It was billed as “an emergency summit for change”, and it was a call that drew around 150 people from across the UK, and even some from further afield. Hosted at The Edge, a community-funded church building in the centre of Wigan just round the corner from the actual Wigan Pier (yes, that one, the one with the road famously leading to it), the event, exactly a year before Brexit becomes (or doesn’t) a reality, was co-presented by at least 40 organisations.
At the opening, Andy Goldring of the Permaculture Association presented the event as an opportunity to “step out of our silos and connect” and to create “a cunning plan for how to change the country for the better”.
The aim of the event was to share the successes and potential of the different movements, from permaculture to community ownership, from the solidarity economy to rethinking governance, to build new coalitions, create and deepen relationships, understand each other and our different work better, map a common understanding of key issues and opportunities to align and work together, and identify things we can do together to realise a real power shift towards greater local and regional autonomy.
Aiming to create that “cunning plan” in just 2 and a half days was a big challenge, but a challenge that needed taking up. The event had been 12 months in the planning, and the facilitation was very well thought through. I saw one comment on the feedback board at the end of the event that read: “it must be tough trying to facilitate so many people”. Having been part of facilitation groups for similar events I can attest that yes, it is tough, but thrilling and rewarding too.
Here is my podcast, a gathering of voices from across the three days, presented in the sequence they were recorded during the flow of the event. Hopefully it gives a sense of the feel of the event, and of some of the people who attended.
The event featured many of the facilitation techniques that regular attenders of Transition events will be familiar with: Home Groups (here they were called ‘hives’), Open Space, Fishbowl, workshops. Alongside these were techniques I hadn’t experienced before, such as a Design Charette, of which more later.
We kicked off on the Tuesday afternoon with a mapping exercise, seeing where people had come from, how hopeful they felt about things, and the degree to which they felt they had the answer to the problems. We were welcomed to Wigan by Donna Hall, CEO of Wigan Council who thanked the event for coming to Wigan, and talked about the work they are doing in a similar vein.
We organised ourselves into Home Groups, who we would then check in with throughout the event. We ended the first day with ‘Solutions Sessions’. I went to one on Participatory Budgeting with Jez Hall of Shared Future, and then another with Unltd about their thinking on how to support social enterprises with more of a sense of being in a ‘place’. Both were fascinating.
Wednesday morning started to identify particular areas that we wanted to focus on, getting us thinking about the Open Space events. It started with Jay Tompt inviting us all to pause for a moment to meditate on the importance of broadmindedness, and how it’s ok to live with the uncertainty that we may not have all of the answers.
Open Space was introduced, and questions were harvested. I went to one discussion about narrative and story, and how our movements might become better storytellers. We explored the kinds of language that can connect and galvanise people and how, as one person put it, “you don’t fear someone whose story you know”.
In the other, we talked about local economics, hosted by Mike from Newcastle Under Lyme, who talked about the CounterCoin, a fascinating local currency experiment. Here’s a photo of some of the coins and a video about it:
The Open Space was followed by a Fishbowl. For the uninitiated, this is where a few people sit in the middle of the concentric circles of chairs and add their thoughts to a conversation, then stepping out and allowing other people to step in. It was a very insightful discussion, which ended up also being a powerful reflection on actually how much courage it takes for some, especially women, to step into a circle and speak.
Lastly there was another batch of Solutions sessions. I went to one led by Zarina Ahmad called Diversity Adds Value, an excellent overview of issues around diversity and inclusion. After this I went to one led by Lucy Antal of ‘North West Food Stories’. Again, really fascinating too get a sense of what’s happening in different parts of the UK.
The second day opened with a live video link discussion with Caroline Lucas MP, and with Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper, who was with us in person. It was a very useful discussion about the relationship between grassroots movements and politics. Caroline Lucas said that “the power of good examples all around the country is that when the government says that “things are impossible”, it means she is able to say “no, they’re already happening around the country”. While there is a lot that we can do, it is also true that policy changes can enable activities currently in pockets to spread.
Hilary Wainwright said that we need to recognise power in two senses, firstly power as domination (i.e. that wielded by governments) and secondly power as what she called “transformative capacity”, which we have, and need to make the most of.
Andy Goldring then set out to draw out a sense of urgency for the rest of the day, inviting people to share what they’re angry about. “The world around us is dying”, he said. “In this context”, he went on, “do we demonstrate against? Or demonstrate?” (I liked that line, might have to use it myself).
