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On The Urgent Need to Slow Down

There are two weeks to go until this year’s Futureperfect festival kicks off – and every day now, I’m hearing from new people who are coming, people I’m excited to know are going to be there.

I’ve come to see gatherings like this as a necessary luxury.

A luxury because they allow us to take a couple of steps back from the day-to-day realities of our work, whatever that may be.

And a necessity because, without stepping back like this from time to time, we will drift off course, lose sight of that element within our work that is hardest to put into words, the element that was why it mattered in the first place.

In these spaces, we get to stretch out our minds and our souls a little – to have the conversations we never quite find time for among the rhythms of everyday life, or at more goal-oriented events and conferences. We step into festive time, a time of leisure in the deeper, older senses of the word: the kind of leisure that was long understood to be the precondition for learning. The leisure that allows us to attend to what matters.

I believe that such spaces matter all the more, given the tangle of crises around and ahead of us. I’ll say what I mean by this in a moment – but as I work my way around to doing so, you might like to put on a little music from one of the artists who’ll be creating the kind of leisurely atmosphere I’m looking forward to at Futureperfect…

Over the last few weeks, with some of my new collaborators here in Sweden, we’ve been starting to put words to the kind of work we want to do together in the name of The Västerås Group: the organisation that has been growing of the conversation series I hosted here in Västerås earlier in the summer. (Recordings of the first five conversations are available to download here, the rest are coming soon.)

There’s a question we’ve found ourselves circling around, which goes something like this: What do we do when our maps no longer fit the territory?

We seem to be living in a time of disorientation. A time of people who feel lost and confused, who followed the route they were given, but didn’t get to the lives they were expecting. Institutions whose levers no longer seem to work. At the root of this are a set of entangled crises: among them, the unravelling of the promise of economic progress, of the structures and culture of democracy, of the ecological fabric on which all of this rests.

These crises are still only starting to poke through the collective map by which our societies steer, the collection of models and stories that make up what I often think of as ‘official reality’. Politicians and the media struggle to incorporate them into their ways of talking about the world. But the lurching sense of disorientation is a product of the gap between that rapidly-dating map and the realities of everyday life.

And so, as we’ve been talking about what The Västerås Group might actually do together, we’ve started to sketch out what it might mean to build a practice around the redrawing of our maps. Taking account of the unmarked obstacles, resisting the illusion of a return to the way things once worked, learning to spot the unexpected paths where we had been told there was only a dead end.

Just now, for me, all of this comes around to Futureperfect. For the obvious reason that this is the first project we’ve undertaken as The Västerås Group: to host the festival’s Cocreation Space, a huge tent at the centre of the festival site, full of cushions and comfy sofas and conversations, where our Festival Faculty will be inviting people back from the more formal sessions going on over the four days, picking up the loose ends and unanswered questions, trying to draw each other beyond our preformed ideas, into the process of thinking together.

And for the larger reason that the space of necessary luxury and leisurely conversation seems to be a precondition for the kinds of work that we’ve started to identify as belonging to the process of redrawing. Gatherings like this are one form of such a space, there are others. They respond to a need that grows stronger in times of disorientation: the urgent need to slow down.

So here is my work-in-progress, back-of-an-envelope map of some kinds of work that make sense, when our maps no longer fit the territory. (I suspect it will be a while before we distill all this into a simple explanation of what it is we’re doing, but I hope the conversations on Grinda in two weeks’ time will help that process on its way.)

