Four generations of ecovillage development in Sweden – A work in progress
– Dick Magnusson & Linda Lundmark –
Several initiatives striving towards more sustainable localized lifestyles have been developed in Sweden since the 1970s in a variety of settings, sizes, organizations and with a variety of resource and energy efficient technologies. A difficult and bureaucratic planning process and the maintenance of a stable internal organization have been especially challenging to these initiatives. This text aims to explain the different barriers, trends and the historical development of Swedish ecovillages.
1. What is the new solution or approach?
Ecovillages in Sweden have typically involved a combination of social and technological innovations adopted in a local context to enable more sustainable lifestyles with a reduced environmental impact. For example, different experimentations regarding co-housing which differs from the mainstream institutional housing arrangements is common in ecovillages. These social innovations are often combined with, or giving way to, other technological innovations which might involve small scale energy systems, urine separating toilets, use of different construction material and the development of new recycling and resource use practices. Since these technological and social innovations can be described as, to a large extent, different or detached from already established practices, Swedish ecovillages have experienced resistance, especially during implementation processes, from mainstream actors and structures.
2. Four generations of ecovillages
The development path for Swedish ecovillages can be described through four different historical generations with different associated aims and organizational principles. The first initiatives were started in the 1970s and today around thirty ecovillages exists in the country. These are varying to a great extent when it comes to organization, implemented technologies and number of members.
The first generation of ecovillages, containing the key pioneers Tuggelite, Solbyn, Rumpan, Skognäs and Skärhäll, was characterized by strong idealism. Most of these initiatives came from grassroots environmental citizen groups which were influenced by other environmental movements like ‘the green wave’ and the anti-nuclear movement.
The Tuggelite project was run by a group of academics with high competence striving towards alternative, more sustainable forms of living with new energy efficient technologies which differed from the common large-scale housing projects. A report was published by this group, called the ‘Välsviken report’, containing ideas from the initiative. A close connection and vital knowledge exchange took place between the pioneers (Tuggelite, solbyn and later Understenshöjden) where Solbyn took influence from the Välsviken report. Solbyn also received crucial knowledge regarding sustainable house construction due to the involvement of the architect Krister Wiberg, who later continued assisting a number of other projects. Additional assistance in the development of these early ecovillages came from the building company HSB. At this time, in the 1990s, when the ecovillage movement started to take form, Boverket developed the definition of ecovillages and made it possible for these projects to obtain loans for their developments. However, despite this support many of these first initiatives struggled with malfunctioning technologies, internal organization struggles, resistance from established structures and they were usually located far away from city centers by municipalities.
During the second generation of ecovillages, which started around the early 1990s, a majority of the projects was top-down, initiated by entrepreneurs. A trend had started to take form towards ecological building, along with the Agenda 21-projects, where this type of development was more accepted by municipalities and politicians. Knowledge from the earliest pioneers had become more broadly diffused and to some extent taken over and applied by construction companies. However, criticism regarding this top-down development relates to not sufficiently taking into account the perspectives of the citizens. Conflicting objectives therefore occurred between residents and contractors. There was, in some cases, a greater focus on finishing the projects during a shorter time span or on making the houses more aesthetically appealing, resulting in higher expenses. Parallel with this development was thus a number of bottom up initiatives developing similarly to the initial projects.
During the third generation, in the 1990s, the ecovillages started moving closer to city centers and construction companies and citizen groups learned from previous experiences. This period can be described as a relatively successful combination of top down and bottom up approaches where new versions of earlier technologies were implemented and where the perspectives of the citizens were taken into account to a greater extent during the construction phase. Traditional study visits contributed to the spread of knowledge during this period, however the construction company HSB and the architect Krister Wiberg were still of key importance regarding the generation and travel of innovations. After this period, between 2001 and 2007, a stagnation occurred with no new developments and where some existing ecovillages decided to replace the initial technical systems with more traditional ones. There was a general sense of being caught up by the mainstream. What was once considered extreme and alternative technologies (for example waste separation and sewage systems) was not so alternative anymore.
