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In 1955, the World Festival of Youth and Students took place in Warsaw. Thousands of people from around the world that came to Warsaw gave people living behind the Iron Curtain a unique chance for a global perspective. Imagine that you could attend a global event for your movement just once in your lifetime — what would you do then? (Photo: NAC)

Building a sustainable Open Movement — how do we go beyond the global events that we love so much?

Alek Tarkowski
Jul 14, 2019 · 11 min read

Imagine that it is the XXII century and your favorite Open Movement organization has chapters in the dozens of planetary systems inhabited by mankind. Dozens of chapters, spread out across the vastness of space. Dozens of teams and communities, hundreds of activists that on their little planets meet to talk, to build connections, to engage and to collaborate.

Funny thing is, they have never met anyone from another chapter and never will. There are no spaceships that can ferry Movement members to one location. Not in 24 or 48 hours, not even in 24 days. The Movement never meets in person. And there is no Galactic Gathering, Summit or Fest that you can organise.

What we have is the Intergalactic Internet. Or maybe it’s the Ansible from Ursula le Guin’s stories. The technical details are unimportant — the activists can communicate across the vast distance, effortlessly and in real time. There is chat and video, social networks and blogs, maybe even VR environments. But there is no chance for face-to-face contact. No hugs, no shared dinners. No sitting together in a circle, or in a plenary.

Here’s the catch: all the activists want to believe that there is something bigger than their planetary efforts, a Movement that is intergalactic in scope. A galactic community that is connected, has a shared purpose and acts collectively. They believe in it, because proper movements should work at the scale of humanity as a whole. They aim to be ubiquitous, so that fulfilment of their vision can have as much impact as is imaginable. How else can you tackle global challenges?

Only Virtual and no Real contact. Can a Movement really exist in such conditions? Can a sense of shared identity be nurtured, common purpose defined and collective action undertaken? Or is it impossible without that very human experience — shaking hands with your collaborators and fellow activists?

I began writing this text on my way to the Creative Commons Summit, a yearly meeting of the Creative Commons network and the broader free knowledge / free culture movement. It’s the tenth Summit in the movement’s twenty-year history. And I am among just several people that attended them all. (And I don’t think too often about the environmental footprint of these travels, and I rarely ask the question: was it sustainable? Was it worth it?). As I finish the text, Wikimania 2019 is approaching, and I will be flying again.

Like many activists, I have a yearly calendar marked by a regular rhythm of global events that I attend. These events, occurring at regular bi-yearly or yearly intervals, have been like a metronome giving the movement its rhythm. Like beats of the movement’s heart. Like the beating of a communal drum. Like an important holiday, it’s something that is looked forward to and then observed. It comes with its rituals and repeating elements recognisable to anyone who took part in previous events. The group photo, the standing up of newbies, and those who were at every yearly edition. The late night talk and parties stretching into the early morn, stuff of legends! The confirmation that we are all connected, we are all represented — at least symbolically.

When you boil down all the advantages and merits of such an event, it comes down to one simple premise: that people can be together and be close to each other, at the same time and place. So little and so much at the same time.

These events are in reality a drastic reduction of the movement, conditioned by limited resources. The CC Summit is an exercise that scales down a movement of thousands to a meeting of several hundred people. (Larger events, like Wikimania or Mozfest bring together a few thousand people — still a tiniest chunk of all the activists). Exclusion of the majority of a movement is the shameful secret of each global event, even if they are organised at costs that are enormous for any given movement or organisation stewarding the event.

The term “Global”, usually used when describing these events, needs to be put in parentheses. It is ultimately a very local and small experience, that frames itself as global and builds a shared imaginary of a movement that spans space.

The Intergalactic Movement story is not just an exercise in speculative design

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Eyjafjallajökull! (CC BY SA, Bjarki Sigursveinsson, Flickr)

When in 2010 the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland. An event of the Communia Network was cancelled, together with hundreds of other events. Communia was at that time an EU-funded network of researchers and activists from around 50 organisations, with funding for quarterly, in-person meetings. PArticipation in the Communia network was for me a unique opportunity, as a young activist, to build contacts and ties that would never have been built without these regular, in person meetings. If Eyjafjallajökull erupted much more strongly, and the clouds of ash clung over Europe not for several days but months or years — would these connections have been established?

