Governance in community-led initiatives

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The sustainability crisis is above all a crisis of democracy, reflecting appropriation of national and EU politics by vested financial interests and consequent political disenfranchisement of the wider population. The rhetoric of ‘sustainable development’ evades attention to the roots causes of sustainability and marginalises meaningful approaches that question the status of GDP growth, emphasise the importance of the commons, promote regenerative solutions and mobilise social solidarity economy as a means to embed principles of sustainability and social justice in the everyday organisation of economic life. This is a symptom of deeper structural incompatibility between centralised and hierarchical allocation of decision-making power and the possibility of an inclusive and sustainable society.

Community-led initiatives model inclusive forms of governance that fully empower participants in relation to all decisions affecting their lives. More widely adopted at multiple scales, these can provide the basis for genuinely democratic systems that can first operate co-exist with, and ultimately replace, current political systems. One example is sociocracy, a system of governance that seeks to create harmonious social environments as well as productive organizations and businesses. It is distinguished by the use of consent rather than majority voting in decision-making, and decision-making following open discussion by people who know each other. It provides a coherent set of principles based on patterns for collaboration, to navigate complexity, adapt and evolve based on learning from experience and accommodation to changing circumstances, understandings and needs.

(Findings on CLI Governance from the TESS Research Project: need revision)

  • The most common organizational form of a CBI is a cooperative. This is evenly distributed among the represented countries. [1]
  • A quarter of the initiatives declared the absence of a legal form, often presenting it as an identifying characteristic of their organisation, as any assigned legal status could put boundaries to their activities or contradict their attempt to develop an alternative way to manage resources and relationships.[1]
  • Out of 63 community-based initiatives, 15 have no office spaces dedicated to the initiative (two in the UK, three in Finland, three in Germany, three in Italy, four in Romania), which means that their members work and/or meet at home or in a “public space loaned/free use” in order to run the initiative and their activities. The remaining CBIs make use of an indoor space which may be an office or other kind of space. Out of 63 CBIs, only 14.3% have access to land or another outdoor space. [1]
  • In most cases, the decision-making process is based on full participation and consensus. In cases like these, the goal of the process is to find common ground and to stimulate discussions until the group reaches mutual agreement by addressing all concerns. [1]
  • In some cases decision-making is more structured. It might be based on general assemblies, meeting of the board of directors, committees, etc. CBIs requiring more professionalism, lobbying and policy making activities, tend to have a more hierarchical organisational structure.[1]
  • Note: Though consensus can take longer than other decision-making methods, it also fosters creativity, cooperation and commitment to final decisions and activities. In particular, the group participants of the CBI can often be split into small sub-operational groups, each one responsible for organizing and carrying out one or more specific activities/tasks. [1]

Examples of CLI Governance

Governance in the Transition Movement

Transition Network, the coordination and support body for the international Transition movement, adopted a new shared governance model in 2018 following extensive consultation within the wider movement aimed at clarifying its organisational purpose. The model, adopted in order to address that purpose and influenced sociocracy and related methods, is considered to be an ongoing experiment and anticipated to change as needed over time. It is based on uptake by people within the team of roles identified as necessary to fit agreed purposes, with defined responsibilities assigned to these roles. Roles are self-organised into circles that reflect their overlaps and interconnections, and in which each role exercises equivalent power guided by the purpose of the role, circle and organisation. Roles and circles are considered to have authority in their area of responsibility. Individuals within roles and circles are expected to seek out relevant information, advice and feedback, and to anticipate and transparently communicate ways in which their activities might impact others. Circles adjust the range and nature of their constituent roles, and identify and resolve tensions among them, at periodic meetings. Decision-making is primarily based on consent and other participatory methods, part of a dynamic overall steering process that seeks to maintain momentum through small incremental steps and rapid and pragmatic adjustment to changing circumstances, understandings and needs.

The governance model is supported by a set of explicit relational agreements designed to cultivate and healthy collaborative group culture. These agreements include accountability for actions taken and not undertaken, self-awareness of personal needs and impacts on others, cultivating and regularly expressing appreciation, communicating with respect and compassion for self and others, offering and receiving feedback in healthy ways, cultivating resilience to conflicts, becoming adequately resourced, materially and emotionally, for collaboration, and exercising sovereignty via agency, setting and respecting boundaries, saying ‘no’ when necessary, voicing reasonable objections, recognising and naming conflict, and honouring and expressing the diversity of experience within these processes.

The governance model and associated agreements aim to support dynamic and creative collaborations within which individuals are empowered to take action, which is recognised as the essence of Transition throughout the movement. They are designed to help explore effective ways or working that are responsive change while remaining faithful to organisational purpose, to mobilise collective intelligence and diverse perspectives to energise and inform action, to ensure visibility and distribution of power, to create a more resilient and agile overall working structure. Their overall result is that Transition Network is governed as a commons, in which staff and trustees agree on how best to mobilise material and immaterial resources and allocate associated responsibilities in fulfillment of its aims.

