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A replicable grassroots education teaching the skills and mindset for local resilience, powered by new and viable economic models



Reducing CO2 emissions will require a multitude of local approaches. While many folks have great ideas for grassroots actions, they are often limited by their dependence on outside funding from an unsustainable economy in order to sustain them. Therefore, what is REALLY needed is a new economic model which can support thousands of individuals to take on a myriad of local approaches without relying primarily on dollars from the extractive, growth-based economy.

Transition Lab has pioneered an economic model which is financially viable, easily replicable, and empowers individuals to launch dozens of grassroots solutions by using existing resources in more efficient and creative ways. Our goal is to replicate and exponentially increase access to these models so they can catalyze widespread grassroots action across the globe.

The core driver of our model is the Skilled Resident Program, which educates students in the skills necessary to build a resilient, low-carbon future. Empowered with these skills, students exchange their expertise for housing and other basic needs without relying on the dollar economy. For example, a current student is receiving housing in exchange for 10 hours/week to increase household resilience, grow food on-site, and develop the local Timebank. This way, his “rent” exchange actually becomes an asset to the larger community, and the host receives ongoing support simply by putting her guest bedroom to use. In this economic model, grassroots projects are supported by using existing resources (like a guest bedroom) that won’t “run-out”. Instead of spending money and having it disappear, we use our existing resources more creatively, and receive more in return.

Transition Lab serves as a training and accreditation program for students to create and replicate these kinds of new economic models in their community. With a CoLab grant, we can share our models on a much larger scale to empower the grassroots action that our world so desperately needs.

Key actor

Grassroots neighborhood organizations

What actions do you propose?

There are several necessary approaches to develop a low-carbon future. First, we need a way in which to economically support the individuals and grassroots efforts doing the work to reduce carbon emissions. This support needs to come through creative models which utilize existing resources more effectively, rather than using limited resources like dollars as their economic driver.

Secondly, there need to be ways for the individuals who have put years of effort into developing effective, replicable local models to share their wisdom with others. In other words, we need the “elders” of resilience to train the next generation.

Third, we need living laboratories that bring together both elders and students to constantly experiment, model and improve methods of collaboratively building a more resilient future. These laboratories will interface directly with communities so that the benefits, knowledge and experience generated can constantly spread and integrate into local economies.

The good news is that Transition Lab has already created all three. Now we are working to scale up, and the biggest limitation to this is recruiting enough students to our training program to jump from small-scale replication to community-scale replication and beyond.  


Transition Lab has spent the last three years developing and improving the Skilled Resident Program. What started as one person living in a guest bedroom and building up a garden in exchange for rent has now grown into a seven-month program that trains individuals in the skills necessary to build a resilient, local low-carbon future. While most people we talked to support this idea, they were hestiant to implement it themselves without a credible source to train students and facilitate their connection with appropriate hosts. Our program has since fulfilled this niche and connects students with hosts in the community that want to support or launch local initiatives.

In just the first month of our 7-month curriculum we have started a seed bank, improved and expanded a local time bank, contributed over 150 hours to local organic food production, created affordable housing arrangements, reorganized an environmental non-profit, set up carpools and bike groups for getting to and from local farms, donated more than 100 lbs. of excess organic produce to a soup kitchen, held classes in local businesses to support our downtown merchants, set up a movie night at a local brewery, set up a kids day on the farm for parents and toddlers, hosted classes on meditation, garden planning, soil fertility and direct civic engagement, put on a public event to organize opposition to the Citizens United decision and much more--all on a budget of decision and much more--all on a budget of $1000.


A huge part of the work we have accomplished was driven through our student Jake Hanson’s rent exchange with the creator of our local time bank. This is a crucial point: If Jake had to pay for rent using traditional means, he would have spent around 40 hours a month in the traditional economy just to get by, and in the process used fossil fuels, likely working in some part of the unsustainable extraction-based economy. With our model, Jake didn’t have to spend any money to meet his basic needs and instead was encouraged to directly work 40 hours on creating part of a resilient low-carbon future.