The thought exercise that I propose is an effort to think beyond the Global Event as a tool for community building. Can we think of a Movement calendar that has other important dates than just those of the global meetings, happening several times a year? Can we imagine these events as lasting longer than just a few days — with participants committing afterwards to an effort to distribute and multiply the outcomes? Can we think of distributed events, where many small things happen at once, across the world? Can we get better at engaging meaningfully larger groups of people, at a scale that makes it impossible to meet in person?

This essay is not a call to cancel global events, they are the heartbeat of our movements. It is a proposal to think about how we might gather, collaborate and communicate in a more sustainable way. The environmental footprint of the flights that we take to reach these events is another untold, slightly shameful secret of these events. Creating a fabulous opportunity to meet also creates a burden on our planet.

We might soon decide to curb the amount of flights that we take — or be forced to do so by the state of the Earth. Would we then lose the sense of the global, without our global events? We could still do regional events — but would we attend them if we had to travel to them on trains, crossing Europe in days and not hours?

How can we improve our global events

We need to review our approach to global events and the role they play in our movements. Care for sustainability and inclusion are two reasons for why this is needed.

Change will require work by both organizers and participants. But it is up to organizers to modify the general frameworks and approaches. To lead the change, and to provide participants with tools and methods to participate in events in a new way.

To launch this conversation, I am proposing several practical steps that we could take.

0. Start with why (with a hat-tip to Simon Sinek)

A new approach to global events needs to start with the question: why do we need an event? What do we want to achieve this year, and what is the larger, long-term plan? How is the event supporting movement’s strategy — in a real, meaningful way? (It is not enough to chose each year a new theme, that sounds cool and relevant to ongoing events). Too many conferences and larger meetings are done because there’s the habit of doing them.

1. An event is not just an event.

We all think of participation in an event as happening in a given place and time. In 80% of cases, 80% of engagement and energy of an event starts on the day of the event and dies out the moment the event finishes.

We do not prepare much, beyond some basic preparation of workshops and panels. With big events, it’s hard to provide deeper support and guidance to speakers, or professional support with workshops. Session organizers do this on their own, and results vary. There is little accountability of session organizers to prepare a meaningful events that understands well the needs of participants and makes good use of the very limited, in-person time available. There is little process to evaluate this and improve from year to year.

And then we leave, and we don’t participate anymore. Only in some cases there is some follow-up: a shared work plan is initiated, collaboration begins, plans are made, discussions continue. Smaller events more often lead to such outcomes — bigger events are more easily seen as ends to themselves.

This is a crucial metric that we need to improve. An opportunity to join an event should come with an obligation to invest time afterwards. To write up proper notes. To share outcomes. To focus, reflect and share these reflections. To go back to your community, these that could not join, and help them benefit from the event as well. And the opportunity to meet should be used as much as possible to support and sustain shared work that happens beyond the event. Sessions at events should be evaluated, ex ante and ex post, on the ability to deliver results beyond the “here and now”. Really good documentation is a necessity — and individual session organizers will not do this on their own. This process needs to be facilitated by event organizers.

An event should not be a point in time. It should be a culmination of many, many activities happening beforehand — and the launch of many new activities. It should be the climax of a longer process of engagement. We need to think of events as longer periods of time, starting with the event proper and then stretching across days or weeks. Organisers and participants should commit to engaging in this longer period of time.

2. Opportunities for remote participation need to be created.

Last year, Internet Governance Forum for the first time required that remote participation needs to be made possible for every session. Designated “remote facilitators” need to support such remote engagement. Such a commitment requires resources and a rethinking of how sessions are facilitated. This creates ample space for experimenting and sharing best practices.

In the open education movement, Virtually Connecting is a unique project that aims to enable meaningful remote participation. Volunteers serve as “On-site buddies” who organise calls with remote participants that recreate the mood of informal talks taking place at events. VC sessions usually take place in the very corridors, only the huddle of activists is part-real, part-remote. It is for me one of impressive attempts to support movement diversity.

