Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Compost, community and cash: tasting the new economy in Geneva

[Originally posted at] I’m not sure if there is a World Record for the most talks given in one day, but if there is, I gave it a pretty good shot last week.  I travelled (by train, as is my wont) to Switzerland to support several initiatives there, in and around Geneva.  I love trips like this, where hopefully I leave behind some ideas and inspiration, but I also take a good share of that back with me too.

I arrived on Thursday evening after the amazing train trip from Paris to Geneva, which snakes through mountains, forests and gorges, and was whisked straight to Meyrin, a satellite settlement of Geneva, built in the 1960s and now home to around 22,000 people.  I was welcomed by Jean Rossiaud (World Democratic Forum/Monnaie Léman) and whisked straight to Meyrin, where Pascal (Meyrin Durable) and Benoît (Supermarché Participatif Paysan) were waiting for me. The home for the evening’s event was the local school, and the event, with about 250 seats, had sold out 3 weeks ago.

The context of the talk was that several groups had come together to present it, with a focus on food.  There was a sumptuous free buffet, dishes produced by about 20 volunteers.  The evening was put on by Meyrin Durable (‘Sustainable Meyrin’), Incredible Edible Meyrin, the local currency Le Léman (more on that later), a group called Artisans de la transition, and another involved in the Ecoquartier de Vergers (of which, again, more later).

The key initiative being showcased on the night was SPP (Supermarché Participatif Paysan), a proposed ethical, sustainable supermarket being planned for the Ecoquartier.  The idea is to create an ambitious co-operative supermarket to boost and showcase the local food economy.  It’s a great initiative, and part of the idea for the evening was to enthuse people and to sign them up as members.

I spoke about Transition, about the new economy we are trying to create, with a particular focus on stories around food.  It was a great evening, really enthusiastic audience, great questions and discussion.  Real buzz in the room.  Lots of laughter.  Really good.

I stayed that night in an auberge, a small family-run hotel, the kind where they have a small restaurant and bar downstairs, and at the end of the night the whole family are up, eating and drinking and chatting.  Nothing fancy, but welcoming, human and conversational in a way that a Premiere Inn or a Raddison hotel can never be, even if they offer better wifi and classier shampoo.

Friday started with a meeting with the Mayor of Meyrin, Nathalie Leuenberger (see below, right), and other members of her team, people from community groups and others, with a focus on the Ecoquartier.  The Ecoquartier (see plans below and work under construction) is a new neighbourhood being built in Meyrin, which will be home to 3,000 people, increasing the population of the district to 25,000.  It is being built to high ecological standards, and many of the buildings will be housing co-operatives.

There has already been a lot of thinking about the use of edible and useful trees, and about the creation of other activities to support the food economy, such as the supermarket mentioned above.  We had a great hour and a half’s discussion about additional ideas and possibilities, things that could be added to the mix, connections that could be made with the neighbouring hospital.

It seemed to be really useful, I was impressed by the commitment to do something really innovative.  As one participant put it in the feedback round at the end, “this session has opened many possibilities … now I feel I have a dream”.

From there, on electric bicycles (my first time), we headed into Geneva for a big event called the Geneva Global Goals Innovation Day, a gathering of NGOs and other groups, focused around the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  Hosted in a rather uninspiring building that looked like the setting for ‘The Office’, inside it was actually a bustling, lively, colourful occasion full of great people doing great things.

Invited by La Chambre de l’Economie Sociale et Solidaire (APRES-Ge), in the framework of Les Vendredis de la Transitions (‘Transition Fridays), a weekly “do tank” meeting on every dimension of transition, co-organised by Alternatiba, Colibris, Quartiers Collaboratifs and Monnaie Léman, I gave a talk upstairs, to a packed room, focusing on the story of Transition in Totnes, with some other global examples too, to give a sense of where the idea has gone, but always focusing on the power of communities, what can be achieved, and the need for people to learn the skills to work together well.  We had some great questions and discussion.  Then I did two interviews, had a very rushed lunch and then we were back on the bikes.

We went to visit the home of Benoit, one of my hosts. He lives in a fantastic co-operative housing initiative, developed by Equilibre, a housing co-op he was one of the founders of in 2005. Their initial discussions, like many co-housing groups, were around “city or countryside?” They found their site in 2007, a field on the edge of Geneva, and then built the apartments to very high ecological standards, as timber-framed structures with cellulose insulation, with great balconies on the south side, one of the buildings’ main design features. The development is designed to be car-free, with just 4 shared cars for 13 apartments. Here I am with Benoit (right) and Jacques Mirenowicz, editor in chief of “La Revue Durable”.

The buildings use composting toilets throughout, which are amazing.  The toilets themselves are just like normal toilets except you don’t flush them.  The magic happens in the basement, where each apartment has its own composting unit.  While other neighbouring apartments use the basement for car parking, in this block, they use theirs for services, for a room where films are shown, teenagers can get together and mess around and make noise, and social events take place, and it’s where the composting happens.

Over a year, about 1,000 litres of, er, deposits, are made into each composter (for a family of four).  In its initial chamber, over a year, it reduces to maybe 250 litres through composting, then into a second chamber where over a second year it reduces to approximately 50 litres of beautifully rotted compost, aided by the active community of worms in there.  This is then transferred outside into a compost bin where it composts for a further year.  No smell, no mess. No water. Beautiful.

