RESIVITAS: a bottom-up-built social transformation

Environmentalist and Stakeholder Forum Advisor, Alejo Etchart Ortiz presents his vision of a feasible pathway to sustainnable development – a bottom-up-built social transformation to the green economy

The Coordination Notes ON THE ROAD TO RIO+20 published by Executive Coordinator to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development 2012, Brice Lalonde give an excellent overview on the status of the issues to be dealt with in the Earth Summit later this year. In this blog post, I will refer to some of his notes to introduce, what I believe is a vision on a feasible pathway to sustainable development. I will also aim to address the comments made by Rob Wheeler relating to my previous post.

Lalonde argues that the current United Nations multilateral system, which is organized around national governments, is unable to deal with global commons issues beyond national interests. This is because the planet as a whole has no place and no voice in this system. As such, business objectives have failed to align with sustainable development – even though notable steps are being given by some companies (see for example, the Carbon Disclosure Project). However, these initiatives are a long way from being enough, and the current set of rules do not account sufficiently for their social and environmental performance.

This is why my previous post argued that it is time for civil society to take the lead, and gave just a short list of popular initiatives out of the thousands that are taking place worldwide to tackle sustainable development-related problems.

While solutions have been proposed for many of the partial threats, as former Stakeholder Forum Director, Hannah Stoddart outlines in A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Development Governance,

…the lack of a coherent approach that fully integrates all three pillars of sustainable development in pursuit of an over-arching goal is a significant obstacle to achieving sustainable development globally.”

This is therefore a call to systemic approaches to sustainable development. For example, according to Costa Rican philosopher, Cesar Cuello Nieto’s statement, argues sustainability is a,

“…multifaceted way of development which limits economic growth and other human activities to the capacity of nature for self-regeneration, places the improvement of the human condition as its primary goal, and places respect for environmental quality and the limits of nature at the core of any economic, political, educational, and cultural strategy”.

Furthermore, according to Tim Jackson – academic and author of Prosperity without Growth –the current development pattern is based on an economy that needs growth to prevent collapse in a planet which can’t grow without collapse. The big challenge is therefore to decouple these two truths.

The vision

The vision I want to share here, and open to debate, pursues the realization of a systemic approach through a bottom-up-built social transformation that incorporates the principles of sustainability (outlined in A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Development Governance) from its grassroots. It is about a development based on a network of sustainable communities at the neighbourhood level that provide themselves with both pro-environmental and not specifically pro-environmental services, from the whole community to its members, peer to peer or from members to the whole community. Community-specific entities with social objectives merge in each community to manage these services, which can be classified, among other ways, in six open-end groups:

  1.  Collective pro-environmental services from the community to its members, either grouped or isolated: distributed energy- generated close to the consumption place, either from renewable sources or micro-CHP plants; district heating and cooling solutions combined with CHP plants; optimization of electricity bills through energy saving measures; non-drinkable (grey) water collection and management from rain and other sources; urban agriculture; access to building isolation services, green roofs, vertical gardening and permaculture practices; composting with bio-residues; re-use and re-valuation solutions for packaging residues; recuperation, reuse and re-valuation of books, toys, clothes and shoes, electric, electronic devices, furniture and others.
  2. Services without a specific pro-environmental objective delivered from and to people in the community, eventually managed through time banks: care services from young to old people; care and educational services from old to young people or kids; escort and care services to disabled people; public art projects for different groups; courses, including environmental formation to adults; education or consulting from retired professionals to students or young professionals; kids collecting; home cooking services; DIY for home maintenance; planning, building or lobbying for cycling paths and other developments; specific domestic job services; security provision services.
  3. Pro-environmental transformation of goods into services, to convert all or part of the following devices that are usually owned at private homes into new intra-communitarian services: washing machines at home into community laundry services; TV, PCs and multimedia sets into common multimedia rooms; books and shelves into community libraries; particular living room sets into community living spaces
  4. Services without a specific pro-environmental objective, in the interest of the whole community to foster internal cohesion (zero-carbon economy): concerts and conferences; purchasing groups including assurances, banking and other services; optimization of electricity bills through invoice revisions; children’s gardens; retirement homes; gastronomic societies; shared domestic services.
  5. Climate Change adaptation services in the interest of the whole community: drainage, retaining walls, shelters for extreme weather-related events.
  6. Generation of new pro-community business ideas within the context of a New Sustainable Economy (see further below).


A community-specific entity (CSE) is created in order to manage these services within each community: CSEs are social oriented not-for-profit organizations whose eventual profits are invested in the common interest. The objective of CSEs, and of the community-based approach in general, is not the benefit of the communities, but an enhanced life experience of individuals in a way that is compatible with the necessary shift to a sustainable development-compatible path. Community members have interest in their respective communities and get involved to make them progress.