  1. Acknowledge the scale and significance of the gap that has opened up: the discomfort of losing our bearings, the attachment we have to how we thought the world worked and how we thought our lives would work out. Make room for this loss, and for the doubts and fears and darknesses that come with it. Wait for your eyes to adjust, without rushing to answers or to action. Allow it to pass from the level of information and facts, into the kind of knowledge we feel in our bodies, the kind that leaves us changed. (If I had to sum up why Dark Mountain has mattered to people, I would say it was because without fully realising what we were doing, we made room for this kind of process – a theme Paul and I talked about in the Five Years on a Mountain video.)
  2. Give attention to the maps, models and stories we grew up taking for reality. Take a step back and allow them to come into focus. Notice them, name them together, so that we can recognise the moments when they slip back in to our thinking, uninvited. This is the kind of attention I associate with what Cat Lupton calls ‘the place between stories’ (which always reminds me of ‘the Wood between the Worlds’ in The Magicians Nephew). It’s a process I talk about in this short video with Ākāśa Innovation.
  3. Give attention to the elements within people’s everyday experience that are left out of the maps and models we inherited. If loosening the hold of our existing maps means stepping back to the in-between place where we can reflect on the maps themselves, the counterweight to this – the guard against getting lost in our reflections – is to step closer to the unmapped texture of experience. Look for the places where things no longer work the way they used to, and also for the huge areas where people’s experience was never reflected in the map. There is pain here, exclusion and damage, but this is never the whole story: there are clues also, pockets of life that may have endured precisely because they went unmapped, possibilities that we had missed. I think of those lines of Eugenio Montale:
  4. History isn’t
    the devastating bulldozer they say it is.
    It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes
    and hiding places…

  5. Find different ways of having conversations. The situation is too messy and too serious to spend our time acting out the kinds of point-scoring debate that have too often passed for grown-up public discourse. With nice timing, a deck of Group Works cards arrived in the post this week from Dave Pollard, offering ‘a pattern language for bringing life to meetings and gatherings’, while Mark left a comment pointing me towards the example of Council Practice. Willow Brugh, one of the other members of the Festival Faculty, is working on a ‘recipe box’ of different flavours of conversation for the Cocreation Space. How do we move beyond these as ‘alternative’ techniques? How could we help parts of the mainstream media out of the dead-end of pointless backward-and-forward arguments that pass for intelligent discussion? That might sound naïve, but it’s what Per Johansson, one of our Festival Faculty, has been doing with his series for Swedish Radio’s P1, Människan och Maskinen (Man and the Machine) – and the response they’ve experienced suggests there is a hunger for this kind of media. Much closer to the hard end of broadcast news, I see something related in the way in which Paul Mason bridges between the networked conversations of social media, intellectual analysis and reporting for a mainstream TV channel.
  6. Recognise the role of culture and the imagination. Not to be pressed into service as a means to an end, a delivery mechanism for a message we want to communicate – but a place where the wilder sides of ourselves come to life, where the familiar can be thrown into question and new shapes can arrive from no-one knows quite where. Here, again, we meet a necessary luxury. I’m getting particularly interested in the role of theatre in this – not least, for some of the reasons that Paul Mason touched on in his review of the National Theatre’s Great Britain – so I’m excited to be bringing to Futureperfect the founders of the young Swedish theatre company Troja Scenkonst, currently working on a project called The History of Swedish Democracy, along with the remarkable Bembo Davies of the Institute for Non-Toxic Propaganda and the Society for the Promotion of Human Rites.
  7. Aim to create projects and experiments that continue to make sense in the widest range of possible futures. There is a criterion here, to be worked out further, which might start to help us shape practical work. Perhaps the unMonastery, which both Bembo Davies and Ben Vickers (Curator of Digital at the Serpentine Gallery and another of our Festival Faculty) have been involved with, is an example of this kind of experiment? I’m looking forward to hearing more about how its first phase in Matera has gone.
  8. Create pockets within our organisations and institutions that have permission to experiment with other maps. To operate according to other assumptions and other scenarios. And to exercise judgement as well as measurement, to take seriously things that don’t show up in the criteria other parts of the organisation are accountable to. (Christopher Brewster and I discussed ‘The Limits to Measurement’ as part of the Västerås Conversations – and he’ll also be joining us at the festival.) Again, this is something that needs working out, but it feels like there could be a rationale for a small part of an organisation’s resources to be used in this way, as a hedge against “map failure”. This is a conversation I’ve had a few times over the years with Ella Saitta, one of the hacker-thinkers who’ll be joining us at Futureperfect.

I don’t know if these kind of reflections are what the Futureperfect guys expected, when they appointed me as their Festival Professor.

