Alternative Editorial: Moving Past Frustration

Beehive skull by Jack of the Dust

Beehive skull by Jack of the Dust

by Indra Adnan, Co-inititiator of AUK

Out of the three things The Alternative UK does regularly – create new media, join up networks and run collaboratories – the second is the most frustrating.

In the course of discovering and then participating in the kind of projects that we suspect are key to the transformation we are all hoping to see in our world, there are always mixed emotions. First, excitement at finding like minds and actors. Next, searing hope around the possibilities of a new system manifesting when all these pieces of the puzzle connect. And then deep frustration around how long that could take.

We started the week in Berlin, meeting with The Aspen Institute for American Citizenship, at a round-table in partnership with Facebook about the re-humanising of the internet. It was all Chatham House rules but suffice to say, the energy and insight was high. Americans think about citizenship far more actively than we do in the UK. So it was fascinating to discover how much our work in the UK had developed a common language with theirs. We both run community collaboratories, we think of facilitators as activists and our progress as fractal.

But when we think about the amount of resources available in the US to develop citizenship, compared to that same vital task here, it’s depressing. Hats off to the New Citizenship Project for flying the flag in the UK, although much of their work is consultancy to businesses looking at the transition towards new patterns of work. Our own efforts to build citizens networks on the ground is barely understood by funders. They tend to think of communities as having local members or voters - rather than active citizens who are capable of social and civic making.

The conversation with the Facebook people in Berlin was likewise full of imagined possibility, but little that could easily be realised. Not least because of the public’s loss of trust in Facebook’s purpose. However, sitting with six or more of their executives, it suddenly struck me that Facebook’s achievement in getting into the hearts, heads and homes of 25% of the people on the planet is nothing short of miraculous. What COULD be done with that level of connectivity put to direct use in saving the planet?

It will be interesting to see what this combined force will propose in the near future.

In the remainder of the week, we found ourselves working within several more networks. Each of them got to the heart of how change is possible – but along different arteries, perhaps, or even from different cavities. CtrlShift brings together civil society, cooperatives and social enterprises from a permaculture perspective. Their/our work will manifest in a second gathering in March 2019 (the first was here). Perspectiva, who bring together actors within a ‘systems, souls and society’ framework, are meeting with European partners (including us) imminently in Berlin. Concordia University in Montreal are working with Alternativet / Alternative UK from within the Fine Arts faculty, to understand how Making Art and Making Politics cohere

On Saturday, we took part in Mozfest - a veritable beehive of tech innovation (see picture) that is seeking to capture the energy of this moment. Nine floors of tech entrepreneurs, finding their way into the fast-emerging global data system from whatever starting point they can. If any of you reading are recoiling at the thought, be somewhat comforted by the framing of the space, by five key internet health issues: Privacy and Security, Openness, Decentralisation, Digital Inclusion and Web Literacy plus a special zone for Youth.

I had to put together my own name badge (see pic) so that I could specify my language, the pronoun by which I like to be addressed and – this was fun – a pattern of squares that would link me with others choosing the same design. From the postcard in the programme, I could see a very diverse host team, with just a few more women than men (though I don’t know what their responsibilities were).

I took part in a workshop hosted by the Commons Platform (not to be confused with, but somewhat complementary to the Common Platform currently in design by Compass) to talk about ‘Creating the Conditions for Self-Organising’, led by Sophie Varlow and Nick Wood. The relationship between meeting in real and virtual spaces was core, with Ruth Catlow from Furtherfield describing her arts space in Finsbury Park as “an off-line platform for connection”. It was a vibrant, fast flowing conversation that quickly split away from invited speakers into many self-organising groups. Success!

I found myself with people asking the question – what draws people into a space, on-line or offline, to meet each other? One contribution that stayed with me was from a young woman who described how she responded to a community event about loneliness. However, when she took part, she couldn’t find anyone there who chimed with her political interests. It prompted a discussion about the power of emotional calls, and how that could be met by more engaged responses from a variety of groups. It reminded me of the call to ‘Take Back Control’ that drew so many Leavers in the UK referendum on Europe – and the complete lack of any tools for people to actually take back control once the vote was over. Can emotional appeals lead to complex engagement?

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Amongst the responders were Richard Bartlett and Natalia Lombardo of Loomio. Their immense experience in facilitating effective, very human and inclusive decision making both on and off line could transform many of the community spaces we are now meeting. Watch this space for news of our collaborating in the future.

Each of these arenas of activity have a distinct claim on reality, and are guided by a sense of purpose in coming together. Each one, from their perspective, offers hope and vision. In many ways, it’s a moment of great flourishing of human potential which we try to capture in the Daily Alternative. Add to that the very clear modes of alternative political action offered by Flatpack Democracy and the municipalists.

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We’re often gently chided for spreading ourselves too thinly – just concentrate on one thing, we’re told! But only by participating in others’ projects can we really see how they might fit together. It is an immense field - but we’re not yet, collectively, at the point where we can really see each other as partners. Or, more importantly, where we can apply our immense combined skills and tools in the places that really hurt most. Where people are most vulnerable to manipulation by the power blocs of money and technology that are most capable of harnessing the potential of this moment.

We ourselves often appear complicit in the continued fragmentation by holding out for an Alternative, rather than joining in with the ‘good people’ who are still active in the old political system, working to change it from within. The progressives, who align with the political Left to elect a better government. Or the centrists who bridge Left and Right. But our rationale is that they’ve got that covered. We support all the good work that goes on to engage with the 2% active in the political parties, in order to draw power down to the people in their communities.

But we are active with the 98% of people who, if brought together on the grounds of their own communities, could begin to do the work our politicians have failed to do.

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At Stage 2 of our ongoing collaboratory in Plymouth, called The Inquiry, participants moved from friendly conversation to imagining concretely what could occur in their region. Using detailed maps, they began to identify good spaces of development and initiatives that could benefit from working together. Small local connections were interspersed with ideas for cross-regional projects that would bring (for example) the “culturally-creative” Totnes into better relationship with a more industrial, naval Plymouth. People met each other for the first time, putting their feet and hands on the maps, using pens to draw connections they can see are possible. Talk of new social enterprises, communal spaces, building on the yearning among those present to do stuff together.

At the point of sensing what was possible in the Devonport Guildhall, there was a clearly expressed need to “get on with it” - which took the form of calling for a digital citizens’ network that could help them organise. It seemed like the right way round to us – first the human ecosystem arises, then the digital platform which can enable and amplify it. Which is why, out of all of A/UK’s various foci, the collaboratories offer the best starting point for change.

And which is why we’re inviting you to get involved. Not as super-teams of smart people parachuting into “needy” communities to facilitate their development (see the mistakes made in Puerto Rico). But by getting into your own communities, using your skill there to bring people together, and begin the process of revealing the hidden globally connected local power of your neighbourhood.

Call on us if you need help with tools and practice.