Community-led initiatives and the Sustainable Development Goals

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The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as the basis for its aspirations to work towards global sustainability over a timeframe leading up to 2030. The apparent overlap between many of the SDGs and the aims and methods of many community-led initiatives (CLIs) suggests potential for the SDGs to link bottom-up local action on the part of communities with governmental and intergovernmental action on sustainability. CLIs provide a potential implementation vehicle for the SDGs, while the SDGs represent a possible opportunity to mainstream and/or upscale prior and ongoing action undertaken at community scale. The values, perspectives and experiences of CLIs also challenge certain assumptions, weaknesses and contradictions in the SDGs, and hence can contribute to ongoing critical reflection on the goals themselves.


The seventeen SDGs cover many areas in which community-led initiatives have a long history of innovation and action. SDG11 is directly concerned with 'sustainable cities and communities'. Many others address areas in which CLIs are highly active and proficient, including livelihoods and employment (SDG1 and SDG8), food provision (SDG2), renewable energy (SDG7), health and well-being (SDG3), education (SDG4), climate change (SDG13), ecosystem protection and enhancement (SDG14 and SDG15), sustainable provision of material needs (SDG9 and SDG12), addressing inequality and discrimination in all forms (SDG5 and SDG10) and social/institutional innovation for effective partnership and inclusive governance (SDG16 and SDG17). The six 'essential elements' of the SDGs identified by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a synthesis report - dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet and people - effectively restate the three permaculture ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares.[1] CLIs thus provide existing working examples of how the SDGs could be achieved in practice, prefiguring their attainment at a global scale.

How Community-led Initiatives are Already Working towards the SDGs

A series of impact assessments conducted by the Global Ecovillage Network in ecovillages on five continents showed that the vast majority are already contributing in concrete ways to achieving the SDGs. In relation to ecological impacts, 97% of showcase ecovillages are actively working to restore degraded ecosystems (SDG15), 90% sequester carbon in soil and/or biomass SDG13, and 97% work to restore or replenish water sources and cycles (SDG6)[2]. In terms of social impacts, all ecovillages provide education in sustainability-related fields (SDG4), women occupy at least 40% of decision-making roles in 90% of cases (SDG5), all nurture local traditions relevant to sustainable methods of building and food production (SDG11 on sustainable communities), 90% reuse or recycle over half their waste and 85% compost all food waste (SDG12 on responsible production and consumption), 80% have established conflict resolution procedures and all provide training in decision-making and mutual empowerment (SDG16 on responsible institutions, peace and justice), and 95% participate in campaigns to protect the rights of humans and nature (SDG17 on partnership). [2]

While the Global Ecovillage Network assessments demonstrate work that largely precedes and hence anticipated the SDGs, some CLIs and associated organisations have begun to adopt the SDGs as a strategic framework for their work. Gaia Education already offers bespoke training on implementation and horizontal integration of the SDGs and has incorporated the SDGs into the training of facilitators for its flagship Ecovillage Design Education course.[3][4]. A report produced on behalf of UNESCO identified Gaia Education's online training as a key resource for education on the SDGs.[5]

In Ireland, Cultivate gave the SDGs a prominent role in Convergence, their annual sustainable living festival, in 2017. The SDGs provided framing context for a series of community conversations about sustainability hosted in various locations across Ireland. This allowed the local issues and experiences raised in the conversations to be located within a bigger picture of global challenges and ways to address them.[6]

The UN calls for a strong and effective decentralization of power, resources and decisions to the local level, and suggests also that community-led initiatives are not only involved but do participate and become co-responsible and accountable in the design, implementation and monitoring of SDGs.[7]

GEN Impact Study

Contradictions and Criticisms

A key point of divergence between the SDGs and the outlook of many community-led initiatives and movements concerns the role of economic growth. Growth is the stated objective of SDG8, and the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which the SDGs were announced, repeatedly refers to economic growth as both a desired outcome in its own right and a precondiction for realisation of the other goals.[8] This is despite a proliferation of authoritative scholarly analyses that demonstrate a fundamental incompatibility between economic growth, in anything resembling its conventional definition, and sustainability, including many of the specific aspirations stated in other goals.[9][10] More generally, concerns have been raised about possible conflicts among SDGs, depending on the chosen implementation pathways: for example, achieving infrastructural goals relating to energy (SDG7), sanitation (SDG6) and food provision (SDG2), as well as global targets relating to climate change (SDG13) and nature conservation (SDG14 and SDG15) could conflict with social goals on inclusion (SDG16), partnership (SDG17) and equality (SDG5 and SDG10) if approached in highly centralised ways and without active involvement of those working on these issues at community scale.[11]

Reflecting similar concerns, academic debates on degrowth, which help link local action to wider political and economic issues, arose in part as a critical response to the ideological commitment to growth in the field of sustainable development and the way this limited the scope of politically acceptable debate. [12] Degrowth scholars seek to democratise debates on desirable futures by highlighting the alternative and more promising pathways towards sustainability and social justice that are available only outside the growth paradigm.[13] In similar vein, a joint report by Transition Network and the Post Carbon Institute highlights the need for policy-makers to abandon their commitment to economic growth in order to respond to the climate, resource and economic circumstances the world currently faces.[14]

Community-led Action on the SDGs, Goal by Goal

SDG1: No Poverty

Main page: SDG1

Community-led initiatives work to meet material and other needs while respecting limits to sustainability in various ways. Interventions can take place at various levels, ranging from supporting individual (and/or household) livelihoods through community-scale enterprise to addressing global structural causes of poverty via creating alternatives to inherently inequitable systems. Many are creating new forms of social and economic organisation that decouple well-being from material throughput and exploitative forms of economic inter-relationship. Often replacing the logic of states and markets with that of the commons - self-governance of communities united by shared reliance on a common resource - many go beyond sustainability as such, and the scope of the SDGs, to becoming regenerative of ecological and social conditions.[15]