As a model, it is a work in progress, a sketch of some of what’s been bubbling up in our conversations – and I owe a particular debt to Lucas Grind, who has spent the most time grinding through these ideas together with me. (He’ll be at the core of our Cocreation Space crew – as well as DJing on the Saturday night…)

But hopefully it’s also a taste of what to expect, if you’re thinking about joining us in two weeks’ time. Meanwhile, I’m going to take my own advice and slow down for awhile. I look forward to seeing some of you on Grinda!

Futureperfect is happening from 14-17 August on the island of Grinda in the Stockholm archipelago. Tickets are available from the festival website.

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Friendship is a Commons

Two different ways of thinking go under the banner of the commons, today. One speaks of the management of shared resources; the other struggles to remember a form of social relations in which the world is not seen as made up of resources. The law of the commons was unwritten, according to Ivan Illich, because it protected ‘a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.’ In our commodity-intensive societies, where do we find the traces of that unwritten reality?

Out of my conversations with Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca in late 2012, there was one thread that wouldn’t be left alone. Two or three times over those afternoons, Gustavo had returned to the theme of friendship: as the starting point for the new commons, the category for the reconstruction of society.

The following spring I was invited at a few days’ notice to speak at the Commoning the City conference at Stockholm’s Architecture Museum. It was a chance to pull on that loose thread, to try to make sense of why friendship might be a good starting point from which to think about the commons and about political possibility today.

I went on to write about the experience of the conference and the thoughts it prompted in an article for STIR magazine – and I still have unfinished business with this tangle of themes. Until I find another way back to them, though, here’s the video of that talk.

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Needs, Desires and Spires: Some Bits of ‘Lean Logic’

Over the past two issues of Dark Mountain, we published extracts from Dr David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It. It’s an extraordinary book, uncategorisable, a ‘community of essays’ – or, as John Thackara puts it, ‘half encyclopedia, half commonplace book, half a secular bible, half survival guide’. Fleming worked on it for thirty years, completing it shortly before his death in 2010.

I’m grateful to his friend Shaun Chamberlin (of Dark Optimism) who approached us about publishing the extracts. I’ve been rereading them in preparation for next month’s Futureperfect festival – and this afternoon I decided it was time to splash out on the full thing, all cloth-bound hardback 736 pages of it.

Fleming’s voice belongs to another generation – there are traces of a desire for an overarching model or plan, a desire which belongs to that generation – yet there is a great rolling intellectual curiosity and range of reference that is unsatisfied with the kinds of closed answers to which that desire often leads. Two passages in particular from among the extracts stuck with me for weeks, and I want to share them as food for the conversations I’m looking forward to on Grinda next month. Continue reading

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London Talk: 27th June

London feels a long way away, these days, and the years that I spent there are starting to feel like a long time ago. But I’ll be back briefly at the end of next week – and the good people at Impact Hub Islington have invited me to give a talk on Friday night (27th).

I want to take this as an opportunity to look back on the years I spent within London’s ‘social innovation’ scene, to share some stories, as a well as a few reflections made with the (possible) benefit of hindsight.

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Improvising the Future

“Let’s not get rid of Shakespeare!” I found myself saying.

Part way through this fifth Västerås Conversation, after Alex Fradera and I had been enthusing for some time about improvisation – and after he had led the group, with much laughter, through a couple of exercises to give them a taste of what it means in theatrical practice – we hit up against something familiar.

Throughout this series, we have often relied on oppositions, in which one side of the opposition is being critiqued, either explicitly or by implication. In such a situation, it is easy to sound like you’re saying that the thing under critique should be eliminated. To speak up for the unmeasurable can be taken as a denunciation of measurement. To bring into question the idea of history, as it came into being in the 19th century, can be heard as a suggestion that we shouldn’t teach or study the past. Enthuse about the importance of improvisation and it can sound like you want to get rid of Shakespeare!

To make strong arguments in areas like these requires a particular kind of subtlety, and perhaps that is the common theme to the series – a theme which, once more, taps into Anthony McCann’s reflections back in April on the dangers of the desire for ‘the elimination of uncertainty’. To speak up for the unmeasurable can also be to speak on behalf of measurement – to ask that it is treated with respect, rather than required to do more (or other) than it is capable of doing.

