As the dust from the 2021 Emerge Gathering has now properly begun to settle, it seems like the right time to share some reflections on what was on so many levels a special and thought provoking experience.
I felt truly privileged to be in attendance, and to share space with so many enthusiastic and motivated individuals, of all manner of ages and nationalities. Above all, I was struck by the sense of optimism and positivity which emanated from every session and conversation I found myself a part of. This point was made wonderfully in a workshop I attended on the opportunities and shadows of Metamodernism (but can just as easily be extended to ‘the space’ more broadly) – here the conversations, visions and ideals were markedly for something better, rather than simply being against the status quo in the manner I’d seen so often in other ‘socially conscious’ settings. As with any burgeoning movement, there’s of course work to be done to channel this positivity in ways most conducive to social transformation, but it’s mere existence was enough to fill me with excitement.
My time in Berlin wasn’t simply spent as an attendee, however. Life Itself put together a whole programme of events both prior to and as part of the Gathering itself, to explore with friends both new and old how we might bring about a wiser and weller world for all. Thursday saw us host a workshop, under the guidance of our Pioneer Valerie Duvauchelle, exploring our relationship with food. Through a series of activities helping us link an analysis of the scarcity mindset underpinning our food systems, to our own personal responses to feelings of stress and scarcity, we were able to take a new perspective on the true costs of our consumption in a manner that was both profound and refreshingly non-judgemental. The workshop was then followed by a spectacular nine course Shojin Ryori dinner again prepared by Valerie, who guided us through the Zen principles underlying the flavours, preparation and eating of the meal.
The Friday before the conference, we launched the Alpha version of our State of Sensemaking Ecosystem map with a fascinating discussion featuring Alistair Langer, James Redenbaugh and Life Itself’s very own Lauren Uba. Our panel shared their own perspectives on the emerging ecosystem we find ourselves in, and sparked a number of great insights from the larger group around where we are and where we might wish to head in the future. I don’t have the space to capture all of them here, but a number of key lessons stood out to me.
First, we might all be touching different parts of the elephant, and that’s okay. In a space as diverse as ours, differences in focus and in prioritisation are natural. It’s amazing that we have people working on new forms of social institutions, those focused on personal development and those working with distributed technologies all in the same conversations, and perfectly fine that each might consider their own area of focus a higher priority than the others. We simply need to ensure that we collectively are integral in our approach, seeking out overlaps and complementarities even among seemingly disparate areas so as to take advantage of the division of labour which has naturally arisen.
Second, we discussed the importance and value of collectively exploring our blindspots. It is incredibly exciting to see the burgeoning coalescence of our ecosystem, but as the ‘we’ becomes ever stronger we must continue to reflect on what we might be missing, and whose perspectives we would do well to include. Continuing to explore where our collective blindspots might arise, and leveraging the diverse perspectives present in our ecosystem to help one another gain visibility of our own, should take on a high level of importance in our evolutionary journey.
Finally, one interesting provocation arose around the level of engineering, direction and even conceptualisation that is both possible and necessary regarding the development of this ecosystem. Our discussion led us to examine how important it might be that the bounds, nature and even name of the ecosystem become clarified, or the degree to which we should be making proactive efforts to guide the direction of its emergence. There was little in the way of consensus among our group on these issues, however further discussions throughout the gathering emphasised to me that, while we don’t want to stifle emergence through attempts to control it, some degree of coherence does have its advantages. In particular, greater clarity around the ecosystem should open up greater opportunities for collaboration and, crucially, allow mutual support and reinforcement of aligned efforts when engaging with out-groups, increasing both credibility and funding potential. Ensuring this, while also leaving space for the more organic elements of our ecosystem’s evolution to continue to arise and flourish, is a vital task indeed.
Having been energised by Friday’s discussions, it was time for the gathering itself. After opening comments by the Emerge team, we were led through a stirring imaginative process by friend and collaborator of Life Itself Phoebe Tickell of Moral Imaginations, inspiring us all to embark on the following days in a spirit of serious play. An array of intriguing workshops followed, covering everything from dialogic practice to philosophy and alternative economics. On Sunday I was lucky enough, in partnership with Valerie, Alex Kennedy and Alex Bjorkman, to lead a workshop exploring the idea of deliberately developmental spaces. We discussed how we should understand these spaces, ideas around their design, the practices and activities they should focus on, what they should aim for and how they should fit into broader efforts for social change. Again, I can’t hope to do service to our rich discussion here, but there were a number of notable points worth recounting.
Much of what was shared highlighted the delicacy of the balancing act that must be achieved when operating such spaces. They must be sufficiently accessible that they can engage enough of the population to lead to systemic change, while remaining exclusive enough that they are not disrupted by uncommitted participants, or those who are not yet emotionally ready for such collective contexts. They must also find the middle ground between explicitly targeting personal development, while not falling into the instrumentalism that so pervades mainstream western society; many wisdom traditions tell us that we must practice as if we have ‘nowhere to go’ rather than attempt to force our way to growth. Reconciling these lessons with the hypothesis that it is possible and in fact desirable to catalyse development through intentional means is another fascinating challenge. Finally the balance between purpose and open endedness presented as a further issue worth exploring. The question of why exactly we are seeking to develop was raised, along with the potential issue of putting the cart before the horse if we design developmental spaces without these purposes in mind. At the same time, keeping a degree of open-endedness such that more holistic, unpredictable and emergent forms of development can arise seems at least somewhat desirable. Again, how we should reconcile these two observations is certainly something which must be considered.
Alongside the balancing act required for the success of developmental spaces, the other major learning I took from the session was simply how important it is to communicate and share experiences about these pursuits. The field of adult development and how we might bring it about is still very much in its infancy, and so the value of sharing insights from experiments that are undertaken is incredibly high. We closed the session by sharing our desire to form a community of practice around this work, and encourage anyone who is interested or involved in it to please get in touch!
Overall, it was wonderful to encounter such a high degree of resonance with our work here at Life Itself over the weekend. I made some amazing connections and gained a great many new insights, but most of all left excited and heartened that, perhaps, we might just be onto something.