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Diary of an organiser: Team Syntegrity 2017

I have been a qualified facilitator for more than two decades, but had almost forgotten what this extraordinary three-and-a-half day process was like. Would it be different in the twenty-first century?

Barcelona Town Hall, June, 2017Day one, Sunday: It is great to be back in Barcelona. Last week-end I bumped into a group of residents protesting that they wanted more refugees in their city and calling on the state to lift their dishonourable blockade!

But the heat is a disincentive for any extra sightseeing – everyone assures us that we have arrived during the year’s hottest spell so far. Besides, I’m still digesting my last visit, to “the incredible Fearless Cities” conference as Jamie Kelsey-Fry christened it in the little video Sunny Hundal put together for me to accompany a fine essay by Oscar Reyes’ sometime collaborator, Bertie Russell and Plan C on ‘Radical municipalism’. I have invited Oscar Reyes to come and watch some of our proceedings in Artchimboldi – our beautiful conference venue. I hope he makes it.

That was only last Friday, but now, already, it is time to move on. Our twenty-nine guest participants of Team Syntegrity 2017 – the self-organising procotol for non-hierarchical conferencing invented by the cybernetician, Stafford Beer – are heading towards the Hotel Astoria and my editorial colleague, co-organiser and fellow-facilitator, Alex Sakalis and myself, will have our first glimpse of the participants we have been wooing and awaiting for what feels like months on end! Those of us who are Syntegrity veterans only know marginally more than they do what to expect, and they know very little indeed…

I have decided I will pinch Ada Colau’s quote for my welcoming speech. The Mayor of Barcelona’s tone has just the right sense of imaginative urgency, encouragement and opportunity, and you never know – it might trigger off a topic on the aforementioned ‘radical municipalism’, one of my current obsessions. She says: “ We are living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions. If we’re able to imagine a different city, we’ll have the power to transform it.”

Ada Colau on screen at the Fearless Cities launch in Barcelona.We have twenty-nine and not thirty participants despite Alex’ and my every effort to replace the people who inevitably pull out at a late stage, either because very busy people have only just managed to look at the draconian length of the three working days at a Team Syntegrity, and we have not been able to reassure them that this is worth the effort, or because something – a health check-up, a sick child, a failed visa application, has gone wrong.

We are particularly sorry to have lost two interesting conservative voices who potentially were going to make things much more alert, and a South African trade unionist, maybe the sole representative among us of a movement that is surely an important stakeholder in the democratic transformation we are seeking, not to mention a country that has raised and dashed more hopes than most in our lifetime.

However, thanks to our partners pointing out the omission, we now have a marvellous participant for whom religious commitment is a central driver in her life; and our delivery team have miraculously come up with two last minute recruits who happen also to be complexity theorists. That should be interesting: I’m glad that they too seem excited to get the chance. Someone has tweeted openDemocracy to say that seeing Team Syntegrity back on the radar “proves that good ideas don’t die”. That makes me feel better about my twenty years of hanging in here…

Screenshot: Infoset plus some of the delivery and evaluation team.Mid-afternoon we manage to get together with the whole delivery team, including with Eva Lange, our Operations expert from Malik Management.  Everyone is interested in the different ways the protocol has been developing over the intervening years: we will have sophisticated new name badges for all participants that give them their own complicated schedule on the reverse side – the discussions they will be responsible for, the ones in which they are critics and the ones they may observe if they don’t want to take a break in the busy summer streets of Barcelona. So we can all relax a little on the timing front.

Sunday evening: Thank goodness (and the quietly supportive Diana Guererro and her team) – we have not been obliged to have a formal, three-course sit-down dinner this evening. The Hotel Astoria has rallied itself and provided the most delicious buffet bar, our participants are trickling in and out sociably, as we wished.

One or two of them are gleefully reunited with people they know – I now remember that Ashish Ghadiali interviewed Birgitta Jonsdottir for us last year – but others are cautiously getting their bearings in the hubbub. So it is a good thing that we have taken over the restaurant, and can proceed to make our icosahedrons out of wine gums and cocktail sticks.

I should explain. There is no doubt about it that if you wish to venture into Stafford Beer’s viable systems model, there are highly intellectual adventures to be taken in many different disciplines: but the man himself was alert to all sorts of intelligences, and very early on those who were to be initiated into his Team Syntegrity, were duly enrolled in the physical ritual of putting together the beautiful three-dimensional shape which underpins the protocol, using 30 struts for the participants whose overlapping participation in 12 nodal themes, guarantee a high degree of shared knowledge.

