Newsletter Archive

Newsletter 2016/05

In our last newsletter, we announced the beginning of a new phase in the Smart CSOs Lab. We are building a more solid team at the core in order to provide better support for leadership towards systemic change across the Smart CSOs network. The good news is that we are making progress towards that vision: A successful first training of trainers on Re.imagining Activism took place in Brussels a few weeks ago — we aim to replicate this training. Also, this coming summer we will publish on our website a first set of a tools for trainings and workshops on Re.imagining Activism. Watch this space for more announcements on team development and more activities, soon to come.

In this newsletter we invite you to visit our facebook page to engage in a conversation about the need for new utopias + we offer a selection of articles that we hope is of interest to you:

It’s the 500th anniversary of Utopia — what’s your’s?

Four philosophers concluded that the concept of utopia is outdated. We don’t agree. Do you?

These days public debate is either rude and provocative or it is being censored and contrary opinions are shut down solely on moral grounds — social media being most affected by both extremes. Maybe this explains why spaces where thought experiments and free respectful debates are encouraged show great popularity these days. This is the case with Germany’s largest annual philosophy festival PhilCologne held last week in Cologne.

We (Silke and Micha from Smart CSOs) were attracted by this year’s festival themes and speakers and attended two of its evening colloquiums.

The first one gave us a fantastic and inspiring insight into a proposal aimed at improving democracy through higher citizen participation in political decision-making. In times of democracy crisis and dramatically rising populism, political scientists Claus Leggewie and Patrizia Nanz propose the institutionalisation of so-called future councils. These are well-facilitated spaces where citizens are officially asked to help improve political decisions that are highly important for our future, concerning questions of sustainability etc. Their proposal was so inspiring because it is well developed, radical and at the same time realistic (it based on empirical experience). The type of proposals that are so much needed these days. See here for more information on the proposal (in English).

After the inspiring first evening we were curious to see if the second evening could top the first one. Its theme raised huge expectations: The grand evening of utopias.

500 years ago English philosopher Thomas More invented the concept of ‘utopia’ when he wrote his novel Utopia about a vision of an egalitarian society living on the island Utopia. The festival organisers used this anniversary to ask if the time is ripe for new utopias or if the power of the concept is forever gone?

Unfortunately, unlike the first evening we attended, the so-called grand evening was largely disappointing. It fell completely short of delivering on its promise: None of the four speakers was able or willing to enter a constructive or inspiring conversation about why we need new utopias, what these utopias shall address or how they could look like.

One of the speakers, German philosopher Ottfried Höffe, said that his utopia was a World Government. He immediately added that he sees that we are anyway on the right path towards such institutions: only a question of time! Also with regard to other needed incremental improvements, in his opinion, we are on track.

The second speaker, Wolfgang Buschlinger, believes that it doesn’t make sense anymore to explore any grand narratives or utopias. In our individualistic world there would be no way to develop common utopias. We should better focus on improvements here and now and forget about the long-term visions.

The third speaker, the tech-savvy young philosopher Janina Sombetzki, mainly argued that we should keep a critical spirit with those who envision a brave new robot world. Like all speakers before her, she wasn’t keen to discuss the question if the time is ripe for new utopias.

The facilitator of the evening got a bit desperate.

Eventually, the last speaker brought at least some enthusiasm about the concept of utopia to the evening panel. Peter Zudeick, a follower of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, had his moment of passion when he defended that there are still big issues in our world that remain fundamentally unresolved, like Capitalism. He argued that we are far away from living up to the ideals of brotherhood, solidarity and freedom. When Zudeick said that indeed we still are in need of utopias, a spark of hope appeared for at least some interesting discussion. But none of the other panellists showed the slightest interest to engage into this conversation.

What a disappointment. Is the time for utopias really over?

Utopia is generally defined as ‘a fundamental critique of the socio-economic conditions and institutions of the present as well as the development of a fictitious comprehensible alternative regardless of what can be achieved under the current political and societal conditions’. So, a utopia can be a vision for a better world that might seem unrealistic at a time and might indeed never be achieved. But, importantly, it can break the boundaries of current thinking and open new doors for creative imagination and exploration of pathways that go beyond the narrow perspective of contemporary political discourse. The great challenges of our times cannot be resolved within the boundaries of current thinking. We need radical imagination, we need utopias.

After that failed debate, we thought that the Smart CSOs community can do better than the four philosophers. We would like to invite you to the Smart CSOs Facebook Page to have that conversation about utopias that didn’t happen in Cologne:

Is the time ripe for new utopias or is the power of the concept forever gone? What is your personal utopia?

An experiment for global democracy by Michael Sandel

One of the requirements for the Great Transition is a renewed deliberative democracy to debate the big questions that remain unaddressed in public debate. So, how can we create spaces for democratic deliberation on questions that matter to citizens globally? Here is an experiment: In a new digital space at Harvard University, philosophy professor Michael Sandel brought together 60 participants from over 30 countries to explore the philosophical justifications made for national borders. “Is there any moral distinction between a political refugee and an economic migrant? If people have the right to exit a country, why not a right to enter? Do nations have the right to protect the affluence of their citizens? And is there such a thing as a ‘national identity’?” See here on the BBC website The Global Philosopher.

A new guide on Theories of Change by HIVOS

Campaigners sometimes shy away from discussing theories of changes. They want to talk about practice and not theory, they say. This attitude is dangerous because “theories of change are the ideas and beliefs people have — consciously or not — about why and how the world and people change. How people perceive and understand change and the world around them is infused by their underlying beliefs about life, human nature and society. They are deep drivers of people’s behaviour and of the choices they make. Social change processes are complex and characterised by non-linear feedback loops: our own actions interact with those of others and a myriad of influencing factors. This triggers reactions that cannot be foreseen and makes outcomes of change interventions unpredictable. Given these uncertainties, how can we plan strategically and sensibly? How can social change initiatives move forward in emerging change processes in a flexible way, while remaining focused on the goal?”

HIVOS has just published a highly recommendable and useful guide for developing theories of change (download here).

Systems thinking done properly

Martin Kirk and Alnoor Ladha remind us that systems thinking is the key discipline for developing more effective change strategies, but we need to apply it comprehensively and thoroughly to develop good systems understanding and identify the real root causes of today’s crises:

Saying “everything is connected” is pretty popular these days. “Systems thinking” is the discipline du jour. Everyone, it seems, is becoming aware that the challenges we face do not stand alone. Climate change, for example, is not just about carbon emissions, but also about economics, race relations, patriarchy and power. There is no line of disconnect, except where we draw it with our minds.

Simply saying that everything is connected doesn’t get you very far, though. The real challenge is to understand how. Most of the root causes of inequality and poverty relate to global rather than national dynamics. In the most practical and important sense, there is one global economic system. There are networks of national systems within it, but they are all part of, and increasingly subservient to, a single, mother system. See here for the whole article: “Growing, Growing, Gone: Transforming the Global Economy Before It’s Too Late”.


Best wishes,
Micha (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) with help from Silke Peters

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