Transformation can’t just be about individuals!

The co-design team reflects on our AR+T Gathering and its “lagom” Transformations.

We gathered over Women’s day, March 7-10 at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. We set the intention to collaborate within, across and beyond our individual communities. Together we numbered 60 participants from 25 countries, ages 15-80. 40 met face to face, the others online twice daily. Slowly but surely, we entered a co-designed transformative place, learning what ART could mean for us: Action-oriented Research for Transdisciplinary Transformations. We closed the Gathering having catalyzed a new Learning Platform (GULP) and cross cutting projects including a Learning Centers for Transformations Network. What follows is our reflection together on our experience. 

Thomas Macintyre put together Gathering highlights in a short video.    The Chalmers Media team released a bulletin.

We kicked off with Tomas Bjorkman who has studied the positive impact of regionally-organized adult self-development centers. As he tells it, these played a key role in turning erstwhile poor Nordic countries into today’s powerhouse economies. Filled with happy people too! Starting over a century ago, the Nordic states funded self development, AKA finding one’s “inner compass,” by sponsoring centers for lifelong learning. This is what the serial entrepreneur turned philanthropist, calls ‘The Nordic Secret.’

And how can this Nordic secret inspire the non-Nordics of the Gathering? Consider the impact of the Highlander Center where American civil rights leader Rosa Parks, spent time scaffolding her “inner compass.” There she had become strong enough, internally, to insist on her seat in the front of the bus, despite violent ridicule. Highlander remains a beacon of participatory action research having been modeled on the Nordic Secret by co-founder Miles Horten who spent time in Denmark.

A couple more Swedish practices inspired us over the rest of our time too. ‘Fika‘ – coffee and chit chat that gives conscious space to all to speak equally – brought an informal and personal atmosphere to the gathering. No presentations allowed. We upheld Noble Silence each morning for our first hour, helping us to arrived clear-minded and warm hearted. We also ate and drank three meals a day together. (Interesting aside – 30% gluten free!).

Mixing head, heart and hands, participants engaged in facilitated group conversations that invited diverse voices. Intentional art-fullness was expressed in clapping and music mixed with spirals, drawings, and emotions. Experimentation included the virtual community crossed with the physical one through video conferences involving participants around the world.  

In a world whose economy conditions us to  take without enough thought to the longer term, a further Swedish concept underlying the gathering was participating in a culture of ‘Lagom.’ The term translates to  ‘just the right amount’ – not too much, not too little. Our Swedish hosts had us imagine the Vikings, passing around a single horn of ale or mead, each one taking enough; each one careful to leave enough for the next one.

So there we were, at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, passing the transformational brew between us.

To help us with the challenge of capturing reflections, we each had a “magic sheet” hung on the walls around the meeting space. Magic because they cling without adhesive. Individuals placed captured their own reflections and wandered about – coffee or wine in hand – to read each others. Tony Hodgson and Bill Sharpe then helped us distill with their methodology called Three Horizons. We knew we had to trust that collective expressions would move through progressive stages of divergence, emergence, and convergence.

On Women’s Day we heard stories of transformation from different parts of the world, using a ‘fishbowl’ activity. We also listened in on a conversation between Nobel Prize laureates Karen O’Brien and Coleen Vogel (each involved with the IPCC work) on the levers and pain points with regard to Climate Transformations. Throughout we met in trio’s to help metabolize our persona insights.

On Day two we moved into sharing and caring about each others projects with the spirit of an open space workshop. In this, participants could engage in 10 conversations, each hosted on topics ranging from designing a new Action-research PhD program, to collaborative book writing, to Learning Centers as a new paradigm of “university as pluriversity.” In the follow up World Cafe, led by Niels Agger-Gupta, participants then deepened their conversations  on how to support transformative learning across a potentailly global collective.

The neat program of the co-design team began to change; a new dynamic was emerging…

We had gathered from different places, with different assumptions and expectations. Could there be enough trust to believe we can do something together? What if I just want to be an individual and do my own thing? Instead of hiding our doubts behind powerpoint presentations and formal seminars, participants were interacting, listening, responding. With a structure that allowed for real connection at different levels, emotions surfaced over the best balance of individual and community, structure and substance, large scale transformation and small scale (first person) reflection, tribalism versus the commons. All of us sensed a need to move from binary thinking, to integrate and be whole. But how? Emotions bubbled through the participants. Could we come to action? Could we really achieve something together?

We started our final day with a celebration of a new Special Issue of Action Research on Climate Transformations just published by the journal Action Research. The issue illustrated what’s possible together in that it was the result of collaboration of many in the room (authors, reviewers, editors). Hilary then re-introduced the notion of GULP, (admittedly an ironic acronym in need of improvement): Global Unifying/Ubuntu Learning Platform. GULP, she hoped, could combine curated materials from collaborative webinars, writings, projects. When composed into an online offering, GULP could support a next generation of action researchers. If not us, then who? She asked, in the spirit of lagom, who could offer to, and take from, such a shared learning platform? How might it become a win-win as a creative commons? Participants were invited to dig deep to discover how their interests and passions could meet those of a collective. A ‘win-win.’

Moving into a closing circle, personal intention cards were filled out, and ritualistically placed in the middle of the floor.

But it couldn’t just be about individual effort!! Co-organizer Steve Waddell of SDG transformations Forum took the floor. “Who is with me” he boomed, holding up a sheet of paper with the name of the project he was leading on Learning Centers.

And so emerged a final, grand sorting of people signaling their interests by writing names and commitments on larger sheets, surrounding the individual commitments. And so the Gathering ended with nine concrete projects with which to build upon the collaborative spirit of action-action-oriented research for transformations. We embraced, we photographed ourselves. The Gathering slowly dissolved as each moved on, with the intention to make good on our good will, our hard work and yes, so much emotional intensity (had we been expecting that?!). For Hilary and Steve, the emotional close necessitated a good heart-mind debrief that happily helped clarify next steps together.

Did the Gathering fulfill on its intentions: to be a mix of personal retreat and global organizing? The transformational brew was certainly there for the taking –  we met new friends, new ideas, connected in a high quality relational space. Yet did we drink enough to move to the edge, perhaps transgressing some of own boundaries, opening doors to new worlds? Or did we simply drink too much, becoming drunk with our own needs and expectations, insufficiently connecting to what wants to happen in the more community spirit of lagom. What might we accomplish together?

We invite co-participants to reflect on how you experienced the Gathering. Either by commenting below or offering your own blog. We encourage you also to participate in the survey. And of course we invite any and all other readers to comment too! Maybe consider participating in our next Gathering!

Finally please save the date – April 17th at 08.00 pacific – for a follow up, online gathering, to kick off GULP.