And likewise, to speak up for improvisation, as we do in this conversation – improvisation as something more than a specialist performance skill, as an attitude to the situation in which we find ourselves, an attitude which has been marginalised in a world of directed, controlled and managed processes, processes planned in advance – need not mean speaking against direction, control or planning in all circumstances. I think it would be possible to follow the course we start out on here and come to an account of such things which has more respect for their difficulty, for the scale of the achievement when they work, than we have generally had in societies where they have been taken for granted as the norm.

Because, at a basic level, improvisation is the norm – the thing we start doing without thinking about it when we come together as humans, as sociable animals, sitting around a campfire or a table in the pub. And this is one thing that comes out strongly in the work of Keith Johnstone, the improvisation teacher who Alex and I discuss in this conversation, that the challenge is not to learn techniques that equip us to improvise, but to unlearn the habits that get in the way of an ability which we already have.

I’ve got behind in posting these conversations – there is another recording to come soon from last week’s fascinating discussion with Hassan and Seliman on being an immigrant in Sweden. This Wednesday (18 June), we have the last in the current series, when I’ll be joined by Steve Wheeler to talk about what he calls ‘The Depth Hypothesis’, the gap between the rational surface of our debates (including over issues like climate change) and the depths hidden beneath that surface, not least the biological depths of the bodies and brains within which our rational thinking takes place. We’ll also be inviting everyone to join us in the comfort of The Bishops’ Arms, afterwards, to celebrate the end of the series.

If you’re not able to join us on Wednesday, or even if you are, you might also be interested in the conversations taking place over 14-17 August at Futureperfect festival, where The Västerås Group (hopefully including several of the contributors to this series) will be hosting the Cocreation Space and, with the help of our Festival Faculty, aiming to bring the spirit of the Västerås Conversations to a festival environment.

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Join me at Futureperfect: 14-17 August, 2014

Four days on an island in the Stockholm archipelago in the middle of August, with a gang of the most interesting people I know, thinking together about the future.

If that sounds good, then you should consider coming to this year’s Futureperfect festival.

When the organisers of Futureperfect asked me if I’d take on the role of Festival Professor, it was the most intriguing proposition I’d had in a while. Especially when they explained that they didn’t know exactly what being a festival professor meant, but they were sure I was the person to figure it out.

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The Limits to Measurement

To a computer, the world is made of numbers; to a human being, it isn’t, although we sometimes fall into thinking of it that way.

This was the starting point for the fourth in this series of Västerås Conversations. Our guest was Christopher Brewster, senior lecturer in Information Technology at Aston Business School, Birmingham, whose interests span linguistics and the philosophy of language, the history of human attempts to measure and model the world, and the application of information systems to areas such as infrastructure and food supply.

As came out in the discussion, our theme was ‘the limits to measurement’ and not ‘why measurement is a bad thing’. We were in search of a vocabulary for talking about ‘the threshold of counterproductivity’, a concept taken from Ivan Illich: the point at which measurement goes from being helpful to being unhelpful.

Following this search, we found ourselves picking up threads from earlier weeks: the urge for legibility, as described by the geographer Peter C Scott in his book ‘Seeing Like A State’, parallels the desire to ‘see from above’ which Johan Redin spoke about in relation to the invention of history, with its timelines and periods, during the 19th century. Meanwhile, the inability of language to achieve precision – which Christopher talked about as ‘a feature, not a bug’ – took us back to Anthony McCann’s reflections on ‘the heart of the commons’ within Irish traditional music, the element that tends to go missing from the legible or transcribable version on which collectors have tended to focus.

We also got onto the internet of things – including the internet of toilets! – and why customer unfriendliness is the one element of a real local coffee shop that Starbucks can’t simulate. How do we create spaces where we can bring more of ourselves to work (or study, or play) than we are used to? And how do we do so safely, without simply assisting the deepening exploitation of more and more aspects of ourselves in the pursuit of the ultimate measurable goal of profit?

The next Västerås Conversation is ‘Improvising the Future’ with Alex Fradera this Wednesday, 6.30pm at ABF Västerås in CuLTUREN. For information about future events, there’s now a Västerås Group page on Facebook.

