Talking social economy in a world of extremes

Published on December 18, 2014 in Blog
Frances Northrop by Abigail Sykes & Landets Fria Tidning
Frances Northrop of Transition Town Totnes on her visit to Sweden for the Annual National Transition Conference


Planes, Design and Warm Welcomes

“Wow yes I’d love to go to Sweden” I said back in May when I was passed on an email from Elinor Askmar who was asking for someone to come to the second Annual National Transition Conference of Sweden to speak about how transition was flourishing across the world, and in particular REconomy.

Fast forward 5 months and I was sitting in a plane on the runway at Heathrow in what was effectively a plane jam. Not feeling quite so enthusiastic then. Having closed one route in, precedence was being given to long haul flights and we were effectively in the ‘steerage’ class, ten a penny short haul flights with lots of Europe rendered closer and (supposedly) easier to get to than the Highlands by cheap air travel.

Sweden PosterThis gave me plenty of time to mull over whether my travelling all the way from Totnes to Gothenburg to share my experience was really the best way of growing the movement. Definitely something for a later blog – How do we spread the word about REconomy when our way of doing things in the UK is being adopted and remoulded for the culture of the place it is in, and increasingly no one is an ‘expert’, wherever they are from?

Anyhow, back to beautiful Sweden, which of course I was hugely grateful to be visiting as soon as I landed. Starting at the airport I was completely seduced by the Scandinavian design which began before I’d even left the luggage hall. Driving through the suburbs of Gothenburg with Elinor I admired the clean lines and simple beauty of the houses and their interiors that I glimpsed. This idea that beautiful and functional everyday objects should not only be affordable to the wealthy, but to all, a core theme in the development of modernism and functionalism appeals to me hugely and I think has real, positive implications for transition as we move to a place of less, but better quality and well designed ‘stuff’.

Sweden HouseDecamping at the community house Elinor shares with several other people was a real treat, I was given a lovely welcome and some delicious soup and then shown to my room which was a very sweet cabin out in the garden. Lying in my bed that first evening I felt really content and at home. Given my warm welcome wasn’t a huge surprise However it dawned on me later that it was also because the cushion in my room was the same as the ones we had at home – from IKEA of course (not quite the sustainable business model I had in mind!)

A Workshop Futures Week

Entrepreneurship, Neo-Liberal Approach and the Value of Youth (!)

The next day I was well rested and we embarked into Gothenburg by bus and tram to hold a workshop which was one of the final events of the Futures Week being run by Elinor and her colleagues. This workshop was a really interesting proposition, offered to people who work within the municipality of Gothenburg and those who worked within the social economy (business counselling, social entrepreneurs, organisations etc.).

Welcome SwedenFollowing a presentation by me on the actions we have taken to build a culture of entrepreneurship in Totnes we held a world café session for people to talk about what was there in Gothenburg to support this culture already, what was missing and how the gaps could be filled. I hosted a table and the conversation was fascinating.  I hosted three groups and in each the dominant topic of conversation was how you move from a society where the role of the state is huge to one where entrepreneurial spark can exist.

These conversations centred around how the UK has more entrepreneurs as we have been increasingly following a neo liberal approach to the economy and the inherent tensions in those two models as an either/or approach.  Not for the first time I was left thinking what a valuable role a social economy could take in providing a viable answer to this world of extremes in which we find ourselves.

Following the workshop was a truly inspiring visit to the base of Transition Gothenburg, a fantastic space containing a bike fixing workshop, clothing library and upcycling studio, hackerspace and meeting room. Full of young people chatting and doing, it summed up for me what happens when younger people get involved in Transition, they bring energy, insight and creative ideas which add rich layers to the work of the older people in our movement.

The Conference

REconomy Where We Live

Common Cause Network SwedenThe next morning was the conference itself and I made my own way there, walking through a beautiful old cemetery to get to the venue, a lovely time for reflection before the day ahead. And what a day it was. Held beautifully by Elinor and her friends and colleagues you could clearly see the time and effort that had been put into it but everyone was really relaxed and it ran incredibly smoothly. The day went by in a blur.

My presentation on what was happening across the world in the movement and then more focussed in on REconomy was followed by some great questions about the detail of what we were doing and others talking about how REconomy was manifesting where they lived. This segued nicely into my afternoon workshop on that very topic and there was much food for thought generated by the tables here that was brought to the open space the following day to discuss how Transition Sweden might support its growth. Other workshops were also held, one on Common Cause being particularly popular.

As the day outside grew dark I gave an interview to Abigail Sykes of Landetsfria paper and then went back inside to enjoy the evening of music and poetry which rounded off a really rewarding day.

Saying goodbye, with thanks

IMG_2634After a sound sleep in my lovely cabin I made my way back to the airport, sad to miss day two of the conference which promised to be as good as the first. As I made my way from the taxi into the airport I was treated to one last reminder of the lesson Sweden had demonstrated to me everywhere I went – pots outside the entrance to departures contained not flowers but intricately frilled ornamental cabbages – the lesson that simple and useful things can, and should, be beautiful.

With huge thanks to Elinor, Lovisa, Gilbert and the the hackerspace chap who I never got the name of but whose knowledge of tech was invaluable, both at the hub and at the conference itself.


Blog by Frances Northrop Transition in Action Manager of Transition Town Totnes

Special thanks to Abigail Sykes and Landets Fria Tidning for the header photo of Frances in this piece.