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9 Jul 2012

A taste of Transition in Switzerland: a guest post from Naresh Giangrande

Panel discussion at the Climate Alliance conference. Photo:Roland Stuermer.

Switzerland is a country that comes pre-wrapped with a smorgasbord (oh, wrong country) of national stereotypes- chocolate, mountains, well organised, clocks, and trains that run like, er, clockwork. And it lives up to those expectations. Its approach to environmental issue runs to type. The level of public buy in to the city scale roll out of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures is impressive, top down (mainly) and communicated in well thought through multi decadinal plans and policies. This might hold one of the clues as to why Transition seems to be taking off rather slowly in Switzerland. They seem to be actively creating the transition we need especially at the technical level, with businesses playing their part – and being rather good at spotting business opportunities. Although of the participants told we the Swiss are just good at looking like they are doing something!

I was invited to a Climate Alliance conference, to speak on some of the ways forward to a 2000 watt society. A 2000 watt society is the Climate Alliance’s rather technical way of expressing that we will have to cut our energy consumption by 2/3rds and move to renewables for most of the remainder. Climate Alliance is an alliance of cities, primarily in Germany and Switzerland, with none in the UK or most other European countries.

They are aligned to the Covenant of Mayors.  I can see significant synergies for both of those initiatives, working with Transition groups in those cities. Transition can deliver some of the engagement and excitement that a citizen led approach holds, and the local government providing valuable technical knowhow and lending its considerable weight in policy directives, planning, and financial muscle.

The city of St Gallen (see right), where the conference was held, for instance is in the middle of rolling out a programme of retrofitting existing buildings (they face similar challenges to the UK and most of Europe having mostly old and poorly insulated building that they don’t want to pull down), an integrated public transport policy (which having used it for 2 days- ran like er clockwork), and renewable energy programme integrating solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal.  All impressive stuff and well funded and designed by in house teams of considerable technical and financial expertise.

Interestingly, they saw the fact that having most of their public services in house as a district advantage in being able to change policies and instigate new programmes. If those services were privatised the technical expertise wouldn’t be available, and the city would be locked into long term contracts that would be prohibitively expensive to break. Is this a lesson in resilience? By privatising public services are we locking ourselves into unresponsiveness in a fast changing and uncertain world?

Countries like Switzerland, having few or no indigenous fossil fuel resources are unsurprisingly at the forefront of the solar revolution. Whereas the USA and UK are way behind, and are facing major social and technological challenges owing to the ‘fossil fuel curse’. There seems to be a broad consensus for tackling climate change and energy issues.

One participant told me that the release of the IPCC 2007 report was a top news story for weeks and the shock waves reverberated through the media for longer. So maybe this is a clue as to why Transition is finding difficulty gaining traction? There is a high degree of institutional, and public, awareness of environmental issues. As a result the Swiss find themselves at a technical and competitive advantage in having lower social energy costs as a society, and are, increasingly, owners of technical innovations. They are in a similar position to Germany who recently found themselves in a position where renewable energy was too cheap to metre.

My first day in Zurich was kindly organised  by Jair Stern of Transition Switzerland, and included a visit to The Hub, a part of the international hub network, for a brown bag lunch with social entrepreneurs; students at ETH, the polytechnic , and an evening talk to a cooperative housing project . Notwithstanding the impressive technical achievement above, there is still a sense of urgency amongst environmentally aware folks that time is short and we are not making enough progress as we need to be.

The Swiss I talked to are all impressed with Transition’s record of citizen engagement and our attention to the inner aspects of Transition; why change happens and how to create change for example. I found myself talking about not just Transition enterprises, numbers of communities that have come on board, and the many other achievements of Transition Initiatives, but also the way in which we are starting to look at well being and how Transition can deliver not just the physical infrastructure of the transition, but increasing human well being.

It remains to be seen if the technical based top down approach will deliver the level and scale of transition, and energy descent necessary. One insight into this was a session I attended at the conference about whether the coming transition would require changes in lifestyles or not. No one, in that session of 60 mainly government employees, was even willing to present the case for ‘green growth’.

Switzerland as a country is booming due to the ‘safe haven’ perception and vast inflows of foreign capital. They are clearly benefiting in the current crisis, and this is also a reason why many Swiss seem reluctant to engage with Transition. Several Swiss I talked to viewed this situation as a trap (in complex adaptive systems terms a rigidity trap), an inflating bubble, that would burst later than most places, visiting a unmanageable level of change in a short period of time to a population unable to or unskilled at dealing with change.  They are also like the rest of us maintaining a growth based mentality and economic system which has no resilience to a negative or no growth environment.

In stable times complexity can be manageable, but in times of rapid change even well organised systems can be overwhelmed. The Swiss might be leaving themselves with a mountain to climb.

Naresh Giangrande