Alternative Editorial: How To Make the 20s A Decade Of Transformation (via Citizens’ Action Networks)

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In the course of building The Alternative UK, we have come up against what are often called “wicked” challenges. It means they’re complex: and when you try to fix them, you end up chasing down rabbit holes of partial solutions. There’s three of them.

The first is: the solutions to our triple crises – Brexit, climate breakdown and psycho-social health - are already available (witness all the evidence from The Daily Alternative). So why can’t we access them? The second: how can we bring people together, when our politics and media are built on an oppositional model? The third: if our problems are systemic and global, how can any good intentions by small groups of people solve them?

It’s hard to even hold those three problems in your head at the same time. For activists, it’s like living in a pin-ball machine. We are personally and collectively plugged into a system that instrumentalises us, in order to serve the growth economy that’s destroying our planet: any solution has to address the I, the We and the World at the same time.

If we unplug from the current system we easily become atomised, left to survive on our own wits. Our interdependence – as vital as our independence – demands that we plug ourselves into something better, healthier. But what could that be?

Over the course of our activity, we’ve seen a one-stop solution slowly manifesting, like an old photo negative revealing a full colour picture. We call it a Citizen Action Network (or CANs, for short).

Obvious questions first. Is a CAN more than community organising? Is it more than Transition Towns, or than a co-operative – all of which are vital elements in the success of any new construct? The answer to this must be yes: if either of these were enough on their own, having been here for over ten years, Brexit would not have happened the way it did. What they have succeeded in doing to date, is responding to the multiple crises with those that share their values. A CAN has the ambition of reaching those that might not.

A Citizen Action Network has at least three distinct qualities:

 1.     It’s where any person – regardless of their perceived values – can go to, in their local community, to participate in the solutions to the multiple crises we face. And in so doing find belonging, meaning and agency.

2.     It’s where local civil society organisations can collaborate with local, national and global organisations to provide real, creative and effective solutions. While prototyping a new democracy.

3.     It’s where we can begin the process of getting the UK to carbon neutral by 2025 without waiting for Westminster to agree. And in so doing, pattern-match with others around the globe to reach critical mass.

If you’re none the wiser, but slightly intrigued, it might help to describe how we came to our sightings of this beast. We began with distilling the holistic problem of a broken politics into three connected issues that link the personal with the social and the planetary. 

Firstly, current politics operates on an insufficient understanding of human beings as materialist rather than complex bio-psycho-social-spiritual entities. Secondly, we need to admit the absence of agency that individuals have, as they face their globalised reality. Thirdly, we are subject to a political and economic system that destroys the planet.

These problems appear as the “triple” crises - of psycho-social health (depression, addiction), Brexit and climate breakdown - but they are rarely connected in the political discourse. In fact, they cancel each other out as issues vying for our attention on the national level.

However, these problems can be contained and addressed by people living together in a community, figuring out stuff. If your mind instantly goes to the idea that people can’t possibly work the important stuff out, think again about how that term – the people – has come to mean ‘everyone except the experts’.

But every kind of person lives in the communities we are pointing at. The skilled and unskilled; the self-starters and the group-workers. Everyone can play a part, if they step up – even partially – to develop and strengthen the place in which they live. All are connected by technology to the solutions that will get us to carbon neutral by 2025.

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Imagine the UK with a majority of cities taking it upon themselves to reach that goal, in ways that gives everyone more well-being in the community. That changes everything at the national level from the examples they set. The very marketplace of ideas and energy – money as well as services – will begin to bend towards that expression of interest and commitment by the people. Political parties will see the votes in it. Business will see the profit in it. But people will own it.

We’ve been prototyping and experimenting over the past two and half years, and we now see that we can get to this scenario in three clear stages (set up below), where we work in and with a reasonably well-defined community.

Throughout these stages, we’re holding to some beliefs about the nature of the social reality we’re facing, which have emerged out of our work:

Connecting I, We, World

·      We should move from homo economicus to an awareness of the full bio-psycho-social-spiritual human being. To do that, we should always take care to make as much space for complex human awakening and trust-building, as we do designing and constructing the systems and institutions around us.

·      Voting every five years is only entry-level democracy. This is an era of entering into high-level participation by the people, making substantive decisions about their immediate conditions.

·      Our actions have an impact upon the planet. We are re-calibrating our personal needs and capacities as well as our social systems to reach carbon neutral by 2025.


