A week in Sweden


I get to spend a fair amount of time in Sweden. It’s where Thomas Bjelkeman lives (who I spend most of my time working with) and also each summer Akvo gets involved with the year’s biggest event focused on water and sanitation development – World Water Week.

This time my trip was different. I went first to Futureperfect, which I’d also visited last year, but hosted this time on the island of Vaxholm, closer to Stockholm in the archipelago. I was on stage in two panel discussions at Futureperfect – one on the future of communications and the other on technology. At World Water Week we’d already decided not to do the WaterCube video studio this year (we’d done it in 2009, ’10 and ’11) so instead I was the presenter and facilitator for a panel discussion and audience workshop called “Going Open”, looking at why the international development community needs to open up its data, knowledge and mindset.

In theory Futureperfect and World Water Week both focus on sustainability and the future – but the contrast between the two was probably the most eye-opening aspect of the experience. I thought I’d jot down my highlights.

Sitting on the beach at Futureperfect
My friend Anna Emmelin, who curates events and works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, came up to the Futureperfect island for the Saturday evening. The two of us stole away and sat on the beach, discussing life and what next. There were no lights at all and the vista across to other islands in the archipelago had no man-made features – and the sky was absolutely full of stars. In the faint remains of the Northern light the water and landscape – and the reflection of that landscape – looked incredible. And we saw a shooting star! It was of a subtlety that no camera could ever capture, which I think made it even more special. There were just two ways in which man made his presence known – the occasional buzzing lights from planes leaving Arlanda airport like tiny fireflies, and a gigantic wall of techno music blasting over the hill from behind us, echoing across the sound. It wasn’t warm, but the festival organisers had got hundreds of blankets for free from IKEA (Eva Stal, their head of sustainability came along for the whole gig too – she was next to me on the comms panel). So Anna and I sat with the blanket until we got too cold and went back to the festival to find a camp fire. I was struck how this landscape seemed unpolluted by humans, apart of course by the wall of techno.

Meeting the O’Neill’s
I first met Blaine O’Neill at last year’s Futureperfect and I had the chance to get to know him and his younger brother Riley plus Kelly Mcgee, a schoolfriend. They all grew up in Los Angeles – in Malibu for heaven’s sake – and I’m intrigued about their desire to find a better, more progressive way of living. I’m continually fascinated by Los Angeles and its historical role as a magnet for the ambitious, aspirational and the creative, and the way it so often ultimately disappoints people. Riley told me about spending time in Berlin recently and several other people at the event were enthusing about the city. Throughout history, different European cities have acted as a draw for creative Americans – Paris in particular has played that role. But in 2012 it seems to be Berlin that’s drawing them. I must go and visit, and see more of what’s happening there – I’ve never been. Blaine himself is a very unusual combination. On one side there’s an almost ethereal quality, a sensitivity and awareness and a refusal to be forced to answer questions he doesn’t feel qualified to. On the other he’s tough as nails, lives a nomadic life – “I’m a vagrant” as he puts it. And he’s a proper activist that firmly believes you have to use your physical presence to challenge the things in society and government that are broken. I especially enjoyed his contribution to the final session on activism, where he warned people against relying too much on tools like Twitter and Facebook to mobilise and organise – that “We need to keep organising ourselves in (physical) space and not rely on media and the Internet”. Oh, and he did a DJ set on Saturday night too.