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The History of History

This series of Västerås Conversations came about by accident. A series of friends had invited themselves to stay with Anna and me over the weeks in which spring gathers momentum towards summer. Because I have a tendency to play with the possibilities of how things are framed, the thought struck me, almost as a joke, ‘What if, instead of it just being lots of people coming to stay in our spare room, we decided to call it a residency programme?’*

Once I started joking with people that we’d started a residency programme, it suddenly seemed obvious that we shouldn’t keep all these interesting guests to ourselves. Someone gave me an email address for Erica at ABF, the Workers Learning Association, and she responded with immediate enthusiasm to my suggestion of a Wednesday night series of open conversations.

It seems worth explaining the haphazard and unfunded nature of this series, not least because I’m conscious that it has ended up being almost exclusively male – and if Anna, Joar and I had set out to organise a series, rather than it being a serendipitous byproduct of the people who happened to be visiting, there’s no way that we would have allowed this to happen.

It was a different piece of serendipity that brought us last week’s guest, however. If Anthony McCann, who opened the series, is something of an old friend, then Johan Redin is definitely a new friend. He has also travelled the shortest distance of any of our guests this series.

As we explain at the beginning, I first heard from Johan less than a month ago, just after the Dark Mountain Project had made an appearance in the New York Times – and we were both slightly stunned to discover that we had ended up living in the same small city in Sweden. We soon discovered that we had arrived at a great deal of common ground, particularly around the theme of this week’s conversation, the question of how we relate to the past and how that allows us to make sense of the present.

Apologies for the poorer sound quality of this week’s recording, by the way – I hope you’ll enjoy it, nonetheless. Normal service should be resumed shortly, when we meet this Wednesday to discuss ‘The Limits to Measurement’ with Christopher Brewster.

* I realised afterwards that the idea of a spare room residency programme was one that I first picked up from Lottie Child, who was doing something similar in her flat in London a few years ago.

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Conversations that Matter

Part way into this week’s Västerås Conversation, one of the Syrian members of the group told us how different this was to anything he knew from the country he has had to leave. Back home, no-one would think of getting together to have a conversation about what makes a good conversation. On the other hand, there were plenty of people having good conversations.

It reminded me of a line I heard from my friend Andrew Taggart, a philosopher and a man who has many good conversations. Philosophy, he says, starts at the point where something isn’t working. I may be misquoting, and Andrew is probably quoting someone older and deader than both of us, but the point stands: if we lived in a culture where the art of conversation was thriving, we probably wouldn’t be having a conversation like this.

This thought led into a metaphor that came up several times on Wednesday night, the metaphor of breathing: you don’t have to think about breathing, until you start to think about it. Conversation is almost as central to human life as breathing. Perhaps it is even older than words? (If you listen all the way to the end of the recording, you’ll see that we tried a spell of conversational silence…)

Breathing came up as well in the old sense of the word ‘conspiracy’, ‘breathing together’. It was Johan Redin, next week’s guest, who brought this word into the conversation, but it had already been whispering in my mind. Earlier in the day I had copied out two lines from one of my favourite pieces of writing, Ivan Illich’s ‘The Cultivation of Conspiracy’:

Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.

In a small way, this is what we are trying to create a space for on a Wednesday evening. There was another text that came to visit us during the conversation, the text of a talk given the night before in Paris by John Thackara (who I’m looking forward to working with in this summer’s Future Perfect festival). ‘How We Meet is as Important as Why’, reads the title of John’s talk, and many of his thoughts were echoed among ours. ‘Conversation,’ he says, ‘more than any other form of human interaction, is the place where we learn.’

There are lots more themes we touched on, from the contrast between conversation and debate as spaces of thinking in public, to the difficulty northern Europeans have in starting conversations with strangers, even though we mostly enjoy them when they happen.

This conversation took place in English. The main reason for this* was the surprising number of people outside of Sweden who listened and responded to last week’s recording with Anthony McCann. We like the idea that the conversation taking place in a physical space on a particular evening is also surrounded by another conversation, drifting across the technosphere.

Join us next Wednesday, when I’ll be talking to the philosopher and Västerås resident Johan Redin about ‘The History of History’. More information in the Västerås Conversations Facebook group.

* Although it’s fair to say that, had we been in Swedish, I would have done rather less of the talking.