This post has been written by Michalis Theodoropoulos of the…
The 5th Informed Cities Forum came to me like a thunderstorm: Coming for a long time, being here briefly and impressively and leaving me behind refreshed and contemplating on what had just happened.
When I close my eyes and think back to these intense one and a half days in Dresden about two weeks ago, this comes up: I remember a group of very mixed and all in their own way very inspiring and cordial people sitting together in a former church turned ruin turned theater turned conference venue under a glass roof that kept us connected to the burning sun, moving clouds and torrential rains outside. Everything changes… constantly. I remember international citizens in very different positions in society and representing manifold interest groups sharing their views and observations, their angle towards sustainability and their quarrels within, without, against or in favor of this basically hard to grasp thing, ”the system”. I remember questioning ourselves basically, if there is hope for the future of humankind on this planet. And if yes, how can we share this hope?
I want to summarize my Aha-moments and thoughts during and after the conference using an evaluation method I know from Permaculture courses (not sure where it originates from, but hey, I just replicate it here). It is called PLUS-MINUS-INTERESTING… I think this is self-explanatory.
First of all, I loved the location! Talking about transitions in a re-used church turned multifunctional cultural space that makes you remember the history of its place is remarkable. It kept us connected with our surroundings and not in an ivory tower. Also the lunch location was reflecting that feeling, as we were all sitting and eating in a courtyard overseen by the neighborhood’s balconies. It reminds you of a simple fact: We are all neighbors.
Secondly, I enjoyed the mix! Especially at the first day of the ICF you could see all sorts of people mingling and chatting over juice and coffee in the breaks. I met people from all over Europe (and beyond), hosted the Brasilian street artivist Mundano and had lunch together with a blogger, a scientist and an EU commissioner talking about food and political movements in my town. To me at least, the Informed Cities Forums so far brought the widest diversity of people together to talk openly about common future strategies.
The role of a critical friend, played at the ICF by Arif Khan was new to me but I appreciated this sort of reflective companionship throughout the event. Since then I already adopted this approach at another occasion and I think this is a great way of providing constant support and mentorship rather than this notion of “being alone out there”. Great idea!
I loved the thoughtfulness that went into planning the whole event, walking the walk and not just talking the talk. The organizers did their best in incorporating their values even in the challenging situation of organizing this large conference. From small things like avoiding unnecessary plastic waste from nametags or plastic cutlery, using re-useable cloakroom tickets, cycling or walking at the field trips up to making the food supply throughout the conference an all vegan event. The catering consisted of mouth-watering delicious food, sourced as far as possible from local farmers, cooked by committed food-lovers like Hackenberger Genusswerke and successfully busting the myth of “all vegans only eat carrots”. Thank you very much to the ARTS team in Dresden for this rare experience of how authentic an event can feel!
I got the opportunity to co-organize one of the six field trips of the ICF exploring the edible parts of Dresden. This gave my co-organizer Sebastian Kaiser and me as representatives of the Garden Network Dresden the chance to show the 20 participants a few different local food initiatives and formats and together reflect about their historic or organizational development and impact in wider society. It was great to hear, what e.g. amazing work the participants coming from Brighton and Hove Food Partnership do since 13 years or hearing the thoughts of a member of the coordination group of the first food coop in Poland. I was again surprised of how little we know about each other’s work or background, but maybe this should go under the headline ”INTERESTING”.
Then I got to know new and interesting local initiatives and movements from Hungary, Sweden, the UK, Spain and Brasil. Thus I got to know Cargonomia in Budapest (more about them here), a great cooperation between three local initiatives combining cargobike building and fixing with fresh food deliveries from local farmers to their customers. I was introduced to Refo in Stockholm, who remake unwanted or used clothes into fashionable products, minimizing waste and developing local creativity, economy and skills. It was great to listen to the talks of artivist Mundano and Prof. Ricard Gomá, who advises a social activist turned mayor in Barcelona on radical democracy. All these efforts give me hope for our European future despite recent disruptions.
I loved the whole evening event at the makerspace Rosenwerk, a place that looks different everytime I am there! They had creatively transformed the winding corridors into a light art lounge, a networking area, a photo exhibition, a DIY parcour and an outside bar, disco and ping pong area. This evening felt to me like a melting pot where I met friends from all sorts of networks and initiatives within Dresden. Well… we are all neighbors.
