Smart Villages and transition: climate change action as a driver for community-led innovation

An image to illustrate community-led initiatives for innovation driven by climate change

Eamon O’Hara, Executive Director of ECOLISE, the European network for community-led initiatives on climate change and sustainability, discusses climate action as a driver for community-led innovation.

Concerns about climate change and environmental degradation have become an important driver of community-led social innovation. The Paris Agreement provides a framework for the international response to this global threat, but with the implementation of this agreement now getting underway it is already clear that much more needs to be done.
According to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2018), ‘rapid and far-reaching transitions’ are now required; not nudges or tweaks but transformation on a massive scale, affecting all aspects of our economy and society.
The challenge is about how we move from a system that is extractive and degenerative, and where wealth creation is mostly concentrated, to one that focuses more on distributed wealth creation and regeneration.

Community-led initiatives

However, while governments are still grappling with the modalities of this transformation, local communities are already taking practical steps to make it a reality. Across Europe, and globally, tens of thousands of communities are piloting and testing new social innovations, from community energy, car-sharing and cycling schemes, to community gardens, reuse and upcycling schemes, and much more.

These community-led initiatives are not only having important environmental impacts, but are also helping to revive local economies and build social capital and resilience. The EU-funded TESS project2, which assessed a sample of 63 community-based climate initiatives in Europe, highlighted their ‘large potential for climate change mitigation’, but it also found that, ‘at least as significant are the wider environmental impacts, the awareness raising, the social cohesion, the creation of local livelihoods and retention of wealth in local economies, and the feelings of empowerment that can come through working together to bring about change.’

Creating an enabling framework

Despite this positive momentum, community initiatives are facing a number of barriers and constraints, including a heavy or often exclusive reliance on volunteers, regulatory barriers, difficulties in accessing or controlling local assets, lack of access to public funding, and difficulties in negotiating complex regulatory processes present further impediments to the development of community initiatives.

To support the further replication and upscaling of community-led initiatives, an enabling framework is required – and this must involve stakeholders at all levels. The aim must be to ensure that the necessary supports are in place to assist communities in finding innovative responses to identified challenges and opportunities.

Of critical importance here is targeted support to help communities:

  • Build capacity and social capital by providing training, advice, facilitation, and assistance with group formation and establishment
  • Navigate administrative processes and procedures, including access to funding
  • Use diagnostic tools to help prioritise projects and activities
  • Identify appropriate organisational models (co-operatives, social enterprises, associations, etc.)
  • Strengthen links between services/activities – creating village hubs and multiservice centres
  • Connect and exchange across regions, countries and internationally

The European Day of Sustainable Communities (EDSC) is an ECOLISE initiative aimed at showcasing and celebrating the pioneering work being done by communities across European, taking place on the third weekend of September annually (next on the 21 September 2019) (see:

Cloughjordan eco-village: a model for sustainable living

Cloughjordan ecovillage, established in 1999, now has 50 families who live in low-energy homes that rely on renewable energy, allotments for individual growing and research, a farm, an enterprise centre, a performance space, a hostel, and numerous educational offerings. The EU-funded Milesecure research project3 identified Cloughjordan ecovillage as one of Europe’s leading ‘anticipatory experiences’ of the transition towards a low-carbon society,’ (see:

Scotland: government support for climate-smart communities
Since its inception in 2009, the Scottish government’s Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) has supported over 1,000 community initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. Analysis of data from 132 of these projects shows a total emissions reduction of 179,796 tonnes of CO2, as well as many other positive environmental, social, and economic outcomes, including engaging a total of 78,835 people, creating 188 full-time jobs, 6,000 tonnes of waste recycled and 45,000m2 of unused land converted into growing spaces (see:


European level networking and collaboration

ECOLISE, the European network for community-led initiatives on climate change and sustainability was founded in 2014 and currently has 43 member organisations across Europe (see:

Eamon O’Hara
Executive Director
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