The fourth, and most recent, generation of ecovillages started in 2008. This wave came at the same time as an increasing environmental awareness trend in Sweden. The projects were now solely initiated by the grassroots-groups and they were inspired by ecovillages from the first generation. They are relatively diverse and located in rural areas, now with a greater focus on agriculture and permaculture, and they were not assisted or backed by construction companies. They can also be described as more internationally networked, through spreading of knowledge through blogs and social media, due to increased internet usage.
3. Main barriers for ecovillages?
During the historical development of these various initiatives in Sweden, since the 1970s, ecovillages have struggled with a variety of social, technological and institutional barriers. During the initial phase there were especially difficulties when it came to organization or implementation of sustainable technologies. However, the idea- and knowledge transfer through both people, organizations, books and reports have been of vital importance in order to learn from mistakes and improving and advancing sustainable technological innovations. In some regards the technological innovations which were first initiated by the grassroots seem to have spread successfully and become more established among regime actors and mainstream structures. This occurred (as explained above) during the second generation when large construction companies, for example HSB, started to adopt these ideas and technologies in their housing projects. However, it could be questioned whether the top down approaches could be defined as ecovillages since the original values of grassroots initiatives were more or less absent. After the third generation, sustainable technologies in ecovillages seemed to have become caught up by the mainstream where these technologies were not considered as extreme anymore. However, since the first ecovillages were pioneers in developing innovations like sewage systems, biogas boilers and waste separation, they might definitely have played a large part in influencing the social mainstreaming of these technologies. Overall, grassroots initiatives attempting to implement local energy solutions have met resistance in Sweden due to a centralized energy system and a strong municipal planning monopoly and municipal ownership of energy plants. A number of ecovillages, attempting to implement local energy systems, also experience lacking support when it comes to getting sufficient allowance from the government.
Another main barrier, which have been historically encountered by ecovillages, and which is still a challenge among new ecovillages and those currently under development (for example Grönbo and Hållkollbo), relates to a bureaucratic and difficult planning processes in engagement with municipalities. The type of housing developments and the alternative sustainable solutions have still not become established and therefore initiatives like tiny houses, separate sewage systems and other implementations and practices meets resistance. A number of ecovillages have also had to spend time, during the planning process, trying to change legislation regarding very specific issues, for example getting allowance for smaller biogas containers and allowance to mix human urine in organic farms. NIMBY related criticism from neighbors have also been common throughout the historical development of ecovillages. In addition, not only the initial planning and implementation phase but also the maintenance of sustainable technologies, practices and the commitment within the social community is of importance and have, in some ecovillages, been challenging to maintain.
It can be stated that these initiatives still encounter several barriers after four generations of experimenting with new local configurations. However, these ecovillages could be described as a work in progress much thanks to the lessons that are continuously learned due to the increasing circulation of knowledge and ideas.
4. Framing and mobilization efforts
While an early generation of ecovillages were developed by groups of people that lived in the same area and already knew each other, the internet era has made it possible for some recently developed ecovillages to be initiated by one or a few individuals who later invited others to join them. The sharing of information to gain new members, to spread ideas and to influence change have been made easier though social media, forums and blogs. Many of the newer ecovillages therefore have an easier access to knowledge than earlier generations. Suderbyn and Stjärnsund, who both have a large national and international network, have been especially active and successful in attracting members and volunteers through social media. These ecovillages are involved in many overlapping organizations, trying to influence politicians while promoting quite radical social changes and alternative lifestyles to overcome climate change. This approach has attracted mainly likeminded people. However, the communication approach varies between different ecovillages where others have a softer communication approach, not arguing for as radical lifestyle changes but for the implementation and integration of more sustainable technologies and practices. Many of these ecovillages are mainly providing information through their own websites to receive new members.