The power of the people – Reflections on Informed Cities Conference in Dresden

The power of the people – Reflections on Informed Cities Conference in Dresden

Photos couresy of Vigh IÖR

The ARTS project is drawing to a close, the UK has left the EU leaving an uncertain future for research, and the world hurtles onwards in its path towards irreversible climate change. There doesn’t seem to be a lot to be positive about, coming from this small island that has chosen to cut itself off from the rest of Europe. But yet, I can’t help to be thankful for bearing witness to the Informed Cities Conference in Dresden.

A small group of talented and committed people gathered in a converted church to ask ourselves the difficult questions, and create the partnerships necessary to make that make change. These people, and their relationship to power and partnerships, should give us hope for the future of transitions and transformations to sustainability.

The church is now a theatre, and is a transitional building. Ania Rok described how the building represented a goal for the transition movement. A church is a centre of a community, and its heart.


Leen Gorissen, in the first session of the conference, said something which became an oft-repeated phrase over the next two days. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”. When thinking about this within the ARTS context, I saw the struggle between making visible, quantifiable change and the individual stories that are uncountable but matter just as much to transitional projects.

Mundano, founder of Pimp My Carroca, became the symbol of this throughout the conference. His inspiring speech on how “invisible people” are responsible for most of the recycling efforts in Sao Paulo, and his work on improving their emotional and political standing showed how unrecognisable that which counts may be, or how what can be counted can hide a problem instead of showing a solution. catadores (collectors) in Brazil may be ignored, but they do 96% of Sao Paulo’s recycling, and they are what counts to the city’s recycling.

With the conference’s title of “people’s, power and partnerships”, the question of how do we communicate effectively between people of different power strands or within different groups became salient. Many speakers spoke of using existing networks to mobilise support, or using opportunities that already exist to change an agenda to include transition. The question of outsiders was rarely addressed however. The outsider, the person who has no relationship to the sustainability movements or groups, how do we bring them into the active movement of partnership-building in the sustainability-based world? This question, to me at least, remains unanswered. The people that count are the ones we ignore, and I look forward to future discussions on including the excluded, just as the church aims to bring in those separated from the community.

The session on power recognised the illusion that we have of our own powerlessness. Asked who has the most power, very few people in the room – from the funder to the activist – thought it was themselves. This lack of recognition of our personal power may be holding back many people from the change they can – and do – create. Despite being inspired by every speaker or every attendee, few of these inspirational people held the faith in themselves to deliver the answers they know they have to the problems of transition. Is faith, again that symbol of the church, the key to unlocking our personal power to make a change?

But what about the idea that we are all powerless alone, but together we are powerful? A conference recognising partnerships couldn’t be complete without an acknowledgement of the collective power we all hold. And as the conference closed, and every participant was brought on stage to say one word that comes to mind about the Informed Cities Forum, the power of us all – together – to make change was clear. That is something to give us hope in uncertain times.


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Miriam is a student at the University of Sussex in Brighton. She can be found at @ThatMiriam on twitter.

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. SimonB at 6:32 pm

    Good post Miriam and sums the currents of the event nicely.

    For me I have been left thinking about the role of the state in enabling or fostering community action. Some projects and speakers felt that their local or national government wasn’t doing enough, while for others government action was part of the problem – doing too much of the wrong thing and getting in the way. This is a theme we are very much exploring in Brighton at the moment – trying to find new ways of working between council and community and the discussions at Dresden certainly helped me develop perspective on this from both sides of the fence.

    International government is another thing altogether. Regardless of what happens in the UK as it seeks to renegotiate its relationships with european neighbours, I very much hope that this sort of cross border discussion and work can continue – and if the formal channels become less able to offer this, then I hope that communities can still find positive ways to collaborate and share – and from the warm and creative welcome given at Dresden, this at least is something I can feel a bit positive about.

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