Cosmopolitan Localism as a Transition Design Strategy

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* Article: Cosmopolitan Localism: The Planetary Networking of Everyday Life in Place. By Gideon Kossoff. Cuaderno 73 | Centro de Estudios en Diseño y Comunicación (2019). pp 51-66 ISSN 1668-0227



"Globalization is at the root of many wicked problems to which localism has been a common response. However, such problems are usually too complex and inter-connected to be resolved at the local level. Furthermore, if the future place-based life-styles advocated by Transition Design are to be of high quality, it will be necessary to develop forms of everyday life that are self-organized and networked at multiple scales: from households through neighborhoods, cities, regions, and the planet. This symbiotic connection between different levels of scale of everyday life, from the local to the planet as a whole, would integrate two longstanding and distinct traditions –cosmopolitanism and localism– and would be the basis for a new kind of social, cultural, political and economic settlement, Cosmopolitan Localism." (


Discussion: towards a convergence of localism and cosmopolitanism

Gideon Kossoff:

Origins of Cosmopolitanism and Localism

"Localism and cosmopolitanism have long traditions, both in theory and in practice. Cos-mopolitans have advocated and sought to institutionalize the unity of humanity regard-less of national borders, in an effort to address the tendency towards local self-interest and chauvinism (Brown & Held, 2010; Delanty, 2017). Localism has sought the freedom for communities to manage their own affairs and to live without the imposition of authority and control by external agencies. However, both have been transformed in the last few decades by globalization and the complex social, ecological, cultural, and political prob-lems mentioned above. The origins of cosmopolitanism in the West extend back to Ancient Greece when the philosopher Diogenes declared himself a “citizen of the world” (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 29), but similar philosophies regarding the unity of humanity can be found in many non-European traditions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism (Delanty, 2017). Cosmopolitanism’s modern day agenda was established by the philosopher Kant, who argued for the moral desirability and historical inevitability of a league or federation of sovereign republican states, guided by international law and based upon the right of individuals to “hospitality” in foreign territories (Brown, 2010, pp. 45-60). As a concept, the origins of localism are more difficult to date, since for most of history, most people have lived local, place-based lives (albeit these were often within centralized empires or nation-states). Social philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale (2007) argues that history has been punctuated by “the impulse to local governance, to separatism and independ-ence, to regional autonomy …one gets the sense that these next few decades may provide its chance again”

(p. 279). Perhaps the difference between the localism of previous eras and the localism of today is the scope of the challenge it now faces. In no other era have place-based lifestyles, cultures, and economies, that are adapted to their local ecosystems, been so extensively undermined or extinguished.

Important Aspects and Principles of Contemporary Localism

The advantages of local economies have been extensively argued; urbanist and sociolo-gist Jane Jacobs (1970) contended that the strategy of import-substitution (the process through which locales come to produce for themselves goods and services that were pre-viously imported) has always unleashed a multiplier effect that has been the key to ur-ban and regional prosperity and innovation (Jacobs, 1970). Similarly, economist Richard Douthwaite (1996) has demonstrated how dependence upon external investment connected to a fragile global economic system, drains communities of resources and un-dermines their resilience. Anthropologist Helena-Norberg Hodge (2000) has extensively documented how the culture, economy, and social fabric of the once place-based Ladakhi community in India have been undermined by the centralizing forces of the Indian state and the market economy. Arguing for localization, Norberg-Hodge (2012) says “the es-sence of localization is to enable communities around the world to diversify their econo-mies for as many of their needs as possible from relatively close to home” (p. 65). Localists concur that by producing for themselves as many goods and services as is reasonably pos-sible, communities can develop a better quality of life, reinvigorate local culture, minimize their environmental impact, and lessen their vulnerability to “external perturbations,” such as fluctuations in the global economy (Hopkins, 2008). In addition to localizing economies, localists also seek a renewed relationship with place, as it is defined by culture, history, and ecosystem. This dimension of localism has been best articulated by bioregionalists who maintain that our modernized and globalized lives have become divorced from the ecological processes that characterize the particular places – the bioregions– that we inhabit (Berg and Dasmann, 1990). These emerge out of the interac-tion between human activity, climate, watershed, flora, fauna, soils, and topography. While transition town activists have adopted the term resilience to describe the practices through which communities can protect themselves from the vagaries of the global economy and climate change, bioregionalists have coined the term reinhabitation to describe the prac-tice of ‘living-in-place’, in attunement with the bioregion. Bioregionalists Berg and Das-mann (1990) state that:Living in place means following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure the long-term occupancy of that site. A society which practices living-in-place keeps a balance with it region of support through links between human lives, other living things, and the processes of the planet –season, weather, water cycles– as revealed by the place itself. (p. 35) Local economies must therefore be bioregionally adapted. Returning to the connection that Helena Norberg-Hodge makes between localization and needs satisfaction, localiza-tion can be described as the process through which human needs are satisfied within the constraints and opportunities presented by particular bioregions.