And, last but not least and needless to say, I loved the lively graphic recording beautifully done by Grit Koalick and Julian Kücklich, who captured the key points of the sessions in a memorable and funny way.
What I missed was more entrepreneurs, more business people, more administrative employees and people from the city council of Dresden participating in the ICF. Is it really just that they have no time to join? Or no interest? Or has their employer no interest? Is it a question of structure? Of wording (or in this case language)? How are we supposed to find the cause for their absence if we do not talk with each other? It is a bit like talking about an elephant without the elephant being present.
I wonder how participation and mutual understanding between city government and citizens shall happen, if we cannot even find the time to sit down together? Translation takes time (and even leads to a deceleration for a while) and if we cannot find that open space in our day to day business we will plainly continue to not understand each other. Does it need another governing body that not only deals with everyday tasks but has time to work strategically and embedded in the local networks?
To me there was also a lack of concrete measures or methods discussed. We know about the issues, but besides exchanging examples and experiences we could talk more about patterns, easy to adapt methods and tactics. To me the questions of “What next?”, “Where are we going together from here?” and “Are we going together?” are still only partially answered.
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. Buckminster Fuller
There was a great discussion in the closing session about what sustainability actually means and what this mountain looks like, that we are all trying to climb. I think we should focus more on envisioning a positive and tangible future for all of us and not shy away from collectively creating this vision. There are tools and examples on how to go about it, be it from approaches like Next Hamburg, the recently finished Future City Dresden 2030+ process or Dragon Dreaming as adaptable methods for crowdsourcing a vision.
It was interesting for me to hear from EU-Commisioner Ugo Guarnacci in the session on power that also “the system” does not know how to reach the people, who could eventually use the money best. Instead they get perfectly written funding applications from professional consulting agencies on the one hand and have a hard time processing handwritten receipts from local leaders in their administrative procedures on the other. So there is a missing link or flexibility between people within the power structure wanting to support bottom up initiatives with their tools and the transitioners in their local and often small scale context. Is that only a question of scale or do individual comfort zones play a role here as well?
In a similar direction points the critical question of how to deal with the planning uncertainties when working with oftentimes fluctuating local initiatives. Would it help when the actors in these initiatives are paid and can earn a living with their cause, so they can do their work more consistently and be integrated better in existing or larger organizational structures? On the other hand many local actors groom a sort of pride about “not doing it for the money” and do not want to fit into the system they want to change, although they have to be connected to the system to change it. So are we standing in our own way?
What struck me was the articulated feeling of some speakers like Gabriele Schneider that what they do is insignificant. Also Miriam mentioned in her reflections of the conference this perceived lack of self-esteem or trust in the own work within small local initiatives. Does that come from some initiatives seeing their work as necessary in the teeth of “the system” instead of towards a common vision and thus feeling part of something much bigger? Or does it originate from a lack of societal appreciation, also in the form of financial appreciation? Try to explain your grandfather what you do as a transitioner and you will see, what I mean.
I personally felt a perceived gap between “traditionally successful people” or people in “high positions” and others, the “normal people”. High profile CVs and titles create an invisible hierarchy in people’s heads which sometimes leads to not talking to each other and experience a different reality. I had this feeling with Arif Khan, just because he was introduced as a Harvard Fellow. Checking out his talk later I regreted my shyness, because we probably would have had a great conversation about urban grown tomatoes. Is this a a personal thing or a half-conscious relapse into (historic) power-patterns?
Don’t underestimate the power of fun!
“Don’t underestimate the power of fun!” was one of the key sentences that stuck with me through the following days. It does not serve the cause if we, the people working for sustainable change, run around complaining and lecturing on other people’s behavior and its detrimental effect on humanity. Instead we should adopt more of a design thinking approach, making a different behavioral pattern attractive to certain stakeholders by leading by example and making it fun. In my understanding, fun in the sense of joy and humor and not in the sense of entertainment. This would make everyone’s lives easier, not harder. Check out the TED talk of architect Bjarke Ingels on Hedonistic Sustainability and see, what that could feel like.
What impressions did the Informed Cities Forum leave behind in your memory? Plus? Minus? Interesting? Please share it with us!
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