·      CANs are not a lobbying or protest body, facing the government or local council. They are a way for citizens to take back not just responsibility, but their “response abilities” for the future. A Citizen Action Network sits below the divisions caused by political parties. The state can be a partner in the CAN, but not the leader. Members of a CAN might end up taking over the council, as in Flatpack Democracy. They are currently described as independents, eschewing the idea of political parties and, as such, are signs of a genuinely new politics.

Fractal growth

·      This new way of relationship-centred operating does not require “scaling up” by a central organiser. Its growth depends upon designing successful – and therefore attractive – prototypes that will be recognisable to others doing the same, with roughly the same tools, all over the world. The development could be described as fractal, because it begins with similar structures appearing in similar sets of conditions. The greatest accelerator is paying attention to those conditions - the human needs and desires being expressed.

[Note: These beliefs don’t need to be explained before embarking on the journey. But they are worth holding space for in the early stages, when it’s not clear what could happen that makes a difference.]

3 Stages of a Citizen Action Network

1.     Deep Hanging-Out

·      Meeting the usual suspects: people who have been constructing a new system of operation for a while. Civil society, social enterprise, volunteer networks

·      Spending time in the community, finding out who is there but not appearing in the public spaces where people meet and discuss

·      Go to meet people where they congregate. Listen and understand what binds them. Make friends.

·      Always ask who is not yet in your field of vision. Are there people you are unconsciously ignoring or afraid of? 

2.     The Collaboratory

·      We begin this process with The Friendly. Design an event that all of the above would feel welcome at. This may not be a conversation up front. Ideally free food and drink. Invite artists – music, dance, theatre etc – to create and run an event that would help people to find emotional equilibrium with each other. Through shared experience – eg from witnessing a remarkable piece of theatre, humour, magic – weave surprising bonds of trust.

·      We follow this with The Inquiry: working with the same group (not rigidly), movng into a space of inquiry. This is not unlike a People’s Assembly but with the hard edge of knowing you will move into Action after. How do you see your community today? How would you like to see your community in 2030? Avoid the rabbit holes of fixing the current system. Or imagining you have to start from scratch: many of the building blocks will already be present in the space. This is a place for shared imagining. Work full days at all levels: constellation work, mapping, theatre and improvising… the full tool box. What is being imagined frames the CAN. What is needed to bring it about is in the CAN.

·      The final Collaboratory part is Action, where we begin to build a Citizen’s Action Network. If you have the optimum mix in the room described above, the CAN arises from collaboration. Those with access to resources – not just their own, but also from outside the community - bring them into the space to meet the shared vision. The sort of things that might be on offer in a CAN could be food/energy/social enterprise hubs, learning clubs, “space invaders” (taking over empty buildings to use for talking, working, re-enchanting), local currency. Everyone plays a part, including joining a carefully chosen (or designed) digital network/group of networks.

3.     Activation:

·      Turn the CAN into a ‘package’ everyone might join, regardless of their values. To achieve this, you have to develop attractors – from food and energy deals to free stuff (meaning “access to excess” produce or services, for example free cinema tickets, free transport).

·      To get to those who are not bothered, or alienated, sell this package door to door – possibly with young people earning Countercoins (ref).

·      People can join the CAN digital network. Every member has a web page of their own and can sign up to multiple spheres of interest.

·      Everyone is invited to monthly events which consist of something ‘Friendly’ and something more like a People’s Assembly. Followed by chances to raise money for ideas. The model for this is Devon Convergence. [ref]

·      CANs around the country form a network through which they share ideas and resources. They could also develop a shared manifesto of new political ideas, arising from this new political space.

While there are examples of CANs to be found already, they are not yet codified in a way that can help others to pattern-match and adapt such a model as their own. What’s happened in Frome, for example, looks like a democratic revolution of the people taking back control of the council.

But we’d argue that would not have been possible without a well-developed culture of local community – the annual arts festival, the weekly market, the network of self-development workers. Nor without the global intelligence arising from the operations of the Transition Network in the area – not to mention former Mayor Peter MacFadyen’s experience with Comic Relief.


In effect, the Frome success is a great example of how a citizen action network might come together and achieve results. But if we want this model to help us address Brexit and climate change simultaneously, it might need more explicit articulation to help others find their way to the same results.

As we write, we are also actively supporting Extinction Rebellion to design a Future Democracy Hub that helps people to find some next steps after rising. As Greta Thunberg’s mantra has it: there is no hope without action.

We’ll leave you with this thought: how can we, the people, best use the next ten years? We need to be in action from 2020. We could have a decade of coming together and building a future we choose. For that, we need Citizen Action Networks.

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