In the course of much discussion and deliberation, a sense began to emerge of a co-created event where a diverse international group of practitioners would gather as a sort of ‘conference community,’ building trust and relationships while working out together what would best serve them in the time available and, critically, how to do it. Inspired by events such as Ouishare—an annual convergence that unites a global community of collaborators—and Off-Grid—a 100% participatory event—we decided GNE would most resemble a festival. This would mean that various different things would be going on in different places at the same time, and people could choose their own tracks through the week. Festival also captured something of the energising, inspiring, out-of-the-ordinariness that we aspired to, recognising that sharing joyful celebration sustains and strengthens us as individuals and as collectives. The vision was to create conditions for the emergence of new and meaningful things, understanding that having no pre-ordained agenda does not mean simply turning up and hoping for the best. Instead, we knew that a carefully imagined yet responsive structure was necessary to enable this.
With such an emphasis on co-creation and movement building, we were naturally led to seek partners who could shape and host the event with us. We were already involved in exploratory conversations, and from these partnerships were developing with CEMUS Uppsala, Rethinking Economics, Transition Network and NEON (New Economy Organisers Network). Another crucial element was finding the participants, the group who would co-create and ‘be’ the event, and convincing them to sign up to something with no agenda and without any traditional, concrete offerings or outcomes. We worked to proactively seek out those who would really benefit from and contribute to the gathering, and our partners were also vital for this.
We felt strongly that participation should not be restricted to those who could pay for the privilege, and therefore decided it was important that GNE be offered on a ‘pay-what-you-can’ basis, with as many full bursaries as necessary so that no one would be excluded for financial reasons —a criticism often leveled at Schumacher College. But how do you seek funding for something when the whole point is that you don’t know what is going to happen? In the current outcome-focused funding environment this presents huge difficulties, something that was common to many of our participants and, throughout the week, this question surfaced again and again: How are we supposed to really innovate and develop our work when we have to say exactly what the end is going to be before we have begun? We were extremely lucky that the college was able to allocate some funding to GNE, and we managed to raise the rest from a small group of funders in our network who really understood this experiment and its inherent uncertainty. Without this, we would not have been able to support the majority of people to attend.
We were also fortunate to have the perfect home for the event in Schumacher College, which had the capacity to host the festival’s 80 participants for six days. The college itself is organised as a community with shared accommodation, mealtimes and a system where everyone contributes to cooking, cleaning and caring for the place and the group. This helped to embed a sense of community, awareness and care, permeating the whole experience with the feeling that people were invited and expected to take an active part in proceedings.