(notes from Feola study)

  • "Transition initiatives consider that among the organisation factors, two areas can be distinguished: outreach and internal group management" [2]
  • "The majority of transition initiatives (64%) were constituted in a legal form and were officially recognised by the Transition Network (57%). On average, it took transition initiatives 10 months to become official." [2]
  • "Conflicts were, in general, minor and resolved. 49 transition initiatives had had no significant conflict. Reasons for conflicts were i) strategy, direction and priorities of the transition initiative (55 transition initiatives), ii) decision-making, responsibilities or internal management (including time management and leadership) (36 transition initiatives), iii) issues in a specific project (e.g. how to develop an activity) (25 transition initiatives), iv) personalities (9 transition initiatives), and v) communication with other actors (how to do it and what message to communicate) (7 transition initiatives). The vastly predominant strategy for conflict resolution was based on discussion, mediation and consensus-building, which either followed a formal or a more spontaneous protocol, but in several cases (10 transition initiatives) one or more persons left the group after the conflict (not shown in table)." [2]

Governance of the Centre for Ecologial Learning Luxembourg (CELL)

The Centre for Ecological Learning Luxembourg (CELL) is a national and regional hub for permaculture and Transition, legally structured as a non-profit organisation. It operates as a commons and in addition supports establishment of new organisations for creation and management of common pool resources. Relationships with related organisations are cooperative in nature, enacting an ecological model in which each helps create conditions for the success of others. CELL is currently developing design and consultancy services as an income-generating regenerative enterprise. Resulting financial surpluses will be redistributed through its organisational ecology towards citizen groups whose activities do not generate income. This is one way in which CELL cultivates conditions for the emergence of a constellation of organisations with diverse legal forms, pursuing distinct specific objectives within a common aim of promoting societal and environmental health through citizen-led responses to climate change.

A key project that has emerged from CELL is TERRA (Transition and Education for a Resilient and Regenerative Agriculture), a food-growing, educational and community-building project founded in 2014. TERRA operates a form of community-supported agriculture (equivalent to AMAPs in France and Solidarlandwirtschaft in Germany) a relatively new model of food production and distribution that rests on cooperative legal forms and seeks to blur the distinction between consumer and producer. TERRA operates as a cooperative society whose 150 members act as co-owners and co-managers. It supports three paid employees whose work constitutes an ongoing programme of action learning on soil regeneration, agroecology, popular education, and use of social technologies: running the farm, distributing weekly produce shares to members, and organising learning events and seasonal celebrations. After only one year TERRA had increased availability of locally produced organic food and achieved measurable improvements in soil quality, showing concrete progress towards its long-term aim of combining physical and social techniques to help build a more climate-resilient food system.

Governance at Biovilla

Another example of a commons-based system of governance inspired by permaculture design is [ Biovilla], a Portuguese sustainability co-op, founded in 2010 and focused on Nature Tourism, education for sustainability and landscape regeneration. Biovilla is moving towards a Sociocratic governance model based on the horizontal concepts of zoning, closed-cycles, interdependency, systems thinking and possibility management. This allows it to have a flexible, transparent and constantly adapting organizational ecosystem. Each member is considered to have an equal share in the social capital and all members take part in all major decisions. New technological solutions such as WhatsApp support these inclusive processes, helping groups to stay connected.

Biovilla seeks to demonstrate the concept of tri-dimensional alignment within an organisation. This proposes that true sustainability can only emerge when the legal framework is fully aligned with the governance system, and in turn with decision-making processes and finally the organisation’s principles, values and mission. So managing the commons is about more than cooperative ownership: it also implies democratic, transparent, engaging and participatory management of the collective means of production.

The EDGE Governance Proposal

Based on broader upscaling and outscaling of similar principles, and also strongly influenced by sociocracy, Andy Goldring, Chief Executive of the Permaculture Association (Britain), has proposed an ‘EDGE governance’ model to enable more effective organisation of civil society organisations in order to bring about necessary change.[3] The model consists of interconnected governance structures at multiple scales: collaborations between civil society organisations and government at local and regional scales, new collaborative structures sitting alongside and holding to account governments at national, continental and global scales, and thematic structures to provide strategic guidance at local and regional levels and ensure accountability at higher levels.

Governance nodes at the different levels within the structure operate semi-autonomously and are open to any stakeholders at the respective scale able to demonstrate a proven commitment to ecological and social well-being. Each operates as an EDGE: an Emergent Dynamic Governance Ecosystem. An EDGE is emergent because its properties can not be anticipated in advance of the collaboration, dynamic both because they seek to bring about change and themselves change in the process of doing so, governance systems because they seek to achieve defined collective goals, and ecosystems because they are composed of separate organisational structures in interrelationships consisting of material and informational exchange, Each EDGE is envisaged to act as an action learning unit, devising and testing solutions to identified problems and sharing learning within and across scales through multiple networks of communication.

The EDGE model seeks to activate the full potential of networked governance, fully harnessing the collaborative potential of communications technologies and adequate to finding collective solutions to current ecological crises. It represents a potential framework for socially and ecologically responsible governance at all levels, able to devise and implement economic models appropriate to ecological realities and societal needs and support management of commons for regenerative purposes, including appropriate forms of solidarity economy.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Celata, F., Hendrickson, C., 2016. Case study integration report (TESS Project Deliverable No. 4.1).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Feola, G., Nunes, R., 2014. Success and failure of grassroots innovations for addressing climate change: The case of the Transition Movement. Global Environmental Change 24, 232–250.
  3. Goldring, A., 2018. EDGE Project: Emergent Dynamic Governance Ecosytems. New Shape Library.