What is a community-based initiative?

If you have been around transition research for a while, you know that it is full of jargon and other nonsense that makes it difficult to understand. The concept of a “community-based initiative”, sometimes called a grassroots initiative or simply a “CBI”, is one of those things with a complicated name, but in reality is quite simple.


Most people would recognize a community-based organization simply as the local non-profit which deals with sustainability issues or the local business with innovative green products. However, within transition literature they serve a very specific purpose – to experiment with new ideas so that they may potentially grow and challenge the current high-carbon status quo (leading to a transition, but perhaps this is better explained in later post). With all of these expectations we have for CBIs, it’s important to explore what they are.

Embedded in the community

Okay, so this one might seem a little obvious- but community-based initiatives are rooted in a community. This community can be a physical place, like a housing development, or an online community, such as an online group of vegan society. Because the CBIs are embedded in their communities they often reflect the goals and values of those communities (Seyfang and Smith, 2007).

This is in contrast to initiatives taken by corporations, such as a Research & Development group that experiments with new ideas, but which has the goal of profiting off of this new idea. It is not that such corporate groups as a rule cannot contribute towards societal sustainability, but we are dealing with a transition that must change values (Kemp and van Lente 2011) and to create a society with lower consumption and other value changes we need organizations that value their innovations over potential profit - and so in comes the community-based initiative.


When we think of innovation, we often think of new computer gadgets or a revolutionary type of solar panels. Perhaps it is because in our contemporary world we have become so use to changing computer technology, or perhaps it is because we hope that some new type of carbon capture will mean that we don’t have to do the hard work of reducing our carbon footprints. However, while community-based initiatives can experiment with technological innovations; more often they experiment with social innovations (Seyfang and Smith, 2007). Social innovations can be everything from cooperatives that run energy grids (Becker, 2018) or communing or simply a new way to organize food waste using the internet (Haussmann and Becker, 2018). It is these types of social innovations which CBIs experiment with, grow, and spread (Becker et al., 2017).

Many of the CBIs that I have had the pleasure to work with (Becker, 2017) did not consider a sustainable transition as their main goal. Instead they focused on the social aspects of their activities such as barbeques in their community gardens (Becker and von der Wall, 2018) and the potential transition activities were longer term goals and a backdrop to their day-to-day activities.


When I first heard of community-based initiatives as a group that works towards sustainability, I really thought of non-profits. However, community-based initiatives are really diverse in how or if they get their funding (Tikkanen and Haara, 2014). Through my research on community-based initiatives, I’ve seen CBIs which shun money as much as they reasonably can, CBIs which charge fees, CBIs which get money from the government or other large funders, and CBIs who sell to the public (Becker and von der Wall, 2018). CBIs can even be run directly by the government itself, for example South Australia’s virtual power plant.

For several reasons, having diverse streams of funding can prevent community-based initiatives from disappearing (Becker et al., 2017). I hope to discuss this topic in a future blog post. But it is safe to say that ways of handling funding are a diverse as the community-based initiatives themselves.


There is no set size for a community-based initiative. It can consist of “one or more members” (Becker et al., 2017). However, the CBI’s innovation must ultimately somehow grow and expand in order to threaten the status quo. This could occur a number of ways including the spread of the innovation to other organizations, if copycat CBIs are founded which include the innovation, or if the CBI itself grows in membership.

However, sometimes initiatives prefer to remain small and ideologically “pure” and they are sometimes concerned that up-scaling and mainstreaming threaten their alternativeness. This does not mean that they are not community-based initiatives as they are still experimenting with innovations that may at some point contribute to a transition. There is nothing in the definition of community-based initiative that means the CBI must be successful in challenging the regime, and so initiatives that choose to remain small can still be called a community-based initiative.


So, do you know of any community-based initiatives near you?


Sources and further information:

Becker S. L. From regimes to grassroots innovations: a framework for understanding the causes of the barriers to community-based initiatives and their impacts on transitions. 2017. University of Potsdam [Submitted].

Becker, S.L. “Using media bias to examine energy transitions: an analysis of the institutional logics of energy grid ownership over time” (2018) [Submitted].

Becker, S. L., F. Franke, and A. Gläsel. "Regime pressures and organizational forms of community-based sustainability initiatives." Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions (2017). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210422417300060

Becker, S. L., von der Wall, G. “Tracing regime influence on urban community gardening: how resource dependence causes barriers to garden persistence” (2018) [Submitted].

Haussmann, S K., Becker, S.L. “Hierarchy, communication and the circular dynamic of innovation within community-based initiatives.” (2018) [Submitted]

Kemp, René, and Harro van Lente. "The dual challenge of sustainability transitions." Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1.1 (2011): 121-124. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210422411000128

Seyfang, Gill, and Adrian Smith. "Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda." Environmental politics 16.4 (2007): 584-603. http://rsa.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09644010701419121

Tikkanen, Jukka; Haara, Arto. Deliverable 1.1 “Case study selection method and criteria, including a checklist to evaluate the community-based initiatives” (2014)