We need a stronger commitment to support remote participation in events. We also need to put more effort in designing meaningful online events. These will never replace face-to-face meetings, but have the amazing advantage of bringing together people globally, at a minimal cost.

And can we design a global event that takes place only online? Yet has, as much as it is possible, the same vibe, energy, effectiveness and engagement?

3. Event participants have to take on the role of liaisons with their communities.

I tend to forget that participation in these global events is a privilege. That in my local community there are tens of people who could benefit as much, and contribute as much as I — but don’t have the opportunity to be a participant.

We can all multiply the good outcomes of any events by investing energy in sharing our inspirations, knowledge and outcomes with the people back at home. We can invite people for a coffee and share with them the experience. Or watch together a recorded keynote and discuss it. And like any new actions, this would be much easier if done together, as a shared commitment.

Event organizers can support this process by providing methods and templates for organizing such a process.

4. An ecosystem needs both big and small creatures.

We love big, global events — the scale, the mass of people, the sense of significance. It feels good to be in what feels like the beating heart of the movement.

We should also love small meet-ups that can happen at regional scale, or bring together activists with a shared focus. These are often much easier and cheaper to organise and have multiple advantages. Most importantly, they allow in-depth conversations, stronger focus on a given issue, and more time to hammer out a shared position or a workplan. They are also often more cost efficient.

Just as important are distributed events, during which multiple meetings and events happen at the same time, under a common brand. Open Data Day or Public Domain Day are great examples of such efforts.

Can we design a Summit that is the sum of multiple local events, held together by glue of online communication?

5. The republic of letters

In XVII-XVIII century, intellectuals in Europe created a virtual community by writing letters to each other. Not only were they unable to meet at a global meeting, they also did not have group chats and videoconferences. Just letters, delivered across the continent by couriers on horseback. And it worked. Knowledge flowed and multiplied. But beyond that, I’m certain, friendships flourished, as well as a sense of community and shared purpose.

I have deep respect for activists that make writing (or other forms of communication) a crucial part of their practice. Blogs and newsletters are powerful means of virtually connecting. Personally I find such practice hard, among all the other tasks and distractions. I am sure it is the same for many of you.

Can we help each other to sustain our republics of letters?

6. Transparency and metrics

Change requires not just new ideas and perspectives, but also a review of budgets and metrics. At this level, it’s easiest to precisely answer the question: are we inclusive? Are we sustainable? Event organizers from the open movement should commit to transparently sharing budgets and key statistics. On their basis, we can define metrics that will shift us from our current models to more sustainable ones. (OpenCon has set a high standard by sharing an Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report).

We need both strong Virtual and strong Real

Our movement should make an effort to function in a more sustainable and participatory way. At the same time, international meet-ups should be cherished as a unique opportunity to energise the movement. We can reconcile this by making a collective effort to support distributed and remote forms of movement-making.

Let’s start by using our global events as an opportunity to tackle this issue. A speculative design workshop, based on the Intergalactic Movement thought experiment, is a great way to kickstart this conversation.

At best, a working group of event organizers from the Open Movement should convene to revise our approaches, and support each other with a new approach to global events.

A shared history with some of my closest collaborators in the Creative Commons movement begins with a far away meeting, in which we all participated almost ten years ago. With shared sessions at one table, shared dinners and shared fun. Our professional collaboration, which continues until today, is deeply entwined with adventures that we shared together, exploring an unknown city.

My international collaborators are just as important to me as my local team. My international network of partners and friends in activism often gives me a stronger sense of purpose, solidarity and identity then people that live in the same city as me. Opportunities to meet in person are gifts that need to be cherished. In return, we need to make our movement more sustainable by thinking beyond the global meetings.

If you’re still reading, and this feels important, then please get in touch. Together, we can make this movement truly intergalactic, in a sustainable way.

Thank you to Nicole Ebber, Cornelius Kibelka and Natalia Mileszyk for sharing ideas as I wrote this text.

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