It is no accident that the minute before you stick the last cocktail stick into the last wine gum, you have a messy, flailing jumble of ill-suited ingredients. The moment it comes together, it is a solid and elegant little universe that can be thrown across a crowded bar, and land in someone else’s grip, intact.

Vanessa Kisuule exercises a small victory dance at this moment, and is not alone. David Stefanoski turns out to be very good at this. Leonie Solomons has to remind me how it is done – she has a two-hat theory which, at least initially, she is sure is a short cut. Joe Truss, our geometrician extraordinaire is very helpful. We all get there in the end. Very pleased with the convivial evening, like everyone else, I imagine, I’m glad to turn in.

Day Two Monday

‘Raring to go’ is the phrase that kept coming to mind this morning. Artchimboldi is a thing of beauty when empty and curls itself gloriously around everyone as they settle in, with nooks and crannies, balconies and sofas as well as the three main discussion rooms and operations hub.

Once I work out the quickest way back to the main plenary room from the office where Eva is installing her software (it takes a few goes – and some surprise at where the entrance is, as more of our participants stroll in), we discover that we don’t have the essential musical instrument for ringing when it’s time to begin. Someone is dispatched for a bell, and wisely returns with two – Sunny Hundal is put in charge of time-keeping. Over the three days he will begin to resemble a figure out of a medieval morality play, or Bergman’s Seventh Seal. But he starts off with an endearing air of concentration. People are quick to assemble themselves and this is where we first sense that they are raring to go. 

Allenna dives into the introductory details. A few explanations are given, enough to set things in motion, but not too much to absorb. She is an intelligent and calming presence from the off, deft about what has to be done and entirely unfussy about what is not essential.

You have to be very careful about what you say at the beginning of these processes because the ‘infoset’ – our marvellous twenty-nine guest participants – are all super alert to any indications of what they are meant to be doing.

A new element probably for all of us facilitators is having the representatives of three foundations who have supported us in making this event possible also eager to say a few words about why they are involved. In different ways they perceive a crisis in our democracies that people can only address by coming together in unusual and unusually receptive combinations. Thomas Maettig, for example, is interesting on the realisation that any assumptions that social democratic Europe was somehow exempt from the main threats to democracy had been well and truly peeled away in recent years. Very different people in the room feel as if they are somewhere on the same page. That’s the right feeling for this type of event. So let’s begin.

lead The first stage proliferates pastel-shade post-it notes all over the walls: significant short statements that address the blue skies opening question in a way that someone else might quarrel with… in the three and a half days given to us, there is no time for motherhood and apple pie sentiment.

And we do have a lot to get through today, the market place of ideas in which participants take clusters of statements to elaborate longer themes for discussion and persuade four of their fellow participants to support their chosen debate; the ‘hexadic reduction’ which wrestles around 20 of these into the magic twelve topics, having included what we can of all successful candidate themes, and resolved to kick out others. We have allotted a long time on the schedule for this, because our participants on the whole don’t know each other. It’s not so easy under those circumstances to agree what will be useful to discuss together, and it is noticeable that one or two topics are vehemently rejected by one or two people without thought that they might be in a minority, but without others feeling able to defend them. I may be imagining it, but generally-speaking this group of participants seems to me less used to collective decision-making, simply more individualistic and less mutually deferential, than the infosets of yester-year – we are talking about the last century after all! I tell myself it is a little too early to tell.

But the impression consolidates over the afternoon and the first ‘iteration’ of our twelve topics. The twelve topics are good ones. I suspect we could have done with more time, not on the ‘hexadic reduction’, carried out to general satisfaction after a few heated exchanges that are par for the course. No, but in the market place of ideas, I noticed that participants were eagerly signing up to single-word titles rather than elaborated statements. We had five signatures for ‘revolution’ without any elaboration at all and had to check that there was some kind of qualifying sentence or two to inform the choices of the next stage. It still sailed through regardless… and in its first ‘iteration’ this afternoon has already proved a headbanger of a subject for its five discussants to define.

