"We're not a Smart City, we're a Transition City": Rob Hopkins' amazing tale of Liege

The launch night of  Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégeoise  or CATL

The launch night of Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégeoise or CATL

We've returned from our trip to South Devon (see the Alternative Editorial this week) with a fistful of new tools and tales about everyday power and purpose to share here. One person - Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Towns movement - is like an inexhaustible fountain of them. Over 90 minutes of shudderingly good caffeine in Totnes's Curator Cafe, we captured a few - and spread out the goodness through the week. 

But by far the most amazing story Rob told was of the transformation of Liege, in Belgium, an old ex-industrial town which committed itself 4 years ago to becoming a Transition Town.

In case you've never asked, what does that commit you to? The Essential Guide to Doing Transition (PDF) has a handy mission statement at the start:

Transition is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local. By coming together, they are able to create solutions together. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on connection with self, others and nature. They are reclaiming the economy, sparking entrepreneurship, reimagining work, reskilling themselves and and weaving webs of connection and support. Courageous conversations are being had; extraordinary change is unfolding.

Rob's blog - which is essentially charting the progress of his coming book on imagination - has a comprehensive take on his recent visit to Liege, which he titles "a delicious taste of the future".

Their progress is extraordinary - read the whole blog - but it began from a simple "what if" question (one of the reasons he's writing a book on imagination). "What if all the food in Liege was produced from the surrounding areas?"

Rob describes a literally succulent journey through a burgeoning new system of food collectives, cool retail outlets, vineyards, breweries, bicycle distributors, seed banks... and a very effective local currency, Le Val’Heureux, which keeps the economic value of all this activity in Liege. (Very coolly, it has a "zero" note, which is something you can give to someone "when cash isn't appropriate, but you want to acknowledge their kindness").

It's a display of ambitious, but very practical self-organisation. And we agree with Rob on where it gets very interesting - which is when the local municipal government in Liege starts to take this burgeoning activity seriously (from having regarded it as somewhat marginal activity for years). 

One of the activists, Christian Jonet (who runs the network that coordinates the Transition activity, Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégeoise or CATL) relates:


“Now the local authorities are stepping up and saying wow, this is really interesting.  They can see that what we are doing is good for society, that it can create jobs, build social links between people, that it is good for health and for the environment.  I think that in the future, new projects will be a combination of the forces of the public and citizen-led initiatives.  This week the City of Liège launched a new project called CreaFarm.  We had many discussions with them about what was blocking agricultural Transition, and one of the key themes was the price of land.

They were convinced they could help because they own a lot of land in and around the city which is not really used properly.  So they have identified all the sites, characterised the kinds of uses they’d be best for, and tested them for contamination (as a former industrial city, land contamination is not uncommon).  They have then invited suggestions from people who would like to use the land, and created a panel to decide applications, which we are part of, and once they’ve decided, the land will be made available at low rents”.

This is what another of Rob's interviewees in the piece calls the actions of a "Partner State" - where "the state gets alongside bottom-up community action, allowing the ideas and inspiration to rise up from below, and seeing their role as being to remove obstacles and to help things to flourish."

The Partner State concept actually comes from another Belgian, the peer-to-peer thinker Micheal Bauwens, who originally imagined this to be the response of authorities to open source software. But faced with the vigour of Transition practice around very non-digital items, we wonder how the idea of a "Partner State" would work out in the UK. 

In any case, Liege is a success story. Our continuing question would be: how does humming, self-generating communities like this find a way to harness the technological and transformative forces of the future - whether automation or genetic improvement or smart-grid energy - as well as live in spite of them? How can these great powers be harnessed to a powerful human scale?

Rob's Liege blog is here.