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Rob Hopkins: Self-styled "Cookie Monster" Hopes to Transform HEC Paris Into French Hub for Transition Experiments

Charismatic environmental activist Rob Hopkins was invited by HEC Paris’ Society and Organizations (SnO) Center November 15 to expose the philosophy behind the Transition Network movement he cofounded in 2007. The independent English writer also exchanged with major local political personalities and company CEOs in a visit aimed at accelerating the transition movement of the HEC Paris/Saclay community.

Rob Hopkins: Self-styled "Cookie Monster" Hopes to Transform HEC Paris Into French Hub for Transition Experiments - HEC Paris 2016

“Inspirational”. “He showed us we have to start with ourselves”. “Important, because he made it a local question”. Just some of the comments by HEC Paris postgraduates as they reflected on the impact of Rob Hopkins’ November 15-16 visit to the business school. His two-hour workshop with HEC students was part of a whirlwind 48-hours at the HEC campus which included working meetings with researchers, municipal representatives from the Paris and Jouy-en-Josas town halls and exploratory discussions with top brass from six French multinationals. By the end, there were calls to transform the campus into France’s first university laboratory to implement Transition ideas and models.

The aforementioned students are in Julien Dossier’s Sustainable Cities course at HEC Paris – part of the Specialization Track in the MSc Sustainability and Social Innovation (SASI) program. Dossier gave an induction speech at the start of the year, inviting students to use their time on campus not just to learn sustainable development theories but to act and implement solutions. This inspired the students to devise and start several projects to create transitions towards local, alternative forms of subsistence on the HEC campus.

“Can-do” philosophy

The dialogue also touched Hopkins, a seasoned social entrepreneur who has helped establish a network of around 1,500 Transition organizations in 50 countries. “I thought some of the students’ ideas were brilliant. To be honest,” confided the former teacher half-jokingly, “I was a bit nervous before I came here: would I be hounded off the campus as a dangerous subversive with crazy ideas? It was that Cookie Monster image.” Despite an intense day of debate, the London-born pioneer remained fired up. “But I sensed that people here are hungry for what the Transition movement’s experimental approach can bring. They understand the gravity, the urgency and the scale of the climate crisis. It’s historically unprecedented but there is a tiny, tiny window to rethink and re-imagine all aspects of our lives. With these experiments on food consumption, usage of transport, recycling waste, and so on, HEC is on the right track.”

Julien Dossier has been following Hopkins’ work on encouraging local alternatives to a fossel-fuel driven economy ever since 2007 when the Transition Network began in Totnes, just south of Exeter, England. In his sixth year of teaching at HEC, Dossier decided to invite Hopkins to Jouy-en-Josas to share his experience and vision. “I was hugely impressed by the prescient conjunction between peak oil and permaculture,” he explained over the telephone. “It has a real “can-do” philosophy which counters the defeatist attitude we see elsewhere. My students are part of the climate-crisis generation, they’re going to have to ruffle lots of feathers in their careers in order to lead and implement the transition to a carbon-neutral world. With people like Rob, we can provide them with tools to cope with the conundrum.”

Worldwide applications

As is wont at HEC Paris, the SASI program has attracted a cosmopolitan and experienced student group to the Sustainable Cities course. Taiwan graduate Valerie Hau Wang enrolled to acquire theoretical and systemic groundings she hopes to apply to a nascent sustainable development movement back home. But it was Hopkins’ concrete, “down-to-earth” approach which Wang felt most useful. “I asked him how he persuaded the skeptics he met and he shot back: “Don’t persuade them. Just be blatantly honest, believe in the power of honesty.” I felt empowered, there was no need to use flashy words or models.” Wang is in a group working on a two-month “challenge” to lower their carbon footprint: “We’re going to invest in local-resource food, drive less or car-share … and try to bring down our non-recyclable waste so that each one of us will fit it all into one empty jar. The latter is going to be tough.”