Getting people used to the hard work of formulating a subject for discussion is a useful precursor to the skills involved in formulating their conclusions at each subsequent stage – a source of frustration in the whole process which can also be the pearl in its oyster. So I worry that we haven’t managed this quite as well as early on as we might have done today.  I feel I can detect the results in the sliding scales of topic themes in two or three clusters  – ‘reinventing politics’, ‘ rebuilding and transforming the left’, ‘revolution’; ‘reinventing politics’, ‘communication and media’, ‘the internet’…. Perhaps if we’d dwelt on these a little longer we could have either differentiated them more clearly or combined them to leave space for completely new topics. But our Lead Facilitator is much more sanguine about trusting the process… so we shall see.

Well, this afternoon, we have had our first run through all the topics in parallel session in our two discussion rooms – only 45 minutes each. It will be 75 minutes, thank goodness, for the next two days. 45 minutes is not enough time to do more than introduce one’s-self to the topic and each other. This is compounded by the fact that we have clearly not ‘got through’ on the subject of the role of the critics. It is a crucial role, but crucially different from the discussants. The discussants should be facing each other, working together, taking on the responsibility for the outcome together, and very glad to turn to the critics at a convenient point in their deliberations to ask for an outside view on their progress.

Our discussants are ignoring each other and addressing the critics’ panel as if they were judges in The X-factor. Individual discussants are locked in conversation with individual critics – despite our mentioning that there should not be ‘to and fro’ of this kind. Perhaps we only mentioned this to each other as facilitators – I can’t remember. And after all this is a bit schematic since actually this too is OK, once the different roles and essential dynamic has been set up. But the critics are meant to go down the row with concise comments – “You seem to be going round in circles on that point – why don’t you pick up your earlier suggestion…”, or, “one of you has said nothing, why can’t they get a word in?”, before handing the task back to the discussants. Especially in such a short session, shouldn’t they notice that they are taking up far too much of the discussants’ time? Apparently not. Our ‘critics’ leap in at the deep end with gusto and whole new theories about how to interpret the topic for discussion. In forty-five minutes this adds up, it seems to me, to more complexity than some of the groups will ever be able to deal with. I must remember to mention this to Allenna…

At the facilitators debrief this evening, Allenna raises the very same issue. I suggest that we should repeat the ‘critic role’ definition, but perhaps give examples like the ones above. Allenna counsels against this, precisely because the facilitating process can be so suggestive and drive people in directions they themselves don’t actually need to go in.  She’s right. I can see the need to strengthen this message through facilitating but without adding in extraneous criteria. It’s a delicate balancing act.

I recollect my ambivalent feelings this morning, when a brief anecdote I told in my opening welcome about pleasure in politics instantaneously proliferated into several pink and yellow post-it notes all over the walls… Well, tomorrow is another day. Tonight – we are going off to have our first supper all together.

Day Three – Tuesday

It’s only this morning that I discover that we have driven away our first participant! After her first discussion on Monday she had approached me with a sense of urgency which I didn’t fully rise to, thinking, quite wrongly, that we had time! Soon afterwards, she’d made a personal statement in the religion and secularism discussion. She announced that she felt it to be true that ‘religion is the opium of the masses’, but that she had nothing further to say, and then left the building, never to return.

In the computer programme which sorts out people’s preferences to distribute the specific role they will play, each participant is given two topics they are responsible for as discussants, two in which they are critics, and two options for observing if they wish. Her point to me had been two-fold and, she believed, unarguable. Her immediate distress had been prompted by the discovery that one group in which she had cutting edge expertise contained others whose ideas she felt she had wrestled to the ground some years previously; while she claimed to know nothing about the second topic allotted by the algorithm, and was adamant that those who did know and care about religion should not have to put up with her!

This participant had flagged up from the beginning that what she hoped to take away from the Team Syntegrity was, “organised groups for direct non-violent action on the parliamentarian and judicial level”. But it is only now that I hear what she was saying about her hopes for a high degree of consensus from the outset.

But this of course was not at all what we had planned: if anything the reverse.

Would I have been able to persuade her to stay if we had exchanged her strut for one with two topics more germane to her ? Had I not been facilitating as well as organising, would I have leapt into action and complained to the delivery team on her behalf, instead of hoping that she would change her mind after a fruitful discussion, a process that has often overcome initial reservations in the past? I don’t think so. The basic Team Syntegrity “dynamic” as she referred to it, of listening and persuading, that makes the renewal of democracy such an appropriate target for its debates, was one that she immediately knew was not for her at this juncture in her life, as she later explained, adding that she admired my ”patience”.