Seeing Zenrainman
At World Water Week I got to see my friend S Vishwanath, aka @zenrainman. Vish is one of India’s leading authorities on ecological, environmentally sensitive design of infrastructure. You can learn more about his work by following him on Twitter @zenrainman. He always credits me as the guy who got him into Twitter, for which I’m very honoured because he now uses it as an absolutely fundamental part of his work. I sat next to him at one point astonished as he seemingly conducts all his interaction with people around the world via Tweetdeck. A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit the house Vish and his architect wife Chikra built in the suburbs of Bangalore. I was blown away by its design – built using bricks made from the earth dug out for the foundations and basement, its water and sanitations systems entirely self-contained with ecological toilets and rainwater harvesting and storage, and without conventional heating or cooling systems. And they grow food on the roof. It’s a proper definition of the 21st century house, rather than all the 20th century visions of the 21st that we’ve become accustomed to. This time I sat with Vish as he talked with a Swedish engineer called Jan-Olof Drangert who has commissioned Vish’s wife Chitra to design him an amazing new house, also in Bangalore. It doesn’t require heating or cooling systems, and is designed to provide adaptable living based on the season, so having a basement “summer bedroom” and a top floor “winter bedroom”. Mark Westra also had a great conversation with Jan-Olaf about helping him take the enormous body of knowledge he has gathered over the years and migrate it into the Akvopedia.

Attitudes to youth
I was struck by the profound contrast in how people in their teens/twenties were treated versus “the rest” at Futureperfect versus Stockholm World Water Week. At Futureperfect they were a fundamental part of the event – everyone was equal and had a voice in trying to work out how the world moves forward. On Vaxholm island, younger people played a big part in the talks, and a huge role in the art and music. I felt like one of the oldest people there, which was a bit weird. In contrast, World Water Week parades young water professionals around like it is the 1950s and they’re being groomed as future leaders of the UN. Check out this intro video for heaven’s sake. I’m also not aware of anyone below thirty leading a mainstream session. At World Water Week my impression is that youth is pre-packaged into a patronising box and paraded for all to see. And to top it, SIWI, the World Water Week organisers told Anna Norén, who has worked at the event for many years, that she couldn’t bring her newborn baby into the exhibition hall (she did on day one, but after that was told it may offend exhibitors). That would never have happened at Futureperfect.

John Thackara
I also had the chance to get to know the writer John Thackara a little better. John has done a lot of thinking about how cities need to change – and is particularly adamant that much, much more attention needs to be paid to the vast “informal” urban areas growing on the edges of many of them. I get the feeling there are enormous numbers of others things that he knows, that I’d like to understand, so I must find ways to spend more time with him.

An events fund
Thomas and I spent time at various moments talking to the Futureperfect team, including John Manoochehri, Gabriella Silfwerbrand and Blaine. It’s clear they need to move to a different business model to sustain the event, and Thomas and I are determined to help because it’s too good to not have happen. For some time I’ve been considering putting together an event fund focused on sustainability and future living / cities / lifestyles. I think the initial fund should be about £200k and allocate chunks to interesting, progressive events that have begun to establish a reputation and a network, have a sound management team in place, and which will thrive if they can avoid dealing with lots of sponsor sales and liaison. I think we can shield them from that and use our networks to help. If you’re interested in that concept (I mean as a funding partner), let me know.

Dutch Embassy Door Man
For the second year, I got to work on the door at the Dutch Embassy party, along with Peter van der Linde. Sponsored by the Dutch foreign ministry, it was timed to coincide with Stockholm World Water Week and we had several hundred people come from across the international development world. As a Brit, I felt very honoured to be asked to do this role once again. Working the door is also a great way to know who is who at a party and you have the chance to make sure everyone who arrives feel really welcome. Peter had suggested we’d do the door until after the speeches, which I think is a very fine philosophy indeed.

I haven’t finished this list yet – in particular I need to write about Noah’s Nature Walk (which was amazing), Sunita’s TV programme (which she needs to make), the Akvo apartment (which was gorgeous), staying in a tent, watching Ned Breslin in full action (which was jaw-dropping) and what it was like to finally meet Yénika Castillo. Oh and being locked out of the UN 2013 water cooperation event (that I’d actually been invited to speak at) and stomping off and going for a drink with the Cycle for Water boys and Eric Stowe instead (which was much more interesting, and useful). But I’m posting it halfway written anyway as it’s Friday and it’s been a long week.

My Flickr photo set from that week is here.

Mark Charmer, Friday 31 August 2012.

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