Articles

Generation New Economy

by Laurence Ware

‘The New Economy’ is not an easy thing to define. Indeed, it is not really a ‘thing’ at all, more of a shorthand for a wildly heterogeneous and constantly evolving array of people, practices, organisations, communities, ideas and more—many of which, such as co-operatives or commoning, are not actually ‘new’ at all. Uniting all of us, explicitly or implicitly, is the desire to interact and meet our needs in ways that differ from the increasingly disconnected, commoditised, neoliberal mainstream; ways based on relationship, connection, participation, creativity and care. In response to this organisational challenge we— a small group affiliated with Schumacher College in Devon—were inspired to design an event that would embody these values, providing a fertile ground for experimentation and learning, motivated by questions such as: How do we convene in ways that truly meet our needs? How do we strengthen an emerging movement? How do we truly align ‘process’ and ‘content’? How do we create space for new possibilities that we could not have predicted in advance? And so Generation of the New Economy (GNE) was born.

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. 

Trying to find a balance between structure and openness for the week was a challenge and, as hosts and organisers, we had to keep reminding ourselves to let go of the desire to control the process in accordance with preconceived ideas of the ‘right way’ to do things (much easier said than done!) There is no ‘right way,’ but we decided to explore a system of day-by-day programming, with blackboards that could be populated with offerings and ideas for the current and following day. We were careful to present these as valuable tools to help us figure out what to do, rather than an agenda that would tell us what to do—a nuanced but important distinction. We spent the opening afternoon getting to know each other, recognising that trust and relationship is one of the foundation stones of working together in the new economy, and had a few sessions prepared by some of the hosts to get things going on the first full day. These included a session exploring complexity theory through tango, and some discussions on new economics education. 

To support this experimental process we scheduled a ‘GNE Live’ session everyday between 5pm-6pm. This was an opportunity to come together as a whole group to make sense of our experience and work out where to go next. The session was hosted with small and large group discussions, sometimes starting with questions such as ‘What moment stood out for me today?’ and ‘What am I beginning to feel dissatisfied with?’ From these discussions, which included many moments of discomfort and uncertainty, as well as connection and clarity, people began to formulate offers and asks for activities and sessions, from workshops on crypto-currencies and building co-operatives to sessions on organisational change and education. This was complemented by a shorter meeting every morning to clarify the practicalities of the upcoming day. The week developed in what felt like quite an organic way, with a movement from the first few days of getting to know each other’s work and sharing experiences to a noticeable shift mid-week as people began to coalesce around skills and fields with participants coming together to help each other work through live problems, and the exploration of future collaborations. 

We understood this focus on the process of being and organising together as a deeply political exploration—how do we learn to better be and act together as individuals, communities and societies? How do we learn to pay attention to what is really going on between us and (re)discover our own agency to fully participate? It was a rich experience, and not without its difficulties, mostly since the participants (including us) were not used to working and relating like this, and the sense of not knowing what is going to happen can be frightening and uncomfortable. It seemed as the festival progressed one of the roles of the hosting circle was to hold that discomfort and resist the tendency to immediately respond by trying to control what was going to happen at the cost of staying open to possibilities. Interestingly, the handful of pre-booked sessions with some ‘special guests’ such as Rob Hopkins, David Graeber and Molly Scott Cato, were almost without exception disrupted (due to illness, diary mix-ups etc…)—a real lesson for us in letting go of expectations and control and trusting the co-created process.

The post-festival feedback we’ve received and our own experience of the week suggests that it was a valuable and enjoyable experience for all involved, where people did not necessarily get what they expected, but in most cases found other important things that they might not have known they needed. Beyond the skills and knowledge shared and relationships formed, many people expressed how important, supportive and energising it felt to come together and feel part of a movement, especially when one is so used to being in the minority. The co-creative process also seemed to really resonate, with many people eager to bring what they had experienced back to their own work, and the definite feeling that this kind of experimental gathering can continue to be fertile ground to explore and practice different ways of doing things together as societies, organisations and cultures. 

GNE was a huge experiment, and there is so much to be learnt about how people can come together in meaningful and relevant ways. Our sense however is that this learning cannot become a formula or ‘best practice’ that can be repeated. Paradoxically, the nature of a more open format of convening which is created collaboratively moment by moment, means it must always be created anew, paying attention to its unique identity, context, relationships and process. The challenge is staying open and present to this constant unfolding, to enable a deeper quality of experience and participation.

Aphra Sklair has held various professional and voluntary roles in the social and philanthropic sector. She is currently a Director of the Schumacher College Incubator, a Trustee of the Friends Provident Foundation and a volunteer with The Reader. Aphra has a Master’s in Economics for Transition from Schumacher College, and lives in South Devon with her partner.

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.

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Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.10, Summer 2015

Written by Aphra Sklair

Illustration by Laurence Ware