In the first session, we were invited to suggest projects we wanted to see come out of the event. Not ideas, not “someone should”, but actually achieveable, ambitious things that could be started tomorrow. When about 8 ideas were gathered, groups formed around each one, and we had just over an hour working in ‘Design Charettes’ (a charette, according to the dictionary, is “an intense period of design or planning activity”) to come up with a worked up, beautifully presented proposal. It was amazing to see, when working under such tight constraints, and Jay cracking the whip to keep us focused and hard at work, to see what people came up with.
Ideas included a model for accelerating place-based wealth building, a co-op of co-operatives for the Wigan area, a think and do tank for accelerating these ideas, an ‘Imagination Intervention’ – a one day event which transforms a place in such a way as to bring the future to life, and a couple of others I didn’t make a note of! The final session then attempted to nail these down into final commitments for actions that would arise from the projects.
That’s a brief sense of the event, hopefully gives you a sense of the flow. I’d like to give you a sense of what felt to me like highlights, and what felt to me like the challenging bits:
- I have never been before at an event with so many organisations under one roof all with similar aims and wanting to find new ways to connect and collaborate. It felt like an historic occasion, a brave thing to attempt, and I made lots of great connections
- Spending time with so many what one person called “positive deviants” is wonderful, and very life-affirming
- It was great to be in Wigan, with its long radical history, and with its Council attempting to do some very interesting things, and to have the Wigan Diggers Festival entertain us on the Saturday night, and to have Fur Klempt feed us deliciously using surplus food from local businesses. Bard Company’s (described as “the oldest boy band on the circuit”) reinterpretation of the Beastie Boys’ classic ‘You’ve got to fight for your right to party’ into a Jeremy Corbyn anthem of ‘You’ve got to fight the right in your party’ will stay with me for a long time.
- There was lots of social connecting time, and it was great to spend some quality time with old friends and new ones too…
- The graphic note-takers did an amazing job, capturing the event’s many nuances and debates with colour and flair (see below).
- It was fascinating how hard it was to coax people away from their key peeves, their soap box issues. It felt like for some people, it was a struggle to let go and listen enough to allow things to go where they might go because they kept pulling it back to some distant and overarching concern
- Likewise, it was interesting how hard it was to get some people to move away from vague generalisations like “we must reform the financial system” or “we need to transform the political system”, to something more tangible, achievable, focused. It felt like there was a default position that we often fall back into without even realising it
- Diversity and inclusion was an issue that kept coming up. We were honoured to be joined by a group from the Glasgow Multicultural Centre, who got very involved in the conference, and ran a great workshop on diversity. What was fascinating was that there seemed to be a particular issue with younger women saying they felt it difficult to speak up, to get involved, not a problem I’ve seen at previous such events. I noticed a comment on the feedback board at the end that simply read “be aware that people are at different starting positions”, which felt like a really useful observation for future events. What could happen at the beginning to make sure that everyone is given as much confidence as possible to chip in? It would be useful to hear what other people do around this..
But what was so intriguing about this event was that all of the above was really to be expected. Bringing such diverse organisations, a mixture of grizzled battle-scarred community/sustainability veterans and younger, more idealistic activists, and people with very varied degrees of anger/exclusion/distress about the state of the world was always going to be a very charged field. And to try, in such a short period of time, to get them to actually not just meet and talk, but to work together to come up with actual, tangible, achievable projects, was close to trying to put a man (or woman) on the Moon.
Bringing these people together to attempt something so ambitious, with their very varying levels of familiarity with and comfort with process and the more ‘touchy-feely’ work like exploring grief and anger, was always going to be difficult. As the title of the event says, this is an emergency. We have lost more than half of the living creatures we share this planet with since 1970. Climate change is accelerating. What does a bottom up response look like, and how can the bottom up movements become the drivers for it? There are few more timely questions.
For me, this was an amazing event. It was messy, sure, with its bits that didn’t work, its tricky edges, its blind spots. But putting on this event at this time was an amazingly brave thing to do. The facilitators sailed into unknown waters, and it took all their navigation skills to keep the ship on course. For some people I spoke to, they were frustrated that it didn’t feel tangible enough, that they had heard many of the discussions before, that they needed bigger responses than could be achieved at such an event. But that’s a bit like blaming a lawnmower for making lousy toast.
This was an event that set out to mark a moment, a historic moment when everyone who heeded the call headed out from the towns, the cities, the hills, the woods, the fields, to meet and try to figure out what to do, how to use what they have more effectively. That really matters. I felt honoured to be there. We won’t know for a few years just what impact this event had. But I’ll bet you now that it will be looked at as a key moment, a watershed, from which much flowed that had previously been unthinkable.