Specific approaches employed include:

  • At the scale of the individual enterprise, creating new and alternative livelihood opportunities that rely predominantly on local and renewable resources, employ cooperative and commons-based forms of ownership and management and support regeneration of local and regional ecological, social, cultural and/or economic systems.[16][17][18][19]
  • At community scale, promoting new forms of social and economic interrelationship such as sharing, commoning, communitarianism and gifting, often involving repair, upcycling and/or reuse of existing material goods and in many cases supported by complementary and community currencies designed to promote collective rather than individual interests.[20][21][22]
  • At the scale of the local and regional economy, creating enterprise ecologies of operations with complementary goals, activities and needs, and solidarity economies of interconnected and mutually supportive cooperative enterprises.[23][24]
  • Also at local and regional scale, promoting economic relocalisation in order to prioritise use of local and renewable resources, goods and services, make the impacts of economic activity directly visible to those undertaking it, enabling feedbacks and making externalisation of environmental and social damage difficult or impossible, and replacing relationships among localities (at all scales up to global) based on exploitation and dependency with relationships of solidarity and mutual support.[25][26][27]
  • At national and global scales, developing and/or enacting new models of social and economic organisation that, unlike conventional macro-economic approaches, do not rely on systematic increases in use of raw materials and energy, production of waste and levels of inequality.[28]
  • At all these scales, successfully decoupling provision of subjective and objective well-being from high and rising levels of material affluence, in particular by making social, natural, cultural and other non-material forms of capital the basis of well-being.[29] This challenges conventional notions of poverty as simply reflecting (relative or absolute) material scarcity or lack.

SDG2: Zero Hunger

Main page: SDG2

Many community-led initiatives are active in sustainable food production. Community food initiatives are often guided by principles such as food security, food sovereignty and agroecology. Many emphasise enviromental sustainability and regeneration, local provenance, and support and reinvigoration of local and regional agricultural, culinary and/or economic traditions. Often linked to economic relocalisation, such activities both directly strengthen resilience in local food systems, help avoid exploitative relationships between importers and exporters of food (where provision of food supply in one place is at the expense of food security and availability elsewhere) and in most circumstances reduces levels of pollution and energy consumption associated with transportation, processing, packaging and preservation of food.

Specific approaches employed include:

  • Changing perceptions of food by promoting and holistic perspective that sees food not as a commodity, but as an enabler of life, basic right, constituent of social relationships and cultural identities and public good, as well as integrating principle for numerous SDGs, and of regenerative societies.[30][31][32]
  • Use of design principles based on observation of nature and the intersecting permaculture ethics of 'Earth Care', 'People Care' and 'Fair Shares' in the creation of food production initiatives rooted in local ecological, social, cultural and economic processes, and often regenerative of each or all of these.[33]
  • Foster an integral education system that enables individuals to identify edible wild species as well as cultivate local varieties that are more adapted to local conditions and can be more nutritive. [34] Promote popular education movements with an emphasis on learning through doing, through which large numbers of people (including migrants and vulnerable people) learn and apply the skills necessary to grow their own food and regenerate degraded land.[35]
  • Linking producers and consumers of food through mechanisms such as solidarity purchasing, community-supported agriculture, farmers' markets and others.[32][36]
  • Creating edible and biodiverse landscapes, particularly in urban areas through various forms of community gardening.[37][38][39]

SDG3: Good Health and Well-being

Main page: SDG3

Community-led initiatives promote alternative approaches to health and well-being that tend to take a more holistic approach than conventional healthcare. Greater emphasis on lifestyle, community and quality of social and physical environments can complement or replace existing biomedical methods, providing for higher levels of overall health and well-being at lower financial costs and throughputs of energy and materials, and so reconciling public health provision with increasing attention to the effects of resource constraints.[40][41][42][43] Ecovillages provide high levels of wellbeing for residents depite throughputs of energy and materials far lower than in the population at large. The achieve this through numerous and diverse strategies (not all of which are used in all ecovillages), including pooled communal economies, shared work, attention to work-life balance, inclusive decision making, conflict resolution, limited hierarchy, celebration, cultivation of new values and shared worldviews, deepening of personal relationships, promoting physical proximity and contact, child-centred perspectives, self-development practices, inclusiveness, emphasis on arts and culture, healthy food, physical activity, proximity to nature, environmental activism and ecologically responsible behaviours.[29][44]

Specific approaches employed include:

  • Design alternative lifestyles that reconcile high levels of individual and community well-being with low levels of material consumption, hence minimising (or even reversing) environmental depletion and ecological degradation.
  • Building social, individual and spiritual capital by promoting: residential design and public spaces based on increased levels of social interaction, including playgrounds and recreational facilities in settlement design, participation in collective activities and services (such as maintenance of collective spaces and horticulture), holding social events, rituals and ceremonies, work parties, communal meals, decision-making based on consensus and/or consent, social democracy and equality, and the existence of shared spaces such as community centres and public gathering halls.[45]
  • Living close to nature, in the case of rural ecovillages and permaculture projects, and/or creating green infrastructures (especially in urban areas[46]). Evidence suggests this can help increase well-being (reduced mental stress and longer life expectancy) as well as decrease air pollution and help alleviate noise.[47][48]
  • Use of holistic strategies and methods within community development, sustainability and/or regeneration projects in order to promote increased individual and/or community well-being through healthy lifestyles, social cohesion (including meaningful and trustworthy relationships) and environmental health.[49]
  • Encouraging walking and cycling, community cafés and food growing projects that help enable healthy diets; operating 'Care Farms' and similar outdoor projects that create environments and activities conducive to mental and physical health.[50][51].
  • Frequent and comfortable community meetings; presence of local leaders, ethnic, intergenerational, religious, gender and age diversity; spending leisure time in a healthy way (communal sports such as yoga, meditation, recreation, art, crafts, games, etc...), consumption of local foods and native medicine plants (traditional medicine).[52]
  • A common focus on "Inner Transition": changing personal and collective mindsets, outlooks and values, as an essential complement to action oriented towards external change.[53]
  • Creating the basis for fruitful strategic alliances with planners and providers of centralised health care, as promoted by the Transition movement in Canada.[54][55]
  • Many CLIs promote sustainable and local energy production, especially under community ownership. Sustainable energy technologies help support human health by decreasing significantly the emission of air pollutants.[56][57]