Student Joao Paolo Serra, meanwhile, hopes to collate sustainability indicators to give HEC Paris access to platforms shared by the likes of MIT, Yale and Harvard. “We have to think of the bigger picture,” explained the environmental engineer from Rio de Janeiro. “We’re going to measure the social and environmental impact on campus to become part of this network seeking sustainable systems.” Serra felt Hopkins provided certain key advice to take back to Brazil: “Start small, think big, I like that. And I think the way he combines local development with celebration will go down very well at home.” Intriguingly, the Carioca student first heard of the English activist through his father. “He saw the film Demain where he plays a central role and pushed me to see it, insisting on how Hopkins attacks this obsession we have for growth growth growth.”

The SASI team of academics also organized meetings with top representatives from the Paris and Jouy-en-Josas municipality, as well as multinationals such as Schneider and Air Liquid. “The aim was to create bridges, combine major players. We have to scale up the solutions,” insisted the founder of Quattrolibri, a consultancy focused on building green businesses. And the upshot of the meeting with multinationals who, at times, are seen as the problem? “There were signs of cooperation on both sides. Rob Hopkins made a real impact in showing the importance of connecting employees to their immediate work environment and to the resources and needs of their territory. They were interested in crafting local loops of the circular economy, not just global flows of materials, for example. Rob also seemed persuasive in encouraging the companies to wean themselves off fossil fuels.” And in exchange? “Obviously, we hope these multinationals will quickly seize the potential offered by partnering with networks of local communities, in order to launch and grow their low carbon products and services. But there is also the laboratory work the companies do which creates new equipment that civic movements could integrate in their models.”

Light bulb moment

“They work in a cloud,” said Hopkins with a smile, in reference to the multinational workforces. Early that morning, he had faced the six business executives with a degree of trepidation. “My experience of multinationals have been confined to predatory behavior of large, extractive businesses, with no loyalty to the place they extract from. But, I told the executives that if we reconnect the employees in the multinationals to local food, work and culture, it would anchor employers to their immediate environment. And as I spoke, I saw one of those lightbulb moments because they hadn’t considered it before. I felt heartened, respected and heard at today’s meeting.”

Rodolphe Durand also insisted on the infectious energy Hopkins brought to the campus. The SnO founder and Academic Director admitted it had had a personal impact. “I have been at HEC for 12 years and how many times have I interacted with people from Jouy-en-Josas? Zero. On this campus, we’re separated, isolated, in a bubble. Why not create connections with the farmers next door? Rob also showed us that with a little investment we could transform the flat roofs of our buildings into playgrounds or places on which to build photovoltaics for energy. He helps to connect people, exchange, and that can only be healthy.”

A “moving” Network

In terms of future collaboration with HEC researchers, Durand agreed his SnO Center could contribute to a better theoretical understanding of the Transition movement and why some projects succeed, “while others wax and wane”. “We could bring an interesting qualitative analysis, much in the way the Italian Luigi Russi researcher did in his book Everything Gardens and Other Stories which analyses the impact of the Transition movement in Totnes itself.”

It was Luigi who insists Hopkins’ brainchild is not a movement but a “moving”, a linguistic oddity which encapsulates the Network’s ability to adapt and modify its course according to specific times and environments. The desire for a better understanding of the movement he helped popularize was a chief motivating factor for the visiting environmentalist. “Even after 11 years, Transition Networks is at an experimental level,” the 47-year-old admitted, “I call it a work of the imagination that depends on a bottom-up approach. On this campus, I see potential everywhere: university buildings built using local material that people will sing songs about, and praise for the next 200 years, why not?”

Where does the father-of-four find his optimism? After all, as we spoke, the Cop 22 in Marrakesh had just ended in discord and growing tension. “It’s true you can feel despondent after the Cop 21 euphoria. At Cop 22, corporations seem to have wrestled back control. There’s also the American presidential catastrophe with Trump rolling back the Paris agreement. But,” he fires back with characteristic calm, “I don’t like the word optimism,” “because the optimism/pessimism prisms are dead-end. I have great faith in human creativity and imagination. I’m what I am today because of books, music, art. It is that same well-spring of human creativity that will get us out of this mess.”