This model is a game changer for the thousands of folks who are ready to build a resilient future, but feel that they don’t have the time or resources to commit to one. Whether the participating individual is a host or a skilled resident, the Transition Lab model creates a win-win situation where a tremendous amount of work gets done without a lot of cash.


With time and money liberated, students can commit to a more immersive education experience at Transition Lab. The five core components of our curriculum are local food, low-cost housing and infrastructure, employment and business, community engagement, and knowledge of self.

The first component of the classroom setting is an intensive course in knowledge of self, centered around metacognition and mindfulness practices. Transition Lab focuses on this initially to create a strong foundation and mindset upon which the rest of the education process can develop more effectively. Metacognition involves studying how the mind works and the practices which can develop it into a more finely tuned tool, capable of deeper, more sustained focus and new creative thinking. Greater mindfulness increases students' abilities to see connections, recognize patterns and make sense of the big picture. In other words, it facilitates systems-thinking. The classroom setting presents the knowledge, then students put that into practice in their daily experience throughout the course.

Another central aspect to developing mindfulness is practicing an hour of sitting & walking meditation each day before class. This is perhaps the core exercise of developing mindfulness, and is a central part of the curriculum. Regular meditation serves to calm the mind so that students can approach daily interactions, lessons, and problem-solving with greater clarity, intention and focus.

The next core part of the curriculum is local food, centered around regular work on organic farms. This serves multiple purposes. First, the student gains a full growing season of hands-on education in growing food organically on a community scale. This experiential learning goes beyond just theory and provides the opportunity for a truly immersive education which will give them the confidence to grow food and teach others to do so in the future. Second, the work on the farms is also part of the Skilled Resident model, so students are able to meet most of their food needs through direct work exchange rather than relying on dollars from the traditional economy. Third, the morning hours spent on the farm directly augments students' mindfulness practice. For anyone who has gardened, it will make sense how working in the soil and with plants is a type of meditation which promotes health, happiness and healing.

In addition to the regular work on farms, students also participate in a two-week intensive permaculture design certification course. Permaculture design principles will not only apply directly to the students' work growing food and dramatically increase their value as skilled residents, but will also help shape their ways of approaching problems in daily life. For example, the 1st design principle of Permaculture is “Observe and Interact.” This overlaps with mindfulness practice and promotes a more effective and healthy approach to long-term problem solving and devising sustainable, systems-based solutions.

The third core component of the curriculum is low-cost housing and infrastructure. Following Transition Lab's focus on using existing resources more sustainably, this course teaches both basic skills and specific designs which students can use to build the physical components of local resilience. Connecting with local experts as mentors, students develop skills such as welding, carpentry, earthen building techniques, greenhouse design, and more. The low-cost focus means developing the creative mindset to use existing, locally-sourced, abundant resource in unique ways to design and build useful products for local resilience. Starting with basics and simple example projects guided by mentors, students will then design and build their own projects to develop their creativity, confidence, and ability to teach others.

Another aspect to low-cost infrastructure is embodied in the Skilled Resident model. Clearly, by facilitating a skilled-work-trade exchange with hosts who have extra rooms, this frees the student from paying money for rent and substantially reduces the monetary cost and carbon footprint of housing, simply through putting their education into practice.

The fourth core curriculum component is community engagement. This ranges from the level of interpersonal skills and conflict mediation up to the scale of community organizing, with lessons in advanced democratic citizenship and direct civic engagement. We are training students not only to put resilience skills into practice, but to share them widely by becoming leaders in their home communities.

Inherent to our model, we also develop symbiotic relationships between students and local businesses,organizations, and government. Some relationships, such as those with the farms, will be common to all students, while others will be determined by individual student’s skills and interests, such as Jake’s work with the Time Bank. Common to all of these is the practice of meeting needs through collaboration and empowering relationships, rather than through monetized transactions.