One other person is clearly disappointed with the topic selection, having championed a successful topic in the market place of ideas, only to be locked into two aligned but significantly different topics by the algorithm and relegated to observer status in ‘Rebuilding the left’. He is noticeably frustrated by this exclusion and can’t help trying to recreate the missed opportunity in the two other groups where for various reasons, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. In retrospect, we should have swapped him over early on.

Allenna Leonard, facilitator, transcribing for the group on Biosphere politics. I’m facilitating the following topics, all of which are grappling with questions of scale and what level they should concentrate on: Education of global citizens where, at a time of lowering nationalisms, there are committed people for whom this discussion is a real chance to articulate new forms of internationalism they have yearned for for years, sitting alongside a different generation that is one way or another highly sceptical about major prospects for change; Reinventing politics – strung between the tensions of form and content, on a subject towards which all the other topics tend, where the group is gradually groping its way towards a wiki for the entire infoset – to reinvent politics for and through each other; and Money and funding civil society – where everyone seems rather amused to find themselves sitting around a table together. This is a mood that will survive the difficulties of defining civil society or deciding about a basic income, to produce the one great comic performance of the final presentations. Once they have worked out that, “The key resource for civil society is people’s time. How do you free up people’s time?” – there is a real conversation in the room.

In all three arenas in different ways mini-dramas are in progress, and I don’t feel I can help them much at all. The biggest problem is arriving at a common statement when they barely know each other… They don’t use the notes I am transcribing so far as I can see. The only thing I can do when they hit a rough point is suggest that we bring the critics in, and here the situation has improved. The critics are supportive but not intrusive. They know from their own experience as discussants that ultimately these are the people in the hot seat who need to work through it for themselves.

Biosphere politics critics.I hear afterwards that the ‘religion’ group has been galvanised by the early departure of a team member: it rather confirms their suspicion that feelings run very deep about their topic, a force for division, but what else?

Tonight at dinner, I am still buoyed by the levels of passionate commitment in these rooms, and am taken aback when one of the participants I have been keenest to have in Barcelona confides in me that he has taken a decision not to talk about the extraordinary transnational movement that he personally has been so instrumental in empowering. He doesn’t want to offer this experience up for public consumption, a life choice and a commitment intimately tied to his hopes for the future.

“You have to share what you care about,” I urge him, “nothing else makes sense of the effort and time for all concerned, for yourself first and foremost.” But he has made up his mind, and suddenly I remember how often he asked Alex and myself in the run-up to the event, whether we were sure that he was the right person to participate in our Team Syntegrity. Once again, I seem to have missed the obvious thing – it wasn’t our non-existent reservations he was talking about, but his own, and it is these he now wants me to understand.

Day Four – Wednesday

The most important thing to say about this last full day is that it is very hard work for all – the last discussion in each topic, the last formulation of a recommendation, a statement, what they want to share, and a brief 30 minutes for each team to talk about how to present their findings to their fellow participants.

The pressure on the enthusiasts and the skeptics considering global citizenship comes to a head. There is the dreadful moment when both sides with differing amounts of regret realise that no amount of sheer enthusiasm however well argued is going to carry the day. And it is at this point, the nadir, that interesting things begin to happen – one-on-one conversations away from the table, last minute ultimatums from critics that get roundly ignored in a way that I can’t help feeling is healthy at this juncture. What emerges, miraculously, from this feverish midwifery is a fully-costed pilot proposal for a global social service for 100 apprentice global citizens with ways of involving local decision-making and a lottery to ensure that privilege will have no advantage, plus sources of funding in mind as well as a fully scaleable programme which takes into account its ecological footprint.

Even better, the enthusiasts have worked out who they could go to to make this happen. A new project enters the world, maybe screaming and kicking, but with lungfuls of air and the will to flourish! It may be less than the enthusiasts wanted, but it has sufficient moral high ground, through all this travail, to make everyone listen afresh to its guiding principle, as enunciated by Rui Tavares, who is the first to concede that this proposal has been generated not despite but through hefty criticism, And the core is the idea that ‘global citizenship’ is a bit of a pleonasm, in the sense that being a citizen is having certain inherent rights that should not be interrupted just because you cross a border, or that should already be there even if you are born in an unlucky place that is at war… So citizenship should immediately be understood as global citizenship and the qualifier should more and more be when we talk about ‘national citizenship’ in fact – a local qualifier.”

