Community-led initiatives and research

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Community-led initiatives (CLIs) all incorporate experimentation and learning, and many undertake their own research. Despite the prospects this raises for frutiful relationships between community-led initiatives and research, power imbalances and cultural differences affecting the ways formal research is resourced and conducted mean this has yet to reach its full potential. However, recent years have seen several key initiatives that seek to address this, including major new formal research projects and attempts by key networks of CLIs to develop their own research capacity.

Research About, With, For and By Community-Led Initiatives

Combining Stephen Sterling's framework of three levels of sustainability education[1] with the distinction between Mode 1 (detached) and Mode 2 (engaged) science,[2] allows us to identify three major forms of research involving community-led initiatives:[3]

  • Research about CLIs: using conventional methodologies, with all aspects of the research process determined by the interests and capabilities of professional researchers attached to universities and other formal institutions (Mode 1).
  • Research with CLIs: co-designed and jointly executed by CLIs and professional researchers using a range of participatory methodologies, seeking to address practical needs and interests of CLIs as well as academic questions and recognising the skills and knowledge of CLIs and people within them as equally important as those of academics (Mode 2).
  • Research by and for CLIs: initiated by CLIs in response to their own self-determined needs and interests, generally deploying existing social processes and action learning methodologies and with researchers involved (if at all) in support of these practical aims.

More tentatively, in relation to the concept of autopoiesis as a form of self-organisation in complex systems, these three forms have been characterised in relation to the activities of CLIs as, respectively, allopoietic (independently organised), heteropoietic (mutually supportive separate systems), and autopoietic (interdependent and mutually generative).[4]

Research in all three of these modes has been, and remains, important in advancing understandings of and action by CLIs.

Research about Community-led Initiatives

CLIs of all kinds have provoked much interest among academic researchers at all levels, who have initiated their own projects with CLIs as the topic or object of research. Such studies can provide very useful insights, in particular when they provide overviews and detached, integrated and/or comparative perspectives that might not be easily accessible to participants in CLIs themselves. In addition, many CLIs lack the time, energy, skills and/or inclination to document and evaluate their work effectively, which researchers working in a Mode 1 orientation may be able to provide.

A downside to working this way is that research can become a drain on the time, energy and resources of CLIs, sometimes providing little or no tangible benefit in the short or long term. Accumulated experiences of this kind have led some CLIs and movements of CLIs to become wary of researchers and reluctant to become involved in research. Others have created guidelines or established conditions under which they will and will not collaborate with researchers.[5]

On the other hand, some CLIs who have hosted researchers have found inherent value in the experience. This is particularly the case when researchers integrate their data collection in the activities of the group via participant observation or other collaborative methods. A temporary supportive visitor to a group may provide a welcome change in the social dynamic, and interviews with a researcher a welcome opportunity to pause and reflect on their work in ways they might not otherwise have done.

Recognising the potential value of research, and seeking to create conditions that favour mutually beneficial collaboration, some CLIs take active steps fo accommodate researchers. Christiania ecovillage in Copenhagen maintains a research house to offer accommodation to visiting researchers.

Important Mode 1 research projects and programmes involving CLIs include:

Grassroots innovations
A research programme led by Sussex University and the University of East Anglia examining community-scale projects as experimental niches prefiguring and helping to bring about wider change.[6]
Towards European Societal Sustainability (TESS)
The FP7-funded TESS Project sought to assess the success, limitations and upscaling potential of community-based sustainability initiatives and identify factors affecting these. Based on case studies of 63 CLIs in 6 countries it provided important insights into key areas such as contributions of community-led initiatives to GHG reductions, social impacts of community-led initiatives and economic impacts of community-led initiatives.
Failure and Success of Transition Initiatives (FaST)
A comprehensive global survey of local initiatives in the Transition movement conducted at Reading University provides important insights into patterns of growth, success, stagnation, decline and failure of initiatives and general factors that influence these.
Research in Degrowth
A wide-ranging programme by researchers associated with the Degrowth movement at Barcelona Autonomous University and other institutions, providing a wide-ranging and comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding the nature of, prospects for and barriers to inclusive transitions to sustainability, backed up by numerous case studies and analyses of community-scale transformative initiatives.
Seeds of Good Anthropocenes
Documenting community-scale projects worldwide that demonstrate Anthropocene consciousness in action.
Transformative Social Innovation Theory (TRANSIT)
The FP7-funded TRANSIT research project developed a new middle-range theory of [transformative social innovation], grounded in empirical data and used to explore case studies of twenty key global networks of transformative initiatives.[7] Although using Mode 1 approaches, being designed and directed by researchers, the core research team's strong familiarity with and support of the aims of case study networks meant academic aims were closely aligned with needs for new understanding on the part of the networks themselves. As a consequence, results have had significant conceptual and strategic importance to participants, and the project shows certain qualities of Mode 2 research.

Research with Community-led Initiatives

Although still rarely supported by funding programmes or institutional priorities, Mode 2 research is becoming increasingly common as researchers and CLIs find ways to collaborate productively. Whether initiated by researchers within established institutions or CLIs themselves, such collaborations increase the potential capacity of CLIs to mobilise knowledge and undertake learning in support of their practical ambitions. They are also potentially transformative of research itself, offering a new set of priorities, ethical orientations and methodologies that enable it to contribute directly to goals relating to social and environmental justice.[8][9]

Key examples of Mode 2 collaborations include:

Monitoring and Evaluation of Sustainable Communities (MESC)
MESC arose from discussions, facilitated by the Transition Research Network, between Transition Network and various sympathetic academics, concerning the monitoring and evaluation needs of Transition, both for local initiatives and at network level. The result was a collaboration between researchers at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and representatives of Transition Network and the Low Carbon Communities Network, all operating as co-researchers on an equal basis. The 18-month project took a participatory action research approach, working with various local initatives in the UK to assess and determine how to address their monitoring and evaluation needs. It produced a set of guidelines on monitoring and evaluation for community initiatives[10] along with various academic papers.[11][12]
Climate Change Research at FCiencias.ID
The Climate Change Impacts and Modelling research group (CCIAM)[13] at Lisbon University emphasises use of participatory methods as a means of supporting incremental and transformative change in both understanding of and action for climate change adaptation.[14] FCiencias works closely with national networks of CLIs, particularly in permaculture and Transition, supporting national initiatives such as RedeConvergir, employing practitioners as action researchers within collaborative projects and creating and maintaining a permaculture garden, Horta FCUL, within the grounds of the Science Faculty. Through the BASE research project, it coordinated production of the first two books in the Community-led Transformations book series, collaborative volumes on Permaculture and Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, Community Action and Societal Transformation. The research group is at the moment participating in a Municipalities in Transition research project, UrbanA (Urban Arenas for Sustainable and Just Cities), a three-year EU-funded project (January 2019 - December 2021) and BEACON a European project that is supporting Municipalities designing mitigation strategies, building governance and collaboration competences and support the implementation of respective local actions.
The GROW Observatory
GROW is a major international collaboration within the EU's Horizon 2020 research programme, led by Dundee University and involving ECOLISE members Cultivate and the Permaculture Association (Britain) as full partners. It combines conventional and citizen science methods, with small-scale growers in various areas gathering data for their own use, for sharing locally, and to feed into a broad aggregate database used by agricultural scientists to observe and analyse broad patterns.
Knowledge Exchange on Enterprise and Permaculture (KEEP)
A collaboration between the Permaculture Association (Britain) and Kingston University Business School, KEEP undertook a preliminary survey and assessment of permaculture-inspired enterprises in the UK.