SDG4: Quality Education

Networks of community-led initiatives networks are grounded in multiple, intersecting and ongoing learning processes, of varying degrees of formalisation, through which they generate and communicate the new skills, ways of knowing, forms of social organisation, cultural perspectives and actions necessary to understand and respond to emerging and fast-changing global situations by envisioning, planning, implementing and monitoring regenerative development pathways in local communities.[58][59] Such learning processes can nowadays draw on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom acquired over several decades by global movement of pioneering communities and people.[60] Some of this intellectual and cultural capital has been incorporated into specific trainings such as Permaculture Design Certificates, Ecovillage Design Education and Transition Training. In most cases, this takes the form of education about, for and as sustainability - living (and learning) by example in addition to transmission of knowledge and skills.[61]

  • Promoting inspirational, communitarian and experiential learning courses that lead to the acquisition and development of the knowledge, skills and competences necessary to . These mostly emphasise place-based and lifelong learning, with initial learning conditions that reflect the qualities and circumstances of the community itself and a commitment to learning through shared action.[62][63][64][65]
  • Through projects such as Sicilia Integra, Gaia Education is using education to support the needs of migrants, including people displaced by climate change, through training programmes that connect their existing skills and capabilities with the needs of the places and communities that receive them.
  • Many ecovillages, permaculture projects and other residential communities host interns, volunteers and others on longer-term, less structured learning visits that allow deeper immersion, often equipping people to begin new projects of their own.
  • Some CLIs are also active in innovative forms of school-age sustainability education.[66]
  • Specific educational methodologies, techniques and tools, including Findhorn Ecovillage's Transformation Game (developed and used in Findhorn Ecovillage), Gaia Education's SDGs flashcards (Gaia Education) and techniques developed elsewhere but commonly used in CLIs such as the Dragon Dreaming design framework for project and team management design framework and Sociocracy system for inclusive decision-making and governance.[67]
  • Building on resonances between their own educational activities and wider fields of sustainability education, including specialist approaches like holistic education and transformative education, some CLIs have begun to collaborate with higher education institutions to produce new hybrid programmes.[68][69][70] Deepening such connections, CLIs have begun to develop strategic collaborations with and even emerge from within established higher education institutions[71][72] The ECOLISE network of European CLIs includes among its membership universities and other formal providers of sustainability education, in specialised support roles.[73]

SDG5: Gender Equality

Main page: SDG5

Both formal and anecdotal evidence show, in general, partial success on the part of CLIs in working towards gender equality. Widespread awareness and acknowledgement of the importance of gender issues makes visible both successes and failures. In addition, the conceptual understandings and practical activities of many CLIs go beyond issues of representation to reveal, examine and address deeper underlying structural and cultural factors, drawing on feminist and eco-feminist social critiques and developing and enacting new understandings of gender and its social and environmental consequences.[74]

The TESS project collected data on gender representation in 63 CLIs in several European countries, in the form of current gender ratios, both among strategic decision-makers and across the initiative as a whole, five years previously, and among the founding group. Results showed near-parity of gender among present-day participants in most all cases, with a small-number of male-dominated initiatives and virtually none female-dominated. Gender imbalance (in the form of both male and female domination) was more prevalent both five years before the study and among founding groups, suggesting improved gender balance over time. While the majority of initiatives showed gender balance among strategic decision-makers, gender imbalances were more widely reported at this level than that of the initiative as a whole, with male predominance more common than female predominace.[75]

A survey of 29 ecovillages in all continents found that forty per cent or more of senior leadership positions were occupied by women in over ninety per cent of documented cases.[76] An online survey of the international permaculture movement also showed high levels of female representation (53% of respondents). However, participation was strongly differentiated according to role, with women's representation far less in high-profile roles as professionals and practitioners, suggesting that wider structural inequalities relating to gender persist within the permaculture movement.[77]

Similar ambiguities have been reported by participants in CLIs at the level of attitudes, behavioural patterns and underlying perspectives on gender and gender relationships.[78][79][80] A general conclusion is that, while attention to gender issues, and progress upon them, is generally higher in CLIs than in the general population, oppressive and discriminatory patterns relating to sex, gender and sexuality nonetheless persist. In line with current scientific understandings about the depth and pervasiveness of these cultural norms,[81] this demonstrates the importance of CLIs as niches where alternative perspectives can be explored and put into practice.[82][83][84][85]

CLIs thus aspire to go beyond mere numerical equality towards deeper shifts away from structural and cultural patriarchy and towards genuinely gender-equitable and gender-inclusive societies.[86] Increasing evidence suggests that women's distinctive perspectives on nature, environment and society, and life experiences as women involved in sustainable agriculture and other land-based and transformative work, can extend the scope of thought and action in ways that inform sustainability thinking more widely,[87][88] thus creating and strengthening synergies between gender equality and achievement of the other SDGs. As one example, in a worldwide survey of community-led projects that link agriculture with biodiversity conservation, thirty per cent of the reported solutions specifically target women. In many cases, explicit attention is given to intersections between gender dynamics, household incomes, nutrition and conservation action.[89]