Finally, the fifth part of our curriculum is employment and business. Later in the year, students will work with local mentors in the business model seminar. Combining the skills and practices they’ve developed with their own interests and passions, students will write business plans with a focus on expanding their work, while keeping it self-sustaining and profitable. Using the Skilled Resident model, students can create new paradigms for employment which take steps to transcend the traditional monetary economic model. Finally, students who feel up to the challenge can work with Transition Lab leaders to write their business plan for launching a new Transition Lab campus in their hometown for the following year. 


With our curriculum, the program is constantly supporting teachers and mentors who have been practicing resilience locally for decades. Furthermore, our entire curriculum is based on real world application and implementation.

Fundamentally, we are storytellers who are narrating an alternative to the fossil-fuel-driven economy. Since our approach is so unconventional, our story needs to be told, retold, and demonstrated repeatedly just to help people understand the power of what we're doing. This Fall and into next year, all of our available resources will be going into advertising, speaking at conferences, and promotional materials to get our story across. As students become involved and active in our community, our story gains depth and strength. This, in turn, attracts more students and generates more robust local grassroots action. Working with the backing of a CoLab grant would both enable us to share our story with a wider audience through the CoLab Community, but also fund our efforts to communicate with a broader range of interested audiences.

Who will take these actions?

Transition Lab needs more actors to participate and co-create the models that we have pioneered. We are seeking cultural creatives who are already addressing the climate crisis but may be limited in their actions because they are tied to an economy which doesn’t value their work.

Between growing seasons, we spend our time seeking out these folks and proposing ways to collaborate. For example, we’ve used the Climate CoLab Contest as a resource for finding folks who have awesome CO2-reducing ideas, but may be limited by their economic model. We’ve sent out emails to our favorite participants, inviting them to work with us.

We are also connecting with groups like Transition Towns, which are already made up of cultural creatives that could benefit from having local members participating in our Skilled Resident Program. In this example, our job is to offer a web presence that can facilitate the program, as well as mentorship for it’s successful implementation.

For us, the biggest goal of participating in the Climate CoLab Contest is the opportunity to invite others to participate in in these new economic models so that we can collectively take on all the projects that our world needs to reduce CO2. This is a unique characteristic of Transition Lab, in that most other proposals in the contest focus on a specific action that only a few people will be able to participate in directly. Our proposal is unique by virtue of being a replicable idea which can enable thousands of actors to empower their existing ideas.

Finally, Transition Lab currently employs more than a dozen people on a part-time basis to share their skills which will be crucial for successfully building a resilient future. As our program grows, we seek to recruit and employ more of these folks to value their experience and support their work. 

Russell Evans, the program’s director, and Jake Hanson, the program’s first graduate will continue to work full time implementing these steps. 

Russell Evans Jake Hanson

Where will these actions be taken?

Transition Lab is based in Montrose Colorado, and all of our 2013 localized implementation will happen on Colorado’s Western Slope. However, during the winter months our goal is to share these models with as many folks as possible wherever they may be. For example, in the winter of 2012-13, Russell took the Transition Lab story on the road spending nearly two weeks at college campuses, political events, and meeting with other grassroots leaders from Nebraska to California. In 2013, Jake and Russell plan a more ambitious publicity campaign with more speaking dates in more communities.

Representatives from the University of Colorado’s Ecocenter have already expressed interest in supporting and replicating the program in the Fall of 2014. Various groups in Jake’s hometown of Salt Lake City also support vision of replication there.

Our goal is to generate sufficient interest to create a full student body in Montrose for the 2014 school year, as well as launching the model in Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colorado. 

As we continue to recruit cultural creatives, we will work to help them replicate the program in their communities, to support their ideas and actions. 

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

The root cause of emissions is a growth-based economy powered by dirty energy. Rather than trying to clean up that economy, we offer viable alternatives by creatively using existing resources more effectively, teaching the core skills of local resilience, and fostering empowering symbiotic relationships within communities.