In no small measure due to the influence of community-led initiatives, academics working in formal institutions increasingly seek to make their values visible and conduct research with transformative potential. An influential paper by a large consortium led by Ioan Fazey at Dundee University sets out "ten essentials for second-order transformation research",[15] illustrated in the diagram below:


Similarly, a joint policy brief released by the TESS, ARTS and PATHWAYS FP7 projects advocated stronger emphasis on collaborative research in future EU research:

Science needs to shift from only understanding the problems to prescribing and identifying solutions together with societal actors.[16]

Research by and for Community-led Initiatives

Recognising the importance of deepening and strengthening existing methods and processes in experimentation, research and learning, many CLI movements have sought to develop their own research capacity. This can take place in a number of ways: extending (and often formalising) existing methods for action learning, activists within CLIs developing formal research skills by taking research degrees and through other methods, qualified researchers 'going feral' to work within CLIs as specialised practitioners, and CLI organisations and networks recruiting people with research skills to voluntary or salaried posts.

Transition and Research
Transition Network included workshops on research in its annual conferences in 2010 and 2011. From these emerged the Transition Research Network, which based on learning from experiences, positive and negative, of collaborations between Transition groups and researchers, developed methodologies and protocols for mutually beneficial relationships.[17] These drew extensively permaculture design and others social methodologies already in use within the Transition movement.[18][19] Independently of these developments, Transition founder Rob Hopkins undertook much of his early work in Transition Town Totnes as a PhD study at Plymouth University.[20]
Permaculture and Research
The Permaculture Association (Britain) began active development and implementation of its research strategy in 2009, building on action learning cycles already embedded in permaculture design methods.[21] Independent research on the part of permaculture practioners has been supported through creation of a research handbook.[22] The Permaculture International Research Network, with several hundred members (including researchers, practitioners and various hybrids of the two) in over 60 countries worldwide was officially launched at the International Permaculture Conference in London in September 2015.
Ecovillages and Research
The Global Ecovillage Network's Research Working Group provides a contact point for researchers that approach ecovillages or GEN. It support networking, coordination and integration of research, dissemination and creation and implementation of appropriate protocols for ecovillage research.[23] In 2018 GEN published a draft Ecovillage Impact Assessment, an evaluation framework based on the UN's Sustainable Developmental Goals.[24]

ECOLISE and Research

Building on insights and experiences, direct and indirect, from many of the above and similar initiatives, preparatory discussions for the founding of ECOLISE identified Knowledge and Learning as one of three initial strategic pillars. Following adoption of the new ECOLISE strategy in 2019, this was reframed as the Learn Domain, one of the four operational domains supporting delivering of the Communities for Future programme.In fact, significant momentum towards establishment of ECOLISE arose from the TREE Project, an unsuccessful application for FP7 funding led by FFCUL (the previous incarnation of FCiencias.ID) and with partners including Transition Network, Global Ecovillage Network, Gaia Education and the Schumacher Institute, all of whom later became ECOLISE founding members.

Along with organisations directly representing national and international networks of CLIs, ECOLISE also includes various specialised members whose core expertise is in research, including FCiencias.ID, the Schumacher Institute and DRIFT. It also closely links with Mode 3 initiatives such as the Transition Research Network, Permaculture International Research Network and GEN Research Working Group, and other research-related activities of members who directly represent networks of CLIs.

This wiki forms part of a knowledge commons for community-led action on sustainability and climate change being created to support more effective co-creation of knowledge and its mobilisation to support action and policy advocacy throughout the network of ECOLISE members, supporters and collaborators.