SDG6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Main page: SDG6

Community-led initiatives often approach water management in holistic perspective, with water provision (for domestic, agricultural and other uses) and sanitation being integrated into wider water management systems at community and landscape scale. [90] Research in the UK and Ireland shows high levels of public support for greater inclusivity and community empowerment in relation to planning and decision-making in water management; community-level control over water provision and sanitation infrastructures as well as wider catchment management can make important contributions to this.[91] A survey of 29 showcase ecovillages by Global Ecovillage Network, found that all but one were actively working to conserve, restore and/or replenish stores of freshwater. The most common techniques were efficient irrigation systems combined with mulching to reduce water evaporation from soil (73% of reported cases), behavioural measures such as mindful showering to avoid unecessary water use in domestic contexts (70%), capture and storage of rainwater (67%) and recycling of greywater (63%).[92]

In Tamera Ecovillage in the Alentejo region of Portugal, water management is a central ecological topic. The community develops and tests a wide variety of infrastructures for water retention in the landscape and usage within the community, and promotes wider discussion, reflection and innovation through yearly and various forms of collaboration with internationally recognised authorities as well as testing a wide variety of infrastructures to support and enhance the short water cycles and its storage.[93][94]

Other general approaches include:

  • Direct collection of rainwater combined with effective systems its storage of water, reallocation among households, biological and physical retention and treatment and reuse of rainwater.[95][96]
  • Reuse of treated wastewater (black and grey water) for agricultal and domestic purposes, often combined with use of composting toilets and other sanitation methods that reduce water inputs, allow hygenic onsite processing of waste and allow organic matter to be retained within and/or returned to local ecosystems, and provide new potential for installation of effective sanitation systems in sites remote from central infrastructure.[97][98][99][100] as well as more rural and less "infrastructured" places [101]
  • Nature-based sewage treatment facilities such as Biomatrix, developed at Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland.

SDG7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Main page: SDG7

CLIs are active in both supply-side and demand-side interventions relating to sustainable energy, both through various forms of community-owned energy generation and initiatives to promote less energy-intensive settlements and lifestyles. Community energy in many cases the initial and/or most important form of action, with community energy projects often providing a focus for a wider range of activities powered and/or funded by renewable energy generation infrastructure, or helping to create enabling conditions for other work by reducing dependencies on infrastructures that are corporate-run, environmentally destructive and dependent on fossil fuels, nuclear or other forms of unsustainable generation.[102]

Specific approaches include:

  • Lifestyle changes to reduce direct and indirect levels of energy consumption at personal and household levels [103]
  • Taking pioneering action to promote innovative and/or experimental use of renewable energy technologies and low carbon lifestyles, even if the face of adverse social, cultural and institutional circumstances, thus creating possibilities for wider diffusion and upscaling.[104]
  • Use of permaculture as a methodology and technique for designing low-energy and energy efficient dwellings and settlements.[105]
  • Creating new and retrofitted infrastructures that reduce energy needs at both household and community scale, for example by use of local materials with low embodied energy, architectural designs that make best use of passive solar for heating and/or cooling and natural light for illumination, and transport infrastructures that favour low-emissions methods such as walking, cycling and use of public transport.[106][107]
  • Diverse forms of community-owned and managed- renewable energy generators, district heating systems and microgrids.[108][109][110]
  • Holistic approaches that foster individual and community initiative, participation and leadership in promoting sustainable energy transitions as well as renewable energy development strategies, plans and initiatives at scales from local to regional.[111][112][113]

SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Main page: SDG8

The wording of SDG8 is something of an anomaly in relation to current thinking on sustainability, given the almost universal recognition that further growth in the global economy - at least as conventionally understood, in terms of GDP or financial values - is under present conditions incompatible with provision of decent work, achievement of any of the other 16 SDGs. This conclusion arises from, for example, a large body of academic research - including but not restricted to that conducted within the Degrowth movement,[114] work originally conducted by the UK government's Sustainable Development Commission,[115] experiences of major international development NGOs such as Oxfam,[116] and the T20 advisory group to the G20.[117] Recognition of the need for a change in economic paradigm has begun to take hold in the European Commission, which in 2018 hosted a major conference on post-growth alternatives at the European Parliament.Community-led initiatives include existing and ongoing attempts to create functioning local economies and enterprises that do not depend on global GDP growth, which can inform and support this wider shift.[118]

Specific approaches include:

  • Use of solidarity economy as a vehicle for creating sustainable lifestyles based on socially and ecologically regenerative forms of enterprise, and for embedding ethics of sustainability and equality into local economies.[119][120][121][122]
  • Alternative models of enterpreneurship, representing distinctive forms of social solidarity economy, have arisen in many key movements of CLIs. Ecovillages often operate as working models of sustainable local economies that host multiple forms of enterpreneurship.[123] Based on these experiences, GEN and a number of partners within the Erasmus+-funded SIRCle Project (Social Innovation for Resilience Communities) developed a toolkit and associated curriculum and other learning tools for sustainability enterpreneurship, to facilitate the wider diffusion of the knowledge and approaches thus developed.[124]. From the Transition movement emerged the REconomy approach to reinvigorating local economies through sustainable and socially responsible entrepreneurship.[125] A report on 20 early examples of Transition-inspired social enterprises in the UK included enterprises in community renewable energy, housing, transportation, finance, food production, and many more, with a total annual turnover of GBP 3.5 million and collectively employing over 100 people.[126] The KEEP Research Project, a collaboration between the Permaculture Association (Britain) and Kingston University Business School, undertook a preliminary survey of permaculture-inspired enterprises in the UK, documenting case studies in areas such as education, community work, software design, publishing, hospitality and mental health.[127] In terms of land-based enterprises, also in the UK the Ecological Land Co-op surveyed a number of land-based enterprises based on application of labour-intensive, regenerative methods on small land holdings (four hectares or less) and found them to combine financial sustainability not dependent on agricultural surveys with provision of a range of environmental and social benefits, in all these respects comparing favourably with large-scale agro-industrial operations.[128]
  • Economic Relocalistion, a key strategy within the Transition movement, examines opportunities to short-circuit supply and production chains that are unecessarily long by prioritising use of local goods and services.[129][130] Making the impacts of production and consumption directly visible to those who undertake them encourages accountability and conviviality, promoting a shift in economy from creation of fiscal value to satisfaction of needs within local ecological limits.[131] Assessment of the economic benefits of relocalisation in four key sectors (energy, housing, food and healthcare) undertaken by Transition Town Totnes showed a potential dividend to the local economy of up to GBP 50 million annually.[132]
  • Use of alternative entrepreneurial and economic models appropriate to the social, ecological and cultural conditions currently experienced by global society.[133][134]. A key example originating in the permaculture movement Regenerative Enterprise, in which businesses exist in order to create, and make available for social use, one or more of eight different forms of capital: financial, material, living, social, cultural, experiential, living and spiritual. Businesses in any locality interact as enterprise ecologies, specialising in producing different forms of capital and redistributing these in line with the ‘fair shares’ principle so that, for example, a highly financially productive enterprise might redirect fiscal surpluses to others generative of living, cultural or other capitals.[135] From this was developed the concept of Regenerative Capitalism, a global macro-economic model that seeks to be productive of all eight forms of capital, insofar as each contributes to human and planetary flourishing.[136]
  • Creation of local and community currencies that support local economies and are designed to promote ethics of sustainability, solidarity and inclusion. Such complementary currencies are already operating in several cities, municipalities and regions throughout Europe.[137][138][139][140]

SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Main page: SDG9

Community-led initiatives have long-been recognised as active sites of innovation that by changing infrastructures at local scale can increase the scope for overcoming lock-in to centralised infrastructures that are carbon-intensive and/or otherwise environmentally and socially damaging.[141] As what are known as Grssroots Innovations, they operate as experimental niches where innovation can take place largely free of the technological, social and cultural constraints of existing infrastructures and the various institutions that support them.[142] Results from the EU-funded PATHWAYS research project showed the great potential for grassroots innovations to help overcome path dependencies that currently hinder transitions towards sustainable infrastructure: early and substantial report for sustainable innovation niches would enable far deeper long-term cuts in carbon emissions and other environmental impacts than the current focus on greening existing forms of infrastructure.[143]

The EU-funded TRANSIT research project approached community-led initiatives as examples of transformative social innovations: changes in social relations, involving ‘new ways of doing, organising, knowing and framing’ [144] Social innovations are transformative when they ‘challenge, alter or replace the dominant ways of doing, thinking and organizating in society.[145] The TRANSIT project investigated 20 transnational networks and over 100 local initiatives across 27 countries, including community-led initiatives like Transition Towns and Ecovillages, social enterprise-oriented initiatives like Impact Hubs and Ashoka, education-focused initiatives like Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) and the Living Knowledge Network, peer-to-peer production initiatives like Hackerspaces and Fablabs, or policy-oriented initiatives like basic income and participatory budgeting. These promote more socially and environmentally responsible, ethical, solidarity and collaboration-based models of the economy, banking, agriculture, material production, design, education and community life.[146]

Specific innovations developed and implemented by CLIs are often based on permaculture, and involve identifying and adapting design patterns from nature in order to create infrastructural systems that maximise their capacity for self-maintenance, regeneration and flexible adaptation to changing circumstances at the same time as they minimise their reliance on external inputs of materials and energy.[147] Ecovillages and other intentional communities develop residential infrastructures that are both highly sustainable in their direct operations and supportive of social innovation for more sustainable lifestyles and livelihoods.[148][149][150] Wider infrastructural innovations include networks of cooperative banks that promote investment in community-centred and regenerative activity, community-owned renewable energy projecst and networks, and Community Land Trusts dedicated to holding land in community ownership and control in order to ensure that infrastructural development both serves community needs and has positive social and environmental impacts. Deeper transformation at regional scale becomes possible when multiple such initiatives converge such that each provides infrastructural services for the others, and the wider region, creating a more sustainable and resilient infrastructure that becomes increasingly accessible as a default.[151]

SDG10: Reduced Inequalities

Main page: SDG10

Community-led initiatives place close attention to addressing distributive and procedural inequalities. Sharing and cooperation are basic common values, put into practice by various mechanisms for fairer allocation of resources and inclusive governance. Central to both of these are commons and commoning as key organisational structures and strategies: where users and stakeholders co-organise on an inclusive basis to make decisions about management and use of resources that affect them.

