“Just Add People”
The Permaculture movement is growing. After 40 years it is now attracting a lot of interest. Conferences and convergences are a rich intellectual exchange and have unique needs with a local cultural experience. A great Permaculture convergence is sensitive of it’s impact on the host site. Permaculture delegates have left their own sites and can’t help but want to integrate with the host site, build better water management systems, minimise energy use, compost waster, contain rubbish, harvest from wild foods, help with chores and more. A permaculture convergence is not going to be quite as simple to organise as many other conferences but has the potential to set high environmental standards.
Charismatic and Practical Leaders
PEOPLE CARE is essential. One of the biggest challenges with a big one-off international or national event is that the system needs charismatic leaders. However, often it is the support team that needs our nurture. WORLD PEACE begins within the individual. When we ensure dependability, flexibility, self-determination and comfort of delegates we can facilitate harmony in the movement internationally. As we do in permaculture design, we can develop systems to encourage feedback during and after the process, we can pass the outcomes on to the next team and build a good set of protocols and processes.
The permaculture movement embraces diversity and flexibility. Diversity can be demonstrated in the venues and culture, pioneering of conference styles and tools (database, planning methods and organisational structure). We can set a clear targets, build shared tools, create effective feedback mechanisms and have the skills to create the optimum venue. Flexibility can be activated when we offer choices such as practical experiments (e.g. demonstrations or workshops on bio-char, native foods, pruning, grafting, building with bamboo, seed winnowing etc) in one of the concurrent streams.
Here are some recommendations for the Organisational Structure of Permaculture Events.
SHOW UNIQUE FEATURES
Be Special. Offer something regional. eg. Have regional food, regional music and best of all have great tour sites and well organised tours. These are the highlight of a convergence for many of us.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Be Savy. Given that most people listen at more than twice the speed at which the presenters can talk, then the presentations need to be clean, smart and substantiated. A lot of people complain that they felt they were a. being lectured at and b. being treated as children. We shudder when people say things like “trust me”.
Personally, I find the notion of hosting a bunch of pioneering, highly observant and politically motivated people a little bit alarming. How do we create a space that makes us all feel able to participate, all valued and all heard??
Here’s an idea – if someone is going to present in Spanish – ask them to have their image text in English and vice versa because not everyone had access to the translation earpiece. Self determination another powerful tool. Search for venues where people can choose to visit other shops/cafes if they need water or food. We wouldn’t put animals in such confined quarters and expect them to be productive.
PROVIDE THE CREATIVE FRAMEWORK
Structure versus Flexibility. There seems to be a struggle in some of the elders thinking that they want the process to be organic and flexible and informal and yet, it needs to be functional, efficient and supportive to the delegates. So my idea is it can have the structure of a tree – it is responsive to the environment but strong, branched and including open space.
Have a timetable and stick to it. It costs everyone a lot of money to attend the an international event. The small players matter. They are innovators and deserve respect.
Accept venue limits and and be firm. It would be pure greed and lunacy to expect the event-management and other participants to cope with an influx.
There is an International Women’s Music festival in the UK where the queues are made fun by entertainers. Women stand and chat and get entertained as they pass through. The entertainers are given priority, they get to ‘jump the queue’ when they are needing to be served, and the general participants respect that.
As for queuing, yes, a queue is efficient for the kitchen staff but simply not possible for all participants. Some people burn very quickly (especially my red-headed family and friends). Also, some people need to sit because they have injured a leg, feeling poorly or simply elderly.
Being inclusive means we need to devise systems that accommodate all walks of life (excuse the bad pun). Also, some people of different cultures and different degrees of social ability ignore the etiquette of queues. There are always going to be people who push in and this creates a feeling of disharmony. Australians would rather starve than queue and so, they go hungry and then complain or simply walk off. Many Asians will indeed starve rather than loose face. Londoners, in particular have a culture of immensely quiet tolerance and willingness to be polite as long as the system seems to be working. Boisterous behaviour in some ill-content delegates could get your valuable volunteers in a fractious mindset.
So, ensuring that there is an efficient system is essential and bonuses can be supplied eg. most people can be entertained and distracted even if they think the distraction is quaint, or silly. Shaded seats can be arranged to the side of the queuing area. light refreshment can be offered while people wait. Luggage and other heavy items can be accommodated by lockers. Wheel chairs can be supplied.
For meals, everyone can be allowed in and seated and wait at their table. If there are more people than there are seats, allow a set in and tell the next group to return for the next sitting in 30mins. We don’t have to leave people standing and waiting. Food can be brought in platters to share out at the tables or table-by-table people are invited to the buffet. This reduces waste (people rarely serve themselves food they don’t eat and if a table doesn’t eat all their food, then it can be offered to another table without fear of contamination).
Expect the unexpected, expect disasters with the money system, bad weather, thieves (my artwork for the Indian bid was stolen within 10minutes of my presentation), sickness (have emergency medical aid just as we do at rock festivals) and give people plenty of choices – include activities where they can get their hands dirty or make stuff or interact, give them the chance to get in and help and most of all, remember to say thanks.
Many conferences disappoint when the organisers try to keep adapting the schedule to solve errors or accommodate requests.
If you need to change things, find a way that does not involve the delegates having to change their program. Ie. Move equipment around rather than change the speakers from an advertised time-slot and venue. “who moved the goal posts?” is a constant despair of delegates at the poorly organised events. In terms of people hours: wasting the time of one hundred delegates is more costly than spending the time of one good program manager and a small team of strict time keepers.
Adhere to The Program
Program errors will snow-ball. One error by a time keeper will be felt throughout the whole day and across all the streams. Some details are essential for the smooth running of a convergence.
Treat the program with great respect and care. Spend time with the team to analyse the program and check it works. Role playing could help in determining movements of delegates, speakers and volunteers.
The program, once in place, is like a delicate web of events – moving one strand may have far-reaching effects. If you have to change a presenter’s time avoid moving there time slot earlier, put it later. Then, if the information was not received by the interested parties, the change is still able to be communicated and acted upon. There could be a presenter who raised money, left his farm and family, caught a plane at midnight searched for a bus, couldn’t afford a taxi, had his wallet stolen and phone goes flat but runs to the venue in time for his special opportunity, only to discover it was moved to an earlier time slot or is now cancelled. What price do we put on disappointment? (who notices?). The permaculture community as a whole suffers when people are disappointed, even if they don’t voice their disappointment. It is highly likely that we will loose their positive energy because they will turn their efforts to other projects where they feel valued and can make a difference.
In Permaculture, the international community must strive to be as dependable and as resilient as a forest. The convergence is the structure from which we can develop ideas, we can voice concerns, find solutions and grow in the comfort of good ethics and like-minds. The best convergences are inclusive and fill us with inspiration.
Michael Pilarski, Andy Golding, Narsanna Koppula, David Curtis (Co-ordinator of Eco-Arts Conference in Australia), Dr Naomi Van Der Velden, Prof Stuart Hill.
This is a document for discussion was prepared by April Sampson-Kelly