CSEs are promoted from consultancies specialized on the issue that have a wide knowledge of successful partial practices implemented worldwide that can be adapted to new communities and can create self-sustained business models in each community. CSEs make intensive use of the benefits that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can provide to community management. One of the consultancies’ tasks is to generate a comprehensive core-system of culturally sensitive training programmes, combining advanced scientific concepts and technology with traditional values, skills, knowledge and muscle-power that exist in each community. Due to the very particular requirements, the wide range of new services and the social mission of CSEs, their leaders receive special training in CSEs networks, where they can share experiences. CSEs’ eventual workers are preferentially community members. These consultancies generate partially replicable, flexibly designed community-based social business models to be applied globally. Even though the activity of these consultancies is compatible with financial profit, according to the values of RESIVITAS, they should have a social orientation.

Traditional companies compete to cooperate for the implementation of CSEs for the different communities, forming joint ventures that gather the different services to be offered to communities. This ‘coopetition’ (cooperation and competition) fosters a legal, managerial, technical and social innovation.

Communities enhance the space for members to know each other, to give and receive esteem, to flourish, enhancing a positive experience of life. At the same time, having a shared base of material and emotional resources, community members see their exposure to economical, environmental or social unwanted impacts reduced. Thus resilience is increased.

Additionally, material consumption, thus pressure over physical resources, is reduced. At the same time, democracy is reinforced as citizens gain voice through their respective communities; and new local jobs are created. This way, communities have the potential to act as the basic unit for promoting a systemic approach to sustainable development. Communities are a manageable development unit that builds development in a bottom-up approach that can be influenced by top-down incentives.

This new way of development can proactively be applied worldwide, while remaining essentially driven by local communities.

Emerging socio-economic concepts such as systemic thinking, wellbeing-focused approaches, resilience-building through community-based developments, low-energy societies, and a number of movements around a New Sustainable Economy (including economic re-localization, Green Economy, New Economy 20+20, Economy of the Commons, De-growth, Inclusive Business and Co-management) are reflected and gain sense in RESIVITAS.

RESIVITAS applies systemic development to relatively small groups through a range of globally replicable patterns. It aims at prosperity of individuals based on global wellbeing instead of material abundance. Any shift would require efforts to effect profound changes to the way we live. Nevertheless, RESIVITAS might, at the same time, be compatible with the existing institutional bodies, although it would entail a remarkable re-distribution of power towards more equitable standards. This proposal is therefore a way for civil society to take the lead in the pathway to sustainable development. It is a certainly a challenge to those understandings of sustainable development which proclaim change while leaving untouched the basic structures of the present society.

The name of RESIVITAS might be appropriate for this approach, for it brings to mind the concepts of:

  • resilience;
  • the Latin civitas, meaning of a body of citizens sharing responsibility, a common purpose, and sense of community; and
  • the key syllable RE (standing for Renewable Energy, Reduction, Re-use, Recycling, etc).

The term also has a multilingual understanding.

New contributions

Most of the topics gathered in this vision are hot topics in the development or climate change agendas. None of them is new itself, and many more community practices can be included, as they are being implemented under Agenda21 approaches and others.

The new contributions of this vision are:

  • the systemic approach assumed for facing environmental, social and economic issues; and
  • the community-based entrepreneurial solution that appropriates the intrinsic value of the community to deliver a wide and open-end number of resilient building, wellbeing-focused, community-specific services.

Resivitas and Rio+20

In the context of the vision described above, there are a number of comments in the Coordination Notes by Lalonde, that become more pertinent.

Lalonde says that without a driving force nothing will change, and argues that business leaders need to be part of the solution by encouraging experimentation, bringing innovative solutions, invest in R&D and promote sustainable development offshoots and start-ups. Sustainable development entails creative business models such as social service industries, systems of shared resources and products, collaborative ways of consuming, direct trade links from the producer to the consumer, barter economy, second hand markets and recycling industries. Lalonde also states that project-by-project approaches may have demonstrable results, but macro approaches are the best way to achieve the major transformations we seek.

Lalonde also demands from Rio+20 concrete action for new models, modernizing SMEs through the use of the Green Economy in three priority areas (social standards, environmental footprint and energy efficiency) and enhancing the social economy sector through cooperatives, community associations, mutual unions, collective institutions in housing, production, health, distribution, etc.

Social entrepreneurship is a new sector that should be recognized and promoted, and Rio+20 should aim to create an implementation-oriented process combining grants and loans; mitigating or sharing risks; facilitating public and private partnerships; bringing in expertise, to match contributions and demand. The demand for sustainable development implementation may be very basic, but it may also provide an opportunity for innovation and new business models. This implementation-oriented process could be critical to the identification of the demand needed by RESIVITAS. Lalonde argues that the demand for sustainable development must be funded through country budgets, or through sector policy funding, and through private sector investments and other initiatives. The Social Economy may only thrive with the support of regulatory conditions, including alternative financing systems. If the sustainable development agenda is to move forward, those involved will be looking for measurable impacts and leveraging private and local resources, building incentives and proposals into the system for addressing sustainable development priorities.

Where next?

Further research is needed to examine the feasibility of such approach in different regulatory systems and to generate a solid deployment pattern. In any case, more than a closed proposal, RESIVITAS intends to be a basic idea for a globally replicable, resilience-building, wellbeing-oriented systemic social business project.

I am keen to continue sharing information about RESIVITAS.


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