Funding civil society, meanwhile is going through its own bad patch, with Magda apparently almost ready to throw in the towel. The critics have been sympathetic and helpful.  But the discussants know they are running out of time, and ironically have just realised that time is not the only resource they should be discussing – “it is of course one of the key resources…”. As the clock ticks, I keep taking notes, but frankly I can’t quite see where they go from here either. And then I notice something that maybe they don’t. Later one of them comments that one begins on Monday with everyone making speeches, which by Wednesday gradually turn into “genuine conversations”. But in each case it takes such unexpected forms. What happens here, now in the last five minutes, is that the smallest breakthrough by one participant has them all responding, like the sudden blooming of a floribunda rose in a spray of buds and blooms.

In no time at all, they have come up with seven types of funding and ordered them by the criterion all agree is vital, independence, with membership fees serving as "a gold standard that is still not enough". Sunny Hundal comes and goes unnoticed as in a split second, a second floral display is produced on all the other components essential for civil society flourishing – what people care about, political freedoms, the space to protest, right-wing civil society, cultural blindness to civil society as in more family-oriented cultures… I am still finishing off the notes when they have left the room, jovial enough but hardly sanguine about what they have achieved. None of us at this point anticipates the triumph that is to come…

And then there is Reinventing Politics. Here, they still are wrestling with issues of scale and at what level to focus their intervention.  The critics keep asking: “Which citizens most interest you, and what sort of democratic decision-making, on what and at which level – local? state?  Decide this and then the strategy will surely follow…”, “Your discussion has a problem of scale and I think you should go for the local/global commons approach…”. As for the discussants, it seems to me they are curiously blasé about the obligation to focus. At the beginning of this ‘third iteration’, instead of returning to a promising discussion around the emotional commitment in our societies to democratic practise, they decide to go around the table summarising all the other Team Syntegrity discussions they are involved in which are directly relevant to the task in hand. Do they really have to do this? This leads to further conversation on, variously, the relevance of a call for global oversight of the internet by an elected body; expanding the idea of sanctuary cities as prompted by the safe spaces discussion; open source inclusive spaces to engage communities in prefigurative politics; the choice of which language and which words to use in internet communication; how the far right have been combated successfully by a politics that empowers by really listening; not demonising all politicians as corrupt; and the inspiring joint female and male mayors of Rojava.

They are currently revisiting the global right to vote where you live or work (prompted by one of the discussants complaining that the right to vote is surely a very limited version of rights to democratic participation). Aren’t we further away from shore than ever? At the nth hour, in the last contribution, for anyone still closely following the process, Birgitta casually brings the entire strand together and answers all the questions about what their deliberations are about and who for, with her proposal for a wiki: “In the first instance this wiki is for us – and is designed to embrace the whole infoset so that we can investigate further better ways to involve people”… Mysteriously, everyone seems to agree. That could be so neat!…

With all this going on, I realise that I have not spent nearly as much time as I had hoped in the discussions that I am not facilitating, as they approach their conclusions. I venture into the white group on ‘Transforming and rebuilding the left’ to find another group buzzing with energy. It transpires that this had not been the case on the previous day, when the two women participants had had less and less to say for themselves, amid the more cerebral exchanges of three veteran progressive activists from Chile, Greece and Spain, including my friend from the transnational movement.

What had changed that dynamic was the combustion of a young theatre director who finally managed to complain, bitterly, that she simply couldn’t connect with anything that was being said. The facilitator had enabled a change of pace and focus by inviting everyone around the table to respond to this cri-de-coeur by sharing something of their own commitment. And this had taken off, or at least that is what the critics seemed to think when they were invited to comment. The final critic began by congratulating them on this renewal of the conversation, with the exception of my friend. For some reason, he said, this discussant had resisted and was still resisting the chance to share his experience and what he cared about, while others had generously responded, enabling a freshly inclusive exploration to go forwards. I was amazed that the previous night’s conversation had so quickly returned to haunt the process, and sorry for my dinner companion. Trusting the process, as Allenna recommends, can be pretty merciless at times. Through its non-hierarchical dynamics, it leaves few places for people to hide.