Important Aspects and Principles of Contemporary Cosmopolitanism

Contemporary cosmopolitanism asks how humanity can best cohabit a globally- intercon-nected planet. Sociologist Gerard Delanty (2012) argues that although the cosmopolitan theory of recent decades has typically focused on the possibilities for global democracy, transnational citizenship, and universal rights, it is better characterized as a concern for the ethical, political, cultural, and societal implications of the encounter between different peoples: “The cosmopolitan imagination occurs”, Delanty argues, “wherever new relations between Self, Other and World develop in moments of openness…a reframing of identi-ties or loyalties and self-understanding in ways that have no clear direction” (p. 59). This ontologically relational imaginary, Delanty (2012) argues, is not the traditional cos-mopolitanism based on universal moral norms. Rather, it is a dialogic and co-evolutionary “post-universalistic” cosmopolitanism committed to diversity, reflexivity and the interac-tion and mutual transformation of “collective identities” (p. 177), from which new nor-mative cultures may emerge. Cosmopolitanism, in short, is about the encounter between cultures on equal terms, and the possibility that new ways of being in the world may arise out of this encounter. In a future in which societies and cultures embody this cosmo-politan imaginary, the global order would be founded on self-organization, a process of “immanent transcendence…internally induced social change” (Delanty, 2012, p. 251), of place-based communities with diverse lifestyles. Whilst a vision of this future is currently inchoate, the cosmopolitan imaginary is reflected in pluralistic and self-organizing civil society networks such as the World Social Forum, which has a categorical anti-neoliberal and anti-globalization agenda (de Sousa Santos, 2006). In contrast, the international bodies (eg. The UN, ASEAN, the EU, the African Union and the International Court of Justice) that actually have the authority to address global issues, are comprised of nation-states whose sovereignty impedes the necessary cooperation. In as much are these bodies are federations of sovereign states they have their roots in the cosmopolitanism of Kant and the Enlightenment (Brown, 2010). The political philoso-pher Benjamin Barber (2013) notes that the very notion of sovereignty, which is at the heart of the modern political system, pits nation-state against nation-state. Sovereignty invests nation-states with the freedom to act with authority inside their own borders whilst discouraging collaboration across borders, making it unsuitable in “addressing the multiplying problems of an interdependent world” (p. 3).These international bodies suffer from the same dysfunctions as their member sovereign states. According to political philosopher David Held (2010a), they are unrepresentative of and have limited accountability to, their many stakeholders. Institutional fragmentation means that remits are uncoordinated and overlapping and that issues fall, or are pushed, between the cracks. This results in an “inability to mount collective problem-solving so-lutions faced with disagreement over means, objectives, costs and so on…there is a fun-damental lack of ownership of global problems…It is far from clear which global public issues…are the responsibility of which international agencies” (Held, 2010a, 299). Held (2010b) argues that the solution lies in cosmopolitan democracy, which seeks to reform this system through increased transparency; reorganized international bodies; separation of economic and political interests; new political institutions at global and regional levels; enhanced and coordinated legal systems; and the encouragement of civil society.Although these proposals have much to recommend them and they contain elements of both Enlightenment and contemporary cosmopolitan imaginaries, they rely on the will-ingness of sovereign nation-states and transnational corporations to cooperate and will-ingly relinquish power. They do not challenge the fundamental premises of globalization and suggest that we should have more, not fewer, of the kinds of institutions that are currently failing to address global issues. This is not a cosmopolitan vision that unfolds logically out of a relational ontology but one that patches up a system that originated in another era when global imperatives were very different.

