Robert Gilman on "Multiple Centers of Initiative"
Robert Gilman told me last October when I visited him in his hometown of Langley, Washington. Robert is co-originator along with his late wife, Diane Gilman, of the famous “Human-scale, full-featured settlement . . . ” ecovillage definition.
In our October interview I had asked what he meant by the phrase, “multiple centers of initiative,” which he added to his ecovillage definition in 1999.
Most intentional community-style ecovillage projects are not truly ecovillages, he told me, because they are considerably smaller than actual villages, usually 500-1000+ people. But more importantly, intentional community-style ecovillage projects don’t function like villages. They usually have one central governing body which is their only source of initiative, since that body approves, funds, and manages all community projects.
But real villages, he said, have many different centers of initiative: the village governing body itself and the many autonomous enterprises, associations, and projects of its residents — which together comprise the physical, economic, and social fabric of village life. These entities, along with the village’s own governing body, develop, fund, and manage social enterprises which provide everything the village needs; from water, food, and shelter, to agreements, dispute resolution, and other necessary or desirable goods and services.
In medieval Europe, Robert told me, villages developed naturally around a rural manor house, which was the sole governing body. Over time, the manor house would be surrounded by increasing numbers of other buildings, dwellings, and enterprises: the miller, blacksmith, herbalist, midwife, wheelwright, harness maker, livery stable owner, tavern keeper, and so on. Soon village residents outnumbered those in the manor house. The manor house was the largest single entity in the village, the oldest, and it provided the “seed” around which the village grew. But it was no longer the sole governing body.
Intentional communities function similarly, Robert said. They are like catalysts or seeds that begin as what he calls “centers of research, demonstration, and training” and over time can develop into true ecovillages.Findhorn in Scotland, he said. The Findhorn Foundation is an intentional community of about 100 people organized as an educational nonprofit; its members work for the Foundation in exchange for onsite room and board. Over the years approximately 250 to 300 other people have moved to the area, either renting from the Findhorn Foundation and living onsite, or living in their own homes nearby. Some are former members; others were never members but moved there to be part of the greater Findhorn scene.
Over the years these 250-300 non-members have begun 40 different social initiatives — businesses, nonprofits, consultancies, and other social enterprises — that benefit the Findhorn Foundation itself and the whole northern Scotland bioregion. These social enterprises include various co-ops: the Phoenix Store, a dairy co-op, CSA farm co-op, woodlot co-op, and wind generator co-op. They include the Ekopia Resource Exchange, a credit union, with its local currency, the EKO. Like a manor house and its village, the former members and neighbors now outnumber the members of the Findhorn Foundation intentional community, and together they all create the rich ecological, economic, social, and cultural life of what has become the greater Findhorn Ecovillage. The Foundation is part of the ecovillage, and is its largest and oldest single entity. The Foundation provided the seed around which the ecovillage developed.Farm community in central Tennessee, community members work for about 20 different autonomous, individually owned businesses and co-ops, including Farm Soy, the Farm Store, Village Media, The Book Publishing Company, or onsite nonprofits such as Plenty International, the Ecovillage Training Center, and the Swan Conservation Trust. A private land trust owns the 1750-acre property, the Farm’s municipal water system, and other aspects of its physical infrastructure. The nonprofit Farm Education/Conference Center hosts retreats and conferences for outside groups and is the umbrella organization for the Farm School, providing alternative education for the children of community members and neighbors. The Second Foundation is a group of about 30 members in an income-sharing, resource-sharing, mutual benefit association.
Crystal Waters in Australia is similar. Many ecovillage members own and operate their own businesses and nonprofits onsite, including several mail-order businesses; an artisan bread company; a bed and breakfast; EcoLogical Solutions, an ecological design firm founded by GEN co-founder Max Lindegger; and the offices of the nonprofit GENOA (GEN Oceania-Asia).
How Findhorn, The Farm, and Crystal Waters have developed is a natural evolutionary process, Robert continued. Larger, more fully developed ecovillages like these — which clearly now have multiple centers of initiative — are more healthy and functional than intentional community-style ecovillages with just one governing body, he said. Here’s why:
- First, they handle failure better, since failure of any one entity doesn’t bring down the whole place.
- They support success better, because innovative, energetic people are free to create the social enterprises the ecovillage needs.
- They are more healthy and resilient because of their diversity. Diverse decision-making entities in a community is like a permaculture-designed landscape with many different species, multiple inputs and multiple outputs, and redundant systems, which results in healthier plants and animals, greater yields, and better survival value.
What if an intentional community-style ecovillage continues to have just one decision-making body?
“The downside of a one-body decision-making entity is that it can stifle energy, creativity, and innovation,” Robert cautions. He told me it can drive out some of the most creative people, or those who work at a faster pace. It can alienate the very people who could most help the community achieve its goals. When visionary entrepreneurs are slowed down by people who don’t understand them, or who feel intimidated or rushed by their focus and drive, everyone loses, Robert said — both the entrepreneurs and the community itself.
“If the people with ‘get up and go’ are stifled too often,” Robert warned, “they’ll get up and leave.”
It’s my hope that intentional community-style ecovillages worldwide using one-body-governance in their startup phase, and which may be on the “cusp” of allowing multiple centers of initiative, will go ahead and take the plunge, and we’ll see fabulous “true village” ecovillage projects everywhere. Thank you, Findhorn. And thank you, Robert Gilman.