Final Day – Thursday

This morning, several people have to leave us before midday which is a shame, because this is really our first and last opportunity to have an overview on what everyone has achieved together. I’m glad Cameron has his tripod here and is filming proceedings. The delivery team is looking reasonably fresh for once, which is more than can be said for the ‘infoset’, most of whom seem to have been up till 3am and ‘on the town’ for the last three nights. This is one of the elements that sets apart the facilitators, though not all, from the ‘infoset’. This is not due to an overzealous concern for ‘process’ on our part. Occasionally indeed one hears one’s-self adopting an authoritarian maiden aunt role responding to rumours of a ‘latenight roof party’ by requesting people not to fall off the roof. But this is just part of the ‘fun’: we encourage every liberation that we can.

No. It’s just a fact that the socialising of Team Syntegrity participants, driven by a different order of compulsion from the rest of us, is a vital contribution to the whole experience completely outside our control. On Day 4, this reverses our relationship to the infoset, who now know considerably more than we do about what is about to happen.  So, I find myself wondering quite how these slightly ragged teams are going to fare through 12 presentations – each with ten minutes on the clock and Sunny Hundal on alert!

I need not have worried. Vanessa Kisuule has written two beautiful poems for the first two teams, Religion and secularism and Biosphere politics. A preponderance of artistic temperament in the first group fills it with communicative power, and the audience is now urged to, “listen carefully to words chosen very carefully”, which indeed they are: “We as organized citizens, can host carefully designed spaces where we encounter difference in a way that shifts our attitudes... When I hear you tell your own story, in your own voice…  then I am invited to empathize. I and they become ‘we’.”

Vanessa’s second poem, too, has a refrain which sums up for me so much of what we have been discovering together, “Put that one in the soil, let it grow…”.  Throughout this feedback session, whether we are talking about the dialectical organisational space that needs to be created between parties and movements, or the tension between needing ‘people like us’ and ‘difference’ in safe spaces, the very form and characteristic features of the Team Syntegrity process often seem embedded in the content.

When Pavlos, who on Monday had given the distinct impression that he already knew everything, picks up the Olympic torch for the red team, I resign myself that his is to be the dominant voice. But, not for the first time this week, I am completely wrong. The emphasis in his report-back is on “balance”, the values of the “commons”, on the importance of “respect for far cultures” as he throws the presentation open to the rest of his team to supply any key terms that he may have forgotten. When they as amiably concur, there is one biosphere goal in particular he turns out to be waiting for, the location of: “Minimum viable consensus.”

Screenshot: Sybil Society and the consummate narrator.Now it’s the turn of funding civil society. I facilitate this group but have not a clue what they will come up with as Michael and Magda and Marley disappear behind the beautiful double doors of the Artchimboldi plenary room having coopted Alex, armed with a large lamp, into helping them stage an entire shadow-play, starring Magda as the passionate and eventually triumphant Sybil Society, Marley as a speedily banished Mr.Corporate and government inspector before his heroic turn as “Matthew Ember, Mr. M.Ember” – with Michael as our consummate narrator…“And Sybil was happy…”.

How this came together, I still have no idea. It is one of many small miracles to take place this morning. Later, there will be time to consider the central notion, this “new form of community shareholding model that ranks shareholder influence not in terms of how many shares are owned, but by what type of stakeholder they are, so the biggest payer isn’t necessarily the most influential… .” Later as well, the full irony of Magda’s starring role in dumb show will take on fresh significance when it emerges just how much this eloquent Polish contributor has had to struggle with language problems in our process. But for now there is no time, since Marley is back up, with Noam and Wiebke before us on the subject of the structural foundations of the far right: “ the almost poorest people having to compete with the poorest people”. Wiebke’s insistence on the need for “everyone to have the little we really need, safe and for the longterm” seems pretty unanswerable and her conviction that many people would agree that this was only right, even more so.

I could go on through the next eight topics, but will leave this to other voices (and you can check them out for yourselves), just adding how glad I am that Barcelona gets a good mention in Reinventing politics: “ One thing we have is a very interesting example in this city, the city of Barcelona. And so we came to the conclusion that we have all these examples but we just don’t know about them because they are so ‘not newsworthy’ – because it is about cooperation and collaboration and stuff like that that is not really dramatic enough.”

