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Eco-villages, models of social and convivial innovation

Les éco-villages, modèles d’innovations sociale et « conviviale »
Published on
13 May 2021

Where globalized economic models place innovation as an end in itself, sustainable communities – or eco-villages – place social innovation as the foundation of their development. Recent research highlights the process of "convivial innovation" as it unfolds in four communities in southeastern France. Read on for a detailed explanation.

Roxana Bobulescu is an economist and professor and researcher at Grenoble Ecole de Management. Since 2008, she has been studying and teaching about alternatives to market economy models, in particular sustainable degrowth. Together with GEM student Aneta Fritscheova, she published a research paper in March 2021, focusing on eco-villages as laboratories of convivial innovation

"In our globalized economies, the term "degrowth" (see text box) triggers very strong reactions, often referring to outdated models. As part of this study, we therefore looked at how eco-villages work - places where the aim is to preserve the well-being of the community, in harmony with the environment. The four models observed value creativity and innovation, and invite us to find other solutions to development thanks to the contributions of convivial innovation", underlines Roxana Bobulescu in her preamble.

What is convivial innovation?

Convivial innovation is a way to increase individual and collective well-being, through the provision of expertise, innovative or updated techniques such as permaculture, but also various creations, such as eco-responsible construction, biodynamic agriculture, solar energy and home-made clothing, etc.  It enables the rediscovery and revaluation of ancient knowledge.

In concrete terms, the idea of insulating wood-based material with straw, used for sustainable construction, comes directly from these small-scale innovation laboratories," notes Roxana Bobulescu.

Beyond that, convivial innovation is characterized by the need to slow down ("Low tech"): "Innovation is not seen as a driver of growth, does not exert pressure, and in fact does not incorporate the concept of obsolescence. In economics, we talk about "business cycles" and  "creative destruction", with a rapid replacement rate," says Roxana Bobulescu.

Focus on four eco-villages in the South-East of France

"An ecovillage is a human-scaled, full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and that can be successfully continued into the indefinite future." (Gilman, 1996)

The study conducted by Roxana Bobulescu and Aneta Fritscheova focused on four community organizations, including the alternative village of Éourres (131 inhabitants), in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, created in 1977, the Karma Ling Institute eco-site, created in 1984 in Arvillard in Savoie (842 inhabitants), the eco-village of Le Hameau des Buis, created in 2007 in Berrias-et-Casteljau, in Ardèche (724 inhabitants), and finally, the Montbrison-Forez association in the Loire, created in 2012 (15,010 inhabitants), all four located in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

These four social entities are made up of workers, former executives and managers, teachers, an international community (Germans, English people, Italians, etc.), and young people involved in WWOOF on the farm and in construction workshops, etc. All of them express a strong need to work manually, and therefore train in woodworking, for example, while integrating new technologies," explains Roxana Bobulescu.

"Some of these communities respond to the needs of a spiritual practice or to more personal aspirations. The children, who are schooled locally in elementary classes, then join colleges and high schools of the region (but this is not without some difficulty with regards to their integration into the traditional teaching system). The desire to open up to the world remains strong. As time goes by, new innovative natural solutions emerge, especially in the field of permaculture," explains Roxana Bobulescu.

Theoretical basis

This research is based on the concepts of "tools of conviviality", developed in 1973 by Ivan Illich, philosopher and prophet of deceleration, and of "convivial technologies", pointed out by Vetter. According to Illich, "a convivial society is one that gives individuals the possibility of exercising the most autonomous and creative action, using tools that are less controllable by others. Productivity is understood in terms of having, conviviality is understood in terms of being. And to add: The tool is convivial in that anyone can use it, without difficulty, as often or as seldom as they wish, for purposes that they themselves determine. " 
In 2017, Andrea Vetter extended Ivan Illich's tools of conviviality by designing the five-dimensional convivial tools "Matrix":

  • 1) The relationship with the environment, an integral part of the ecosystem;
  • 2) Accessibility facilitated by the sharing of tools;
  • 3) Adaptability to local context and scale;
  • 4) Organic-interaction and regenerative capacity;
  • 5) The appropriation of locally available materials and resources, such as bicycles, houses and sewing machines, etc.

Roxana Bobulescu, Fritscheova  A., Convivial innovation in sustainable communities: Four cases in France, Ecological Economics, 2021, vol. 181, no. March, 106932

What is "sustainable degrowth"?

  • "An equitable, socially and economically sustainable reduction in production and consumption" (Schneider et al., 2010)
  • The concept indicates a gentle, well-planned and organized exit from the age of productivism and the model of overconsumption, synonymous with the waste of resources and the destruction of our biosphere.
  • It also evokes the need to slow down, to develop a way of life that is more respectful of natural rhythms in the countries of the North, in order to allow the countries of the South to preserve their resources and satisfy the vital needs of their populations.
  • Is this a conscious choice of the term, or is it an avoidance of the term? (sustainable development, green growth, green capitalism, sobriety, moderation, post-growth, etc.)
  • An essential ethical dimension, through fairness and solidarity.

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