencies and cookie-cutter programs. A community by definition is a collaborative enterprise where members are mutually supportive. People are a part of its ecosystem. An ecosystem thrives on diversity. It is as strong as its weakest part. There is no place for poverty and hunger, prejudice, crime and addiction, ignorance or a prevailing mood of despair in a resilient community.
The Blueprint model is designed to be universal. We have sought to define the common qualities required for the preponderance of communities around the world. While each is unique, the qualities that make us human and our needs collectively define our essence as a species.
Bill Sharp is founder and Director of Transition Centre. Career in community and economic development and as a planner and project manager with experience in government, business and higher education. Former township supervisor and member of Region Council of Government General Forum. Former experience as a member of a state-level emergency management command post. Founding board member of several community service nonprofit organizations. Currently member municipal Industrial Development Authority, Planning Commission and Watershed Commission.
B.S. in Management (Summa Cum Laude), M.A. in urban sociology; minors in science and mathematics, industrial arts and history. See LinkedIn.
Writer, speaker and workshop facilitator. Focus on resilient and regenerative local economies, foodshed strategy and leadership.
Author, Self-Reliance: Achieving Personal Resiliency and Independence