Our biggest initial emissions reduction comes from shared housing. With an average footprint for a 1-person home of 25 tons CO2/yr, sharing that space instantly saves at least 10 tons per person. More reductions come from hyper-localized lifestyles like front-yard food production, bikeable commutes, shared tools, and collaborative livelihoods.

Ultimately, we're offering transformative life experiences which create livelihoods outside of the carbon economy which can’t be measured by footprint calculators. It also empowers the civic engagement necessary to reduce carbon beyond just individual consumer choices, and can be replicated by anybody anywhere.

What are other key benefits?

We not only offer the education and skills to create the economy of the future, our models serve as the driving force to power that economy. By empowering the development of a sustainable, localized, and democratic economy that intrinsically reduces CO2, we have created a game changer.

We are offering a real alternative for the under-employment of a generation hit hardest by the great recession. Our education offers a 100% return on investment within a year, solely based on money saved on rent through the Skilled Resident Program. Graduates will possess the skills to create the economy of the future without accumulating thousands of dollars in debt.

Finally, Transition Lab is not a theoretical model. It is up and running and it is viable. It will only become more successful as it grows and more students experience the transormative curriculum. 

What are the proposal’s costs?

Instead of building a school, student housing, or starting a new farm, we are utilizing small businesses to hold classes, housing students in existing guest bedrooms, and partnering with organic farms to strengthen local food production. From our inception, we have been building something completely new without the carbon-intensive process of building anything physically new.

In short, we offer a pragmatic, accessible alternative to the existing economy which directly empowers grassroots action to reduce CO2.

Starting Transition Lab in Montrose, Colorado only cost $3,000 in actual dollars. The rest of the work was accomplished through sweat equity and collaborative relationships. The primary cost for replication and expansion comes from advertising and travel expenses while promoting the program. There are also shared costs like legal fees and a web-presence. Once a program has three students paying full tuition, it becomes self-sustaining.

Most importantly, since Transition Lab is an approach and not an object, it can be replicated horizontally without vast resources--in the same way that education is becoming free and expansive. Our only limitation is finding students who are willing to take the leap away from the traditional economy. 

Time line

Transition Lab started in 2010, has tested models for three years, launched our 7-Month Curriculum in 2013. We wanted to take the time to make sure that we really had our models figured out before we replicated and upscaled them. Between the Fall of 2013 and the Spring of 2014, we will be doing a huge push to advertise, recruit, and replicate our Montrose, Colorado program at college campuses. Depending on enrollment and interest, we plan to open an urban campus in Salt Lake City in the Spring of 2014 and in Boulder, CO in the Fall of 2014.  

We are also in the process of building a website for launch this Autumn that can faciliate the Skilled Resident Program across the globe connecting credible Skilled Residents with hosts. 

In 2014 and beyond our work is to recruit more students who have great ideas for their own communities, and will work to empower their dreams.  

Related proposals

There are many ideas and proposals that we like, found in the MIT CoLab contest and elsewhere. However, Transition Lab stands out through its potential to stimulate and support an entire wave of grassroots actions to collectively address the CO2 crisis facing the world.

In contrast, the two closest competitors of Transition Lab are Black Mountain SOLE and The Mycelium School. These programs are offering radically new pedagogical approaches as alternatives to a traditional four year degree. However, the Mycelium School’s business model requires tuition prices to be at least twice that of Transition Lab, while Black Mountain SOLE is dependent on millions in donations to offer free tuition. Each of these schools is valuable because we need a diversity of approaches to build a resilient future. However, Transition Lab is far more independent, affordable, and resourceful than any of our competitors. This makes our program accessible to others to both attend and replicate indefinitely. 


We calculated emissions reductions by using Berkeley’s CoolClimate carbon footprint calculator. However, because most carbon calculators have no means to account for fundamental shifts in consumption patterns like “Is your 30% of your food growing in your front lawn using no-till techniques?” we are confident that our carbon footprint is much lower than estimated.

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