Thursday 20 December 2012

Strategic Thinking or The Library at the End of the World

I knew, as soon as the Man in Seat 61 (c) got on at Colchester, that it was a Sign.

I have been away for a week, he told his fellow commuter, and no more was said between them. It's the influenza season, where public places are a maelstrom of invisible bugs and viruses, waiting to wreak their pesky havoc on the lumbering forms who haven't stepped up their immune systems with echinacea and oranges.

Three days later I found myself in bed unable to get back on the train to London, or even to go outside, and now, dear reader, still horizontal and faced with the awesome prospect of having to write about Strategic Thinking, I fear I am not up to the task. So please bear with me. I will write this introduction to the Building section  (on the Social Reporting Project series about The Transition Companion) as soon as I can.

You may be wondering why I have a photograph of Mark Bee, leader of Suffolk County Council (with various members of Sustainable Bungay peering quizzically at him) here and why I am including a trailer for the new documentary, Chasing Ice (see end of post). But it will make sense. I promise you, by Thursday at the latest.

Some people say the world is coming to an end on Friday. Well maybe not literally, but some tear in the fabric that brings about a collapse in our civilisation. However it plays out it is the end of a long, long cycle of time, mapped out by a people whose own high city culture tumbled into ruin in the forests of the Yucatan.

Sometimes I feel ancient, as though I have seen it all before, and sometimes I feel like a being from the future, starting again with an entirely new bluepint. Sometimes, when I listen to people talk, I think we have learned nothing, in spite of all the books and buildings and all our thinking. But that, as they say, is another story . . .

Part Two: Perseverance Furthers
Transition groups aim ultimately to catalyse the localisation of their local economy. They strive to move from running small community projects to thinking and acting much bigger. New skills and ways of thinking will lead Transition initiatives to become social enterprises, such as becoming developers, banks, energy companies and so on. (Intro to the Building Section of The Transition Companion)
 The main purpose of this Ingredient is to glean knowledge about a local region and what it would take to relocalise the supply systems - the food economy, for example, or energy or transport. It requires undertaking research and amass data that most initiatives would not know how to access, or why. One of the example Rob Hopkins uses to illustrate what is meant by Strategic Thinking is the Norwich Resilient Food Plan.

Which is why here I am almost at the end of 2012, looking back at a cold day in January in the Baptist church on Boltolph Steet, four years ago where 17 of us - a farmer, a miller, several bakers, wholefood shopkeepers, the TN Oats, Beans and Bread group, Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Institute (researching wheat that can thrive in eco-systems undergoing climate change) and Andrew Whitley of The Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters - are meeting to discuss Resilient Bread. It’s a project aiming to create a sustainable supply of bread for Norwich, using locally milled flour from English wheat, grown on Norfolk farms. One of the components of the Plan that also includes a CSA and a market garden in a local school.
The ingredients for real bread are simple - flour, water, salt, yeast. Bringing a resilient local loaf into Norwich is more complex. The mega-distribution system of the big three industrial bakeries have trucks perpetually on the road travelling 200 miles transporting ready-sliced to the city’s 122,000 inhabitants daily. They are roaring across East Anglia from Stevenage, London and Enfield. To feed Norwich sustainably would require 30 tonnes of wheat and several local mills. On the agenda that day in January were questions about the supply chain: quantity of flour, storage and transportation of grain, the price of a loaf, the feasibility of setting up and maintaining an electric mill in the city, the packaging and marketing of the loaves.

East Anglia has arable land for growing the wheat but few working mills. The first challenge for the project is to find a mill in the city to grind the corn. The nearest wind or water mills are 25-30 miles away. The other is the quality of the wheat. The gluten content of bread is a key consideration in baking. Wheat has a very high gluten content (between 12-15 per cent) which gives the dough its extraordinary elasticity and ability to be moulded into the hundreds of shapes in which we have historically consumed it. Artisan bakers in England have been using commercial Canadian flour for decades because its exceptionally high gluten levels makes the light and fluffy white loaf we have got used to. The lower gluten content of our native wheat is compensated for by the industrialised "Chorleywood process".

