The Bumblebee That Changed The World

From Dave Smith

Excerpted from The Natural Step For Communities-
How Cities and Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices

Övertorneå — the first eco-municipality in Sweden

In the mid-1980s, the little town of Övertorneå (Eu-vehr-tawr’-neh-aw) in northern Sweden received a national prize as the Municipality of the Year. In his speech at the award ceremony, a prominent county official, Councilman Jan-Olof Hedwtröm, compared Övertorneå to a bumblebee. As lore has it, the famous aeronautic engineer Sikorsky hung a sign in his office lobby that reads: “The bumblebee, according to our engineers’ calculations, cannot fly at all, but the bumblebee doesn’t know this and flies.”

This was the regional and national establishment’s view of Övertorneå. Changes were happening in the town outside the envelope of what was then regarded as business-as-usual community development. The municipal government and its larger community had made a commitment to develop in a way that was in harmony with nature. Övertorneå residents and town officials sought a win-win-win relationship betwen humans, society, and nature. Residents and officials were coming to understand that investing in ecological approaches to meet community needs could also bring about an economically positive future. To characterize its transformation, Övertorneå began to call itself an “eco-municipality.”

Övertorneå was discussing and practicing ideas such as mobilizing people, taking a bottom-up approach to community planning, collaborative community development, cooperating across department and industrial sector boundaries, investing in local culture, and taking into account the local informal economy. Such ideas were foreign to conventional Swedish town planning and community development practices at that time. What the regional and national establishments could see, without understanding why, was that these strange ideas evidently produced remarkable results — for example, over 200 new business enterprises producing several hundred jobs in a small town of barely 6,000 inhabitants. These county and national agencies considered new jobs and businesses to be the most important indicators of successful community development.

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