Need to Integrate Cosmopolitanism and Localism

It would be mistake to dichotomize contemporary cosmopolitanism and localism, since they both acknowledge the need for an improved relationship between the local and the global and they have the shared aim of addressing problems caused by globalization. Lo-calists warn against “walling off the outside world” (Shuman, 2000, p. 28) and promote self-reliance rather than self-sufficiency, trading and sharing resources in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable. Localization advocates Raymond de Young and Thomas Princen (2012) argue that “place-based localization includes institutions at the regional, national, and international levels”, and poet and bioregionalist activist Gary Sny-der (1990) states, “we seek the balance between cosmopolitan pluralism and deep local consciousness. We are asking how the whole human race can regain self-determination in place after centuries of having been disenfranchised by hierarchy and/or centralized power” (p. 42). Conversely, the cosmopolitan tradition has maintained, since the Stoic philosophers, that being a citizen of the world does not mean renouncing local identity (Nussbaum, 2010). Political theorist Danielle Archibugi (2010) contends that cosmopoli-tan democracy requires an increase in local governmental powers and Gerard Delanty (2012) states that, “cosmopolitanism concerns a dynamic relation between the local and the global….[and] the multiple ways the local and national is redefined as a result of in-teraction with the global” (p. 68). This paper argues that localism and cosmopolitanism need to be integrated to address their respective limitations. Furthermore, each discourse addresses concepts that are rel-evant to the other. Under the overarching themes of resilience and reinhabitation, localism poses questions about needs, place, and community that are relevant to the issue of the collective human presence on the planet. Cosmopolitanism poses questions about our common humanity and cohabitation of the planet, about the meaning of otherness and openness, and about the co-evolution of cultures; the answers to all of these will help shape localized lifestyles.From the perspective of Transition Design, the wicked problems it seeks to address are sys-temic and multi-level and their global, regional, and local impacts are inextricably entan-gled. Furthermore, the design and development of vibrant, localist, place-based lifestyles will be impossible without coordinated (designed) interregional and planetary exchanges of culture, knowledge, technology, and resources. However, Transition Designers and ac-tivists cannot hope to challenge globalization effectively through national and interna-tional organizations whose knowledge of localities over which they preside is minimal and disconnected from place. A conceptual framework that integrates cosmopolitanism and localism and provides a rationale for developing solutions that address both cosmopolitan and local concerns is needed."

The Vision of Cosmopolitan Localism

"The conceptual framework of the Domains of Everyday Life helps define a cosmopolitan localist vision of multi-scalar, or nested, networks of self-organizing, semi-autonomous, and place-based communities that are empowered to create the good life in the image of their own cultures and histories. The challenge of Transition Design is to help restore and reinvent households, neighborhoods, cities, and regions, by enabling their inhabitants to recover control over the satisfaction of their needs and by redesigning satisfiers so that they are synergistic and placed-based. This, in turn, requires the redesign of socio-techni-cal systems, so that they become decentralized, distributed and networked. This vision responds to many themes within localism, cosmopolitanism and Cosmopoli-tan Localism that need further development. A number of concepts frequently used in these discourses (community, locality, place, lifestyle, networks, needs, reinhabitation, resilience) are clarified and become more nuanced. It addresses the question, posed by localism, of how to conceptualize needs. As people strive to satisfy their needs in different ways, they come to create different kinds of community, different kinds of localness, different kinds of place, different kinds of lifestyles and different kinds of networks.

These differences correspond to the nested levels of scale of everyday life –household, neighborhood, city, region– at which needs are satisfied in different ways. Also, the concepts of resilience and reinhabitation can be applied with increased focus: each level of scale of everyday life needs to become more resilient and each needs to be reinhabited. The emphasis on the development of vital networks of everyday life, within and between communities, and the fostering of mutually supportive, diverse, place-based lifestyles and cultures, is an expression of the relational ontology that is at the heart of the contem-porary cosmopolitan imaginary. Networking between households, neighborhoods, cities and regions would enable the sharing of skills, knowledge and, where appropriate, re-sources, and would give everyday life a cosmopolitan dimension. Finally, this vision pro-poses a complex, multi-level and multi-directional networking process that connects the local (Domains of household, neighborhood, city, and region) to the global (the planet), which is the essence of Cosmopolitan Localism." (