  1. Sterling, S. 2001. Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change. Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Dartington: Green Books.
  2. Regeer, B. and J. Bunders, 2009. Knowledge Co-creation: Interaction Between Science and Society. Preliminary studies and background studies, number V.10e. Den Haag: RMNO.
  3. Henfrey, T.W., 2018. Designing for resilience: permaculture as a transdisciplinary methodology in applied resilience research. Ecology and Society 23.
  4. Henfrey, T., 2010. Cultivating Community, Gardening Anthropology: Permaculture, Local Food and Engaged Research. Presented at the European Association of Social Anthropologists, Maynooth, Ireland.
  5. e.g. Henfrey, T. and B. Brangwyn, 2013. The Transition Research Primer v1.0. Totnes: Transition Research Network.
  6. Accessed May 10th 2021
  7. Accessed May 10th 2021
  8. Lockyer, J., Veteto, J.R. (Eds.), 2013. Environmental anthropology engaging ecotopia: bioregionalism, permaculture, and ecovillages, Studies in environmental anthropology and ethnobiology. Berghahn Books, New York.
  9. Banks, S., Armstrong, A., Clarkson, M., Corner, L., Genus, A., Gilroy, R., Henfrey, T., Hudson, K., Jenner, A., Moss, R., Roddy, D., Russell, A., 2014. Using Co-Inquiry to Study Co-Inquiry: Community-University Perspectives on Research. Journal of community engagement and scholarship 7(1).
  10. MESC Project, 2014. Monitoring and evaluation for sustainable communities: a step by step guide. Oxford: Environmental Change Institute.
  11. Hobson, K., Hamilton, J., Mayne, R., 2014. Monitoring and evaluation in UK low-carbon community groups: benefits, barriers and the politics of the local. Local Environment 1–13.
  12. Hobson, K., Mayne, R., Hamilton, J., 2016. Monitoring and evaluating eco-localisation: Lessons from UK low carbon community groups. Environment and Planning A.
  13. The Climate Change Impacts and Modelling research group (CCIAM)
  14. Campos, I.S., Alves, F.M., Dinis, J., Truninger, M., Vizinho, A., Penha-Lopes, G., 2016. Climate adaptation, transitions, and socially innovative action-research approaches. Ecology and Society 21.
  15. Fazey, I., Schäpke, N., Caniglia, G., Patterson, J., Hultman, J., van Mierlo, B., Säwe, F., Wiek, A., Wittmayer, J., Aldunce, P., Al Waer, H., Battacharya, N., Bradbury, H., Carmen, E., Colvin, J., Cvitanovic, C., D’Souza, M., Gopel, M., Goldstein, B., Hämäläinen, T., Harper, G., Henfrey, T., Hodgson, A., Howden, M.S., Kerr, A., Klaes, M., Lyon, C., Midgley, G., Moser, S., Mukherjee, N., Müller, K., O’Brien, K., O’Connell, D.A., Olsson, P., Page, G., Reed, M.S., Searle, B., Silvestri, G., Spaiser, V., Strasser, T., Tschakert, P., Uribe-Calvo, N., Waddell, S., Rao-Williams, J., Wise, R., Wolstenholme, R., Woods, M., Wyborn, C., 2018. Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research and Social Science 40, 54–70.
  16. A. Hof, A. Holsten, H. Berg et al, 2016. Sustainability Transitions to Low Carbon Societies. TESS, ARTS & PATHWAYS Common Policy Brief.
  17. Transition Research Network n.d. A Pattern Language for Transition Research. Accessed September 28th 2018.
  18. Transition Research Network 2012. [ New Knowledge for Resilient Futures]. Workshop Report.
  19. Henfrey, T., 2014. Edge, Empowerment and Sustainability: Para-Academic Practice as Applied Permaculture Design. In Wardrop, A. and D. Withers (eds.) The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting. London: HammerOn Press.
  20. Hopkins, R., 2010. Localisation and resilience at the local level: the case of Transition Town Totnes (Devon, UK). Doctoral Thesis, University of Plymouth.
  21. Sears, E., C. Warburton-Brown, T. Remiarz and R. S. Ferguson, 2013. A social learning organisation evolves a research capability in order to study itself. Poster presentation at the Tyndall Centre Radical Emissions Reduction Conference, London, UK, 10th – 11th December 2013.
  22. Chapman, P., R. Sinfield and C. Warburton-Brown (eds.), 2014. The Permaculture Research Handbook. Leeds: Permaculture Association.
  23. Accessed September 28th 2018.
  24. Accessed October 8th 2018.