It feels as if we are moving from strength to strength, and in a last round where participants share their ‘most significant moments’ there is an accumulated sense of collective pride and personal satisfaction. There is also a lot of mutual trust in the room and a lot of emotion, which comes as a surprise to many, including some of those most affected. These are most productive perhaps in the safe spaces and politics of patriarchy outcomes, but are pretty universally present. There has been much thinking, including in some unlikely quarters and with some challenging criticisms of the process itself, about the relationship of body to mind, writing to communicating more generally, and rationality to emotion.

Here again, I am impressed by the dreamlike but thorough way the process notices things. It is not just that seeds once planted will grow in this series of overlapping exchanges, but as I put it later in my follow-up message to everyone:

the process itself, like a large ocean, seems to throw up at some stage or another everything that has gone into it. The character of the participants can reappear as a theme, themes can start happening to participants, conversations at supper morph into lines that are drawn or stoppages that are unblocked, the next day. ( I wonder if it is an accident that Aya brought her baby, and that the Purple group suddenly started addressing 'the working woman', albeit in Poland, and the centrality of having time for one’s-self as the central challenge for civil society. Maybe, but maybe not! ) Nothing ever seems quite accidental in a TS process, or even if it is – it can reappear as integral to some other process twenty minutes later…”

Nothing is quite lost. For example, Nikos left early, but his influence was scarcely dimmed. I hope someone has pointed out to him that there was a special moment “in his honour” in the Reinventing politics presentation, where Felix and Birgitta return to the floor to emphasise that if there was one thing we should all go away and do, it is to circulate a petition looking for one million signatures to demand voting rights for people who live and work in our supposedly democratic societies – rights they are too often shamefully denied.

I won’t pretend that everything is happy ever after. There are huge frustrations and constraints involved in these encounters that surface in some exit interviews, some of them as participants pointed out, fully intended in the protocol; many arising from its very successes; and no doubt more from perfectly remediable mistakes. The frustration that strikes me most forcefully today is the inequality caused by the predominance of English in a room of many different native languages. More than one facilitator has noted that the participants most alert to class, race or gender inequality can simply ride roughshod over the extra time and care it takes to properly include non-native English speakers. Birgitta, who is a superb English speaker, has the confidence to spell this out in most detail, including the inevitable impact on the emphasis on written statements that the organisers should have taken into account from the beginning, a part of the process about which she is scathing.

Well, it is challenging, but we must look into this, and many more constructive criticisms. For now, I want to wrap up by returning to one of the questions that I brought into the process with me. How different is Team Syntegrity in the twenty-first century?

Of course one event is no basis for generalisation. But I took away two very revised conclusions with me that Thursday. They both had their foundation in my early suspicion that this infoset was more individualistic, less mutually deferential and less used to a collective than its twentieth century variant. What I hadn’t anticipated is the sheer energy and delight with which so many of these slightly isolated individuals for precisely this reason, leapt into connection, seizing every available opportunity to bond and to exchange, to make friends and to work together. In one fell swoop many of them seem to have noted their deprivations and overcome them before you could say – Team Syntegrity.

My second conclusion falls into the same pattern. Every one of these events I have been involved in has accomplished something of this effect of the rise of a solid icosahedron of connectivity up through the middle and into the space between the participants, linking them and their themes all together. But I don’t think I can remember a group of participants who were so sensitive to that development and so glad not only to see it happen, but to help make it happen.

Of course the people conversant with complexity theory are always aware of this process. But this was a much more widespread effect, as if people have become more alert to their need for rapid and comprehensive meaning formation, but much less sure that it is possible, and correspondingly more delighted to welcome every bit of evidence to the contrary, and moreover to celebrate their own contribution to this effect. Participants expressed this in many different ways and in all of the exit interviews there are some really exciting and eloquent formulations of this.

But Birgitta just happened to unite my two conclusions in her account of witnessing: “ how things have just been connecting together, and the more we connected these ideas, and thoughts and passions, the more trust we started to experience that had its climax here in the circles. That method of experiencing that even in such very diverse groups we are all driven by the same – it’s difficult to find the right word for it – but we are all driven by the same currents…”  To experience this, articulate it and have others nodding in recognition of their own, different experiences, in three and half days, is a stupendous achievement. As we step back out into the sun of Barcelona, I take my hat off to them all!

Stills by Cameron Thibos and the author.

About the author

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.

Read On

The participants

Results so far, + 3 presentation videos

The process in the participants' own words - exit interviews, discoveries, frustrations


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