“No one is going to buy a bad bloomer”, said one of the bakers rather gloomily; “You could call it ciabatta,” another quipped, and there was a long discussion as to how we were going to get over the fact that life was unpredictable and that white and fluffy was not the future. It felt it was going to take some time for all of us to get used to the idea.

Tully Wakeman (the architect of that plan and then a director of East Anglian Food Link) asked me to write up that meeting and it was the first record I made within the initiative. It kickstarted the kind of reporting I have been doing in in Transition ever since. This tiny pic of me going to a neighbourhood bread baking workshop in Yoxford a month later - by a fellow participant on her phone - was the moment where I realised the potential for writing "citizen journalism", small on the ground stories that could grab people's attention about change.

What happened to the plan? you might ask. Well, Tully left Transition Norwich before the CSA (Norwich FarmShare) reaped its first harvest. A small and handsome electric mill did get bought, but the resilient loaf of Norwich did not get baked (well not commercially anyhow). Great British Beans however, which came out of the same staples project, are launching themselves on to the market in January. The bread we buy at Southwold Market is made with flour grown by the farmer at the original meeting. I look at the fields outside my door and recognise peas, oats, barley, potatoes, where once they meant nothing.

The Building section is about stepping up the enterprise. As a comms person this has meant moving from being a personal blogger in my local initiative, to running a national newspaper (Transition Free Press) as a social enterprise. That's a big undertaking that involves thinking about a crew, discussing pieces with people all around the UK and the world, advertising, social media, crowd-funding. It involves risk and 12 hour shifts. Sometimes I look back fondly at the days when I could just write about what was happening in my neighbourhood, stepping out into the frosty lane with my camera, learning how to bake bread. There was a beauty and a lightness to do with those days. But Building is a bigger move. You can't do Transition for real, and stay where you feel small and cosy.

In fact you can't do anything and stay small. If we had stayed small in Bungay there would be no library. The reason we are looking quizzically at Mr Bee, is because we know that in spite of all his words about Bungay Community Library celebrating its 20th Birthday, Suffolk Country Council were famous for zealously wanting to close libraries down. Only some people from the communities in North Suffolk got together and forced them back. What you don't know about this picture at the top is that Sylvia (just out of shot) and James Hargrave (who took the picture) and several others put hundreds of hours of unpaid work into keeping it open. And still do.

So I'm guessing you are wondering what on earth any of this has got to do with a documentary about glaciers. There is one word: perseverance. None of these enterprises work without a big desire or sense of destiny.

You can't photograph the movement of glaciers, without going to extreme places and suffering. You can't save a library, start a collective blog, or run a community bakery, without the kinds of people who are prepared to put themselves on the line against all odds. Norwich FarmShare would not have happened without Tully who pursued a funding application over two years. It wouldn't have worked either, if it had just stayed as a Plan and other Transitioners hadn’t stepped on board to manifest it. So no matter how brilliantly you understand the ingredient of Strategic Thinking, with its data and analysis, maps and bigger picture thinking. it's the people who will make the blueprints work, who translate them into physical reality.

We live in a culture where we think to have an idea is enough and that anyone can do it. If you can bake bread you can start a bakery, right? This section is where those ideas fall down hard. To relocalise a food supply doesn’t happen by growing vegetables in an allotment, you have to look at the staples and where they grow. Transition teaches us that to really succeed we have to know a lot, put in a lot of unpaid hours, and keep going, for reasons only we know. And most of all have the kind of people on board who know what they are doing. That's not strategy. That's something more like luck.

Thank your lucky stars when you find them. . . .

Post originally posted on Social Reporting Project
Images: Mark Bee and Sustainable Bungay by James Hargrave (the only geek in the village) Local bread in Breakfast with Friends by Mark Watson; Steve Winter of Dozen Bakery, Norwich by Jane Chittenden (Transition Norwich blog)

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