Specific approaches include:

  • Promoting food sovereignty by developing new, often localised, production and supply chains that cultivate relationships between producers, land and consumers; improving access to fresh, healthy, natural foods, supporting financial sustainability of producers and freeing food supply from the control of large agribusiness and supermarket chains.[152] A 2015 report on community-supported-agriculture and similar food sovereignty initiatives (such as Italian solidarity purchasing) in Europe documented activity in at least 21 European countries and recorded 6,300 initiatives involving over one million consumers.[153]
  • Promoting energy sovereignty by creating community-owned renewable energy systems that allocate energy fairly, redistribute revenues to communities and community projects and reduce dependence on extractive industries supplying fossil fuels and nuclear power. The [REScoop] federation of European renewable energy cooperatives estimates A report on energy citizens from CE Delft (both RECs and prosumers estimates that by 2050, 83 per cent of homes in the EU (around 187 million households) could potentially become energy citizens and contribute to equitable renewable energy production, demand response and/or energy storage.[154]
  • Involving diverse participants and explicitly seeking to address social, racial, gender and other kind of inequalities.[155] This is in line with the 'Fair Shares' principle, one of the three permaculture ethics that are also central to the work of other CLI movements like ecovillages and Transition.
  • Provide and support innovative responses to crisis situations. Global Ecovillage Network's EmerGENcies programme, which brings support based on ecovillage experiences to communities that have faced displacement, migration or disaster. First addressing immediate crisis needs such as food, water, sanitation and housing it then supports long-term rehabilitation and recovery that draw on ecovillage design processes.[156][157]
  • Sicilia Integra

SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Main page: SDG11

Many ecovillages, co-housing projects and site-based permaculture projects were set up specifically in order to explore more sustainable ways of living, and in doing so innovated in ways that can inform wider transitions to sustainability.[158][159][160][161] Such practices are increasingly seen more widely, particularly in the Transition movement, which applies ideas from permaculture, ecovillages and elsewhere within existing communities of place in more urban settings, in order to redesign them in line with local concerns for sustainability.[162] Transition initiatives often build on earlier measures like Local Agenda 21, reinvigorating and updating them in line with current knowledge and circumstances.[163]. Transition has thus become part of an increasing proliferation of civil society initiatives whose work opens up new possibilities for sustainability transitions in urban settings. [164] [165][166][167]

Specific approaches and examples include:

  • Application of permaculture in the sustainable redesign of urban settlements, ranging from piecemeal interventions that connect as a 'distributed ecovillage'[168] through coordinated retrofitting of homes and neighbourhoods[169] to purposeful reconfiguration of the entire urban metabolism.[170]
  • Bristol in Southwest England, the world's first Transition city, has in this way become a patchwork of neighbourhood-scale projects in areas such as gardening, energy production, shared living, sustainability education, many now several decades old, linked by city-wide initiatives like the Bristol Pound, Bristol Energy Network and Bristol Food Policy Council[171][172][173]
  • Specific projects apparently focused on a specific issue often become gateways through which communities develop their capacity to respond to locally identified problems and to effect more widespread, sustainable change.[174] In many cities and towns, urban food growing projects become creative and discursive spaces where community materialises, mobilises and grows, enabling collective reappropriation and reimagination of city life by diverse communities of city dwellers, including Vienna,[175] various cities in the Netherlands,[176], Madrid [177] and Rome.[178] The Transition Streets project in Totnes, home of the first Transition Initiative, brought neighbours together to discuss and install domestic renewable energy generation and energy saving measures. While residents all achieved substantial energy and financial savings, in an independent evaluation of the project most participants highlighted building community through stronger relationships with neighbours as the main benefit.[179]
  • Communities are increasingly created, or taking part in, innovative spaces for dialogue towards shared action with different urban stakeholders, especially local government, creating connections across barriers of perception, understanding, goals and capabilities and creating new shared agendas for transitions to sustainable cities.[180] It is also important to seize the opportunities for innovative forms of transversal partnerships through a culturally sensitive local policy.[166][181][182] In 2017 Transition Network and the international network of Transition Hubs initiated a new project, Municipalities in Transition, to identify, document and learn from successful collaborations between Transition groups and municipal authorities, and create a Community of Practice to extend and deepen this learning and apply it more widely.[183]

SDG12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Main page: SDG12

Community-led initiatives promote more responsible consumption and production in various ways, many of them integral to their values, visions, aims and methods. Community-led and owned processes and institutions for organising production are increasingly in areas such as food,[184] energy,[185] and housing,[186], and may be supported by community currencies that embed principles and values of social and environmental responsibility.[187] Localising cycles of production, supply, use and disposal ensures that both positive and negative consequences of production and consumption are experienced by and visible to those who are directly involved. Circular economy and similar methods that emphasise cyclic rather than linear material flows allow fostering of synergies among local stakeholders and create feedback loops that enable adjustments in response to unanticipated negative impacts. [188]

Greater emphasis on satisfying needs and achieving well-being through creation and use of social rather than material capital has been identified as a key dimension of sustainability,[189] and is central to the promotion of more responsible consumption and production by CLIs. An emphasis on creating social capital (along with natural, cultural and other forms of capital) allows ecovillages have achieved reported levels of well-being equal to those of residents of affluent and prosperous North American urban neighbourhoods, based on far lower levels of material consumption.[190]. This is achieved through numerous strategies, found in different forms across the ecovillage movement: pooled economy, shared work, work-life balance, inclusive decision making, conflict resolution, limited hierarchy, dimensioned communal group, celebration, new values and common worldview, deeper personal relationships and openness, physical contact, child-centred perspective, selfdevelopment practices, inclusiveness, emphasis on arts and culture, healthy food, physical activity, proximity to nature, environmental activism and ecologically responsible behaviours.[191] Most ecovillages and co-housing projects have per capita ecological footprints far below national averages, for several reasons: lower per capita built area (due to the promotion of shared spaces), local and sustainable resources used and climate adapted buildings, renewable energy production, local food production and consumption (and mainly vegetarian diets) as well as low-carbon transportation (such as bikes and car sharing), and minimising and repurposing material waste.[192]