Outside there are chickens, vegetable beds, fruit trees, a workshop and shed with food beds on the roof.  Many people grow herbs and other plants on their balconies.  They have calculated that the average Swiss ecological footprint is 5.8 hectares per person.  For those living in this building, it is 2.9 hectares, information they temper by pointing out that a sustainable future, a global fair share, is actually 1.7 hectares.  Still, pretty amazing. Here is a great report they have created (in French) showing their impacts.

And it’s beautiful.  It certainly felt like the closest to an urban oasis I’ve ever spent time in.  I could have lived there, quite happily.  And their ambition, along with their confidence, has grown.  They have now built two more similar developments elsewhere, one of which is the first strawbale apartment block I have ever heard of, and they plan to build three of the blocks in the Ecoquartier.  There are even plans for an ecovillage in a place called Presinge.

Very impressive.  And it all started with a few families meeting and deciding to do something together.  As I often say when I give talks, you never know what you might be starting when you decide to initiate a project, however small.

Our next stop was the University in Geneva for the launch of Le Léman in its new electronic format.  The currency has been around for a while in printed form, but a lot of work has gone into creating a ground-breaking electronic version.  While it is in many ways similar to those developed by the Bristol and Brixton Pounds, it has an added element, that of mutual credit (the ‘lemanex’, inspired by the Sardex, the Sardinian alternative currency, enabling interest-free lending of money.  One of the things that is interesting about it, is that it is a “transfrontier” currency, being focused not on a city, but rather on the communities that live around the lake (Lake Léman), so it straddles the French-speaking communities both in France and in Switzerland who live around the lake, and who share that as part of their identity.

Here is a video about Le Léman.

There must have been 4-500 people there.  There was a great buzz around the whole thing.  After a short introduction, I talked about previous local currency launches I had been to, and set out a number of reasons why local currencies matter, including their ability to stimulate the imagination, to generate conversation, to bring an element of play back into our lives, and to invite us to tell different stories.  There was then a short talk by a local academic who talked about how regional, local and national currencies have evolved throughout Swiss history.

I then had to dash off in order to get to my last talk, but the rest of the Léman evening, I imagine, introduced the new currency, how to use it, and invited as many people as possible to sign up for it.  As I said in my talk, this is a potentially historic moment.  An amazing tool has been created, but it is only an amazing tool if people use it.

The last stop took me back to where it all started, back to the school in Meyrin, where the Festival du Film Vert, the Green Film Festival, was beginning.  The Festival runs across 40 towns and cities in Switzerland, and each participating place can choose from a selection of 80 films to shape its own festival.  This was the first year it had happened in Meyrin.  They had a great selection of films planned for the weekend.

The evening started with the Mayor, Nathalie Leuenberger, talking about why the festival matters, and her passion for green issues (see below, with the festival’s organiser Pascal).

She illustrated her talk with props, including a potato, a Léman note, and a compost bin as distributed by the Council, with lots of holes around the side.  I forget what they were all meant to signify, but it was great.  The idea then was that I was meant to speak at 8.21 pm (as in £21 Totnes Pounds…), but everything overran a bit.  By this stage I was flagging a little, and hadn’t prepared anything, so I asked people if there was anything they’d like me to talk about.

We had a great short session, with some great, and quite random questions.  In response to one about how a local currency works, I borrowed the Mayor’s bucket, with its holes, and used it to demonstrate the ‘leaky bucket’ effect, and to show how the Léman note was too big to fit through the holes.

The evening ended with an informal chat with a group of about 20 people in the foyer, while other people watched the festival’s first film in the main room.  My thanks to my great, and very patient, translators.

The next morning I was up early for the train home.  En route to the station, another of my hosts, Pascal, took me to visit an Incredible Edible project he has been fundamental in starting.  On a wide strip of land, with a road one side, a football pitch on another, and surrounded by apartment blocks (most people in Switzerland rent apartments rather than buy, as housing is so expensive there), he and a group of volunteers have started gardening.

It’s a wonderful story.  They started talking to the local council about it, and it was moving slowly, but with the impending growing season, the whole thing was able to speed up a little, and now they are onsite.  They are building raised beds using the ‘hugelkultur’ approach, putting old dead wood in the bottom the beds for a slow release of nitrogen and other good things.  These will be topped off with soil and compost.  The football pitch people give them water.  The neighbouring church give them electricity.  More and more people are coming out from the apartments to get involved.  The Council are now proud and excited about it, and the idea is spreading, already 3 more gardens being created.  None of them are gardeners, they are learning as they go.

When we visited, an elderly man from the apartments was already there, waiting for the rest of the team to turn up and get started.  He had told them that he had been waiting for something like this for years, and now it’s here he’s there every day.  I can’t wait to see what it looks like in July.  In June they are planning an inauguration event, where the Mayor will be invited to come and cut the ribbon.

So, I headed home, back through the mountains, forests and gorges, really touched by the people I met, the impact the film ‘Demain’  has had, and continues to have, the projects I saw, the fantastic compost that was maturing, like a fine wine, in the basement of Benoit’s apartment, the grass verges being turned to gardens, and the bright-eyed, happy, determined people I met.

As I was leaving the Léman event, a woman came up to say thank you.  She had her copy of Lionel Astruc’s book, ‘Le pouvoir d’agir ensemble, ici et maintenant’, based on interviews with me.  “I suffer from depression” she told me, “and every time I feel it coming on I read this book, and it lifts me again”.  Sometimes doing this work is such an honour, and in moments like that I get a glimpse into why it matters, and how deeply it touches people.


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