SDG13: Climate Action

Main page: SDG13

Community-led initiatives often foreground climate change as a key driver for action. The ways they do so, informed by holistic scientific approaches such as social-ecological resilience, tend to assume transformative perspectives in which fundamental systemic change is needed, not simply decarbonisation of existing systems.[193][194] A 2016 survey of over 300 individuals engaged in climate change mitigation action, including within CLIs, conducted by researchers at Edinburgh University, showed reported motivations to extend beyond environmental issues to also encompass social justice and economic concerns.[195] Actions are motivated by holistic analyses that transcend the distinction between mitigation and adaptation, such as that provided by social-ecological resilience, and span a range of physical, social and cultural fields of action.[196] They often involve self-monitoring and reflection, helping to nurture individual and collective responsibility as well as informs meaningful and effective action to reduce carbon footprints and build adaptive capacity in the face of both changing weather conditions and the social, economic and cultural changes demanded by a move away from fossil fuel dependency.[197][198] Many operate as commons, whereby inclusive and equitable processes for decision-making and allocation of shared resources create the responsiveness, flexibility and values-led orientation necessary to overcome current institutional and cultural barriers to decarbonisation.[199][200]

Climate action is one of the areas that has generated particularly deep partnerships, and forms of mutual learning, between community-led initiatives and researchers. An important analysis arising from this form of transdisciplinary collaboration calls for an emphasise on processes of change, including attention to learning, power, equity and relationships, with research reoriented from analysis to fostering practical action.. It identified ten key factors for effective community-led responses to the need to retain global temperature rises within a 1.5 C limit: enhanced adaptability; responsiveness to shocks and stresses; horizontal and cross-issue working; collaboration across social scales; fast and deep reductions carbon emissions; creation of shared narratives about climate change; direct engagement with emerging futures; attention to climate disadvantage; orientation towards processes and pathways and working for transformations towards resilience.[201] Increasingly, the perspectives and actions of community-led initiatives on climate change are shifting from becoming the object of research to vital dimensions of transdisciplinary research methods dedicated to directly helping to achieve resilience through practical action.[202]

SDG14: Life below Water

Main page: SDG14

The movements of community-led initiatives considered in this report are not specifically active protecting marine habitats. However, their activities do have indirect benefits for marine ecology, by reducing outputs of pollutions and wastes that ultimately reach aquatic habitats and cause damage, by reducing dependencies on fossil fuel extraction in offshore areas, promoting dietary choices that reduce pressure on overharvested fish stocks and other forms of marine life, and helping reduce ocean acidification associated with increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Traditional coastal and island communities play increasingly important roles in co-management programmes that seek to reconcile safeguarding local livelihoods based on marine resources with conservation and protection of aquatic life. Such actions take various forms, for example through transferring managemeny rights and resposibilities to municipalities in Norway,[203] rebuilding local and regional management institutions in ways that integrate the skills and interests of both indigenous and non-indigenous fishing communities in British Columbia,[204] and integrated management systems involving multiple stakeholders in the Netherlands.[205] It is possible these approaches could learn from and contribute actions by CLIs to help protect marine life.

SDG15: Life on Land

Main page: SDG15

Community-led initiatives often use ecologically regenerative methods that go beyond sustainable production and consumption and actually enhance the biotic and ecological richness of the spaces they inhabit, manage and use. In particular, permaculture is a design method based on working with and learning from nature, whose core principles are derived from observations of natural systems and understanding of the features that promote their sustainability and resilience.[206] This thinking not only informs approaches to agriculture, settlement design, land use and planning by CLIs, but is deeply integrated into social design as a way that embeds sustainability ethics as inseparable from human wellbeing.[207] Many CLIs thus operate on the basis of individual and shared conceptual models that challenge the perceived separation of humans and nature.[208][209] Practically, this promotes settlement designs, lifestyles and management practices that integrate natural processes and elements and supports more ecologically harmonious outcomes.[210][211]

Specific approaches include:

  • Promoting biodiversity and ecological integrity through maintenance and preservation of green open spaces. For example, Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Ireland limits construction to a third of its land, with a third dedicated to allotments and other green infrastructures and another third to reforestation dominated by native species.[212]
  • Preservation and revitalization of native habitats (wetlands, forests, etc.)[213] and wildlife.[214] In a survey of 29 showcase ecovillages conducted by Global Ecovillage Network, all but one reported that they actively work to restore degraded ecosystems, with 63 per cent saying they do it 'a lot'. 21 respondents gave figures for the areas of land they had reforested, with an average of 84 hectares per settlement and two, including Damanhur in Italy reporting over 200 hectares. Respondents also reported a range of other techniques to enhance or safeguard non-human life, including regenerative agriculture, afforestation, clean cookstoves, farmland restoration, water saving, composting, farmland irrigation nd production of biochar.[215]
  • Use of agroecological and agroforestry-based methods of food production rooted in local cultural and environmental conditions and able to mitigate climate change, increase biodiversity, increase soil quality and generate other socio-ecologic benefits.[216][217][218]
  • Promoting community gardens inspired by permaculture or organic/biodynamic agriculture, which can have significant benefits for food production knowledge and experience exchange, promote biodiversity, increase soil quality, improve food security and food sovereignty, build community, promote of social inclusion and gender and racial equity, supplementation of low pensions, and improve interactions and interdependences between people and nature.[219]

SDG16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Main page: SDG16

Community-led initiatives prioritise experimentation towards constructive social relationships, and have developed a large body practical knowledge and experience on collective decision-making, inclusive governance, personal and inter-personal development, conflict resolution and transformation, and community building.[220] These competences and skills provide tools both for creating and operating internal institutions that promote inclusion, solidarity, social harmonay and justice, and promoting peace, justice and cooperation more widely, for example through interventions in areas of long-term conflict or social division. The governance methods derived from them are increasingly applied and promoted more widely, as the organisational basis for translocal and cross-movement networks of CLIs and collaborations between CLIs and partners in other sectors.

Specific initiatives include:

  • The Chikukwa Project in Zimbabwe has trained around 50 villagers in conflict transformation. It has developed its own system that combines traditional social technologies with established tools from European CLIs networks, setting up local Building Constructive Community Relations (BCCR) groups in its six member villages. Local groups mobilise when conflict arises in their village, bringing together those involved and the wider community to identify the needs and intentions of those involved and work together to develop and enact solutions that address the root causes of the conflict.[221]
  • Tamera Ecovillage in Portugal is home to the Tamera Peace University, which offers courses on sustainable cultures of peace and follow-up workshops on community-building. Peace pilgrimages to areas like Colombia and Palestine link efforts to build harmonious communities locally with contributions to overcoming conflict and its consequences more widely, supporting reconciliation and forging lasting friendships and collaborations.[222]
  • Several permaculture projects in Israel and Palestine employ permaculture as a common language to overcome separation and build understanding and collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians, sometimes in the face of active repression by the authorities.[223] At Hava and Adam Eco-educational farm Israeli and Palestinian farmers work together to address land scarcity and climate change, for example using traditional irrigation techniques and planting practices, planting drought-tolerant native crops and using intensive cultivation techniques to grow more food in smaller spaces.[224]
  • Los Angeles Eco-Village in California was founded as part of community rebuilding efforts in Wilshire/Koreatown, a highly ethnically diverse neighbourhood that suffered great loss of life and physical damage during civil unrest sparked by institutional racism in 1992.Elsewhere in the USA, Growing Power in Milwaukee addresses what its founder Will Allen describes as food racism: the status of many African-American and Latino neighbourhoods across the country as 'food deserts'. Its urban farms, distribution hubs and retail outlets are the only sources of fresh, nutritious produce for most residents of an area where nutrition-related health problems are endemic.[225]
  • Many CLIs employ innovative methods for inclusive decision-making and decentralised, non-hierarchical organisation. A common and increasingly widely used example is Sociocracy, based on interacting circles of collaborators working in specific domains, each circle self-organised and self-governed and connected to those with common or overlapping interests via partially shared membership.[226] Sociocracy is the basis of decision-making in projects like Biovilla in Portugal, national networks like CELL in Luxembourg and international networks like Transition Network and ECOLISE. It is also the basis of governance in the international Municipalities in Transition project that explores collaborations between CLIs and municipalities worldwide: sociocratic circles take responsibility for key aspects of delivery and intersect with existing circles within Transition Network and the International Network of Transition Hubs, to whom the project is accountable, as well as other partners involved in the project, namely municipalities and researchers.[227]

SDG17: Partnership for the Goals

Main page: SDG17

Community-led initiatives operate in partnerships of multiple kinds, within and across locations, regions, movements, countries, sectors and other divisions. Many are themselves partnerships at local level: for example, Transition initiatives typically begin by identifying, contacting and beginning to develop links with and among groups and organisations already active in their community. Local initiatives open establish their own networks at regional level, national hubs nowadays operate in several dozen countries, and Transition Network cooperates with the network of national hubs to provide coordination and support for the movement as a whole. Ecovillages often form into national associations, which cooperate via regional networks in Europe, Africa, Latin America, North America and Asia/Oceania and GEN International as the global coordinating body.[228] Permaculture operates via national associations and regular meetings or convergences at regional, national and international levels, including an International Permaculture Convergence (IPC) held in a different country every two years. Between the 14th IPC in Cuba in 2013 and 15th IPC in London in 2015, key organisers in the international permaculture movement faciliated a global consultation called Permaculture's Next Big Step, to identify aims and possibilities for strategic movement-wide action at global level.[229] The network issued a climate change statement and action plan on behalf of the international permaculture movement at the London IPC in 2015,[230] and has established the permaculture CoLab in order to develop and implement tools and methods for effective collaboration across a decentralised global network.[231] Such translocal networks also exist in numerous other movements of community-led initiatives, and have great, if not yet fully realised, potential to exert a transformative influence on social, economic and political institutions that are currently locked in to socially and environmentally destructive patterns incompatible with progress on the SDGs.[232]

Cross-movement partnerships and collaborations are becoming increasingly important. In Europe, national and international networks in the ecovillage, permaculture and Transition movements came together to found ECOLISE as a common platform for networking, collaboration, learning and policy advocacy in 2014.[233] ECOLISE builds in wider partnership by including among its members organisations that do not represent CLIs directly, but support them through specialised expertise in areas such as research, education, project delivery and communications, along with the ICLEI network for sustainability action among municipal authorities.[234] It also collaborate with CLIs and related movements beyond its member networks, for example as a member of Climate Action Network Europe, and with key allies within the EU like the European Economic and Social Committee and Committee of the Regions.

Partnerships are also widespread at local/regional and national levels. The Living in Sustainable Villages project is run by GEN Germany in cooperation with local authorities in Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Baden-Württemberg. Five established ecovillages (Sieben Linden, Lebensgarten Steyerberg, Gastwerke Escherode, Schloss Tonndorf and Schloss Tempelhof) work in partnership with conventional communities experiencing declines in the social, cultural and economic quality of village life. Ecovillages work with their partner villages to develop a positive vision of their community's future, with the aim of creating a village sustainability plan and fostering the linkages, learning and mutual support among people, places and organisations necessary for its implementation.[235] In Portugal, ecovillages, transition groups, permaculture projects and other sustainability initiatives use the national Redeconvergir online mapping platform as a tool to promote visibility, interconnection and collaboration among each other and to the wider world, supported by technical assistance from the University of Lisbon.[236] In the UK, Ctrl Shift arose as a new alliance of progressive organisations in response to the political and social crisis emphasised by the Brexit referendum, in order to create a broader base for exploring, creating and enacting grassroots progressive alternatives to current systems.[237]


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