Creative shifts in discussing Europe – Re-languaging how we talk about Europe

There were many deep and touching conversations that we had during our two days in Aachen. I want to highlight two sessions that particularly inspired me and helped me to develop new perspectives.

Both had to do with exploring how we language – to borrow a term from Chené Swart – our questions and conversations around Europe.

Experiments and Projects

The first session related to the difference between a project and an experiment. This Open Space session, held by Anett Scheringa (with the kind support of our youngest participants), explored what we can see if we language Europe as an experiment as opposed to language Europe as a project.

What do we commonly define or see as a project?

A project is usually brought into existence to achieve a specific aim. What emerged during the discussion in the session were the following aspects of a project:

  • A project involves a (master) plan. Every step needs to feed nicely in the next one. The planning for a project happens from end to start.
  • The notion assumes that the goal is set and cannot be negotiated.
  • Any unforeseen event (i.e. Brexit) is seen as threatening to the project.
  • It involves the notion of control and “what needs to be done” to reach the goal

More interestingly were the reactions by the participants on how this makes them feel about “Europe as a project”:

  • What do “you” want “me” to do?
  • Deviations and unforeseen events are annoying.
  • Others are responsible for these deviations.

What do we understand if we use the term experiment?

Firmly rooted in the language and practice of empirical sciences the experiment also has a purpose. But instead of defining the purpose in terms of goals, the experiment is exploratory. The aim is to understand, gain knowledge and generate insights. An experiment is never at is end, but part of a continuous process of exploration.

So, what did the participants “see” when they looked at Europe as an experiment?

  • There is an openness to the experiment. There was / is a goal, but it can be adjusted and changed.
  • Things can´t really go wrong. We learn from what is happening.
  • It seemed more inviting to the participants: an experiment invites participation and input from everyone.
  • An experiment invites feedback and learning.

This all entails for me a specific freedom in exploring new ways, discarding old beliefs and assumptions and invite further development.

This notion of “Europe-as-experiment” strongly reminds me of an older article by Donald T. Campbell (with Karl Popper hoovering in the background) published in 1969 in the American Psychologist. In it he argues for an experimental approach to reform and policy making. Instead of forecasting the results and end-products of social innovations, he advocates for an experimentally grounded approach that tests and gets feedback on new initiatives by testing them in specific settings. This approach to policy making can be observed in the universal basic income experiment run by the Finnish government. Here´s some background on this.

 

I found this discussion inspiring, also because it resonated strongly with my belief that an experimental approach to policy making might be of great use in times as turbulent as ours.

On the other side, the conversation raised the question about the goal, the aim or the purpose of Europe today. This ties back to the purpose of the initiative "Stories for Europe": What do we consider an idea or a vision that can carry Europe in the 21st century?

This brings me to a the second session that was important to me:

Beauty as an aim for Europe

The political discourse (at the moment) is predominantly concerned with important questions around economics and security. We are witnessing transformations on a global scale. The advent of new technologies shifts our social, economic and political landscape. The question is "How do we come to new ideas and solutions regarding the challenges that go hand in hand with these transformations?".

Just like the famous optical illusions by Gestalt psychologists, we do have different ways in looking at the world. New ways and perspectives in looking at the world might lead to new ideas. Asking the question "What if Europe´s political aim was to be beautiful?" was a question that led to new perspectives for myself. And it brought the question of the goals of Europe back into focus.

Not in an abstract way, but specifc and concrete.

This relation between the abstract and the concrete was a tension field that I struggled with throughout the first Day: during the first conversations at our event, Europe or my images thereof seemed intangible. The political set-up, the sheer mass of more that 400 Million people, the burden of the challenges we are facing made Europe too big to grasp for me. How could we find a way to make new stories for Europe tangible and bring it closer to our every day experience?

On the start of the second day, Chené Swart and Yannis Angelis opened the Day with the so called T-Shirt exercise. With the Open Space Sessions ahead, we wanted to carry the rich discussions of Day 1 into Day 2 and the open space sessions. Working with our younger participants – not so comfortable in English – we asked what would be at the front of a t-shirt that would reflect their current image of Europe and the questions they bring to Day 2.

During the exchange that followed, one participant described the shirt showing a tree. The roots made up of all people of Europe in their diversity. The solid stem leads to a crown, in which he depicted the politicians. Talking more about their role, he told their purpose was to make Europe beautiful.

This struck me so much that together with other I explored the question "What if Europe´s political aim was to be beautiful?". The exchange in the open space session revolved around two core questions:

  • What was a moment in which Europe felt beautiful to me?
  • If you would ask your Europe, what would it say it needs to be beautiful?

The question might sound naive at first sight, but the power of questions rests with the answers they elicit and the insights they generate.

The answers to the first questions related very much to experienced people made while travelling and working around Europe. The diversity and richness of the cultural heritage, the landscape, encounters with different cultures and experiences made in intercultural settings.

The second question was even more powerful and here an important shift happened for me.

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The conversation shifted to the Europe that we experience and shape every day: our communities and neighbourhoods and how we interact with our direct environment.

  

Europe took a different shape by then:

From the intangible and the abstract that is out of reach and hard to impact to a Europe that is the sum if its heathy communities.

The perspective became a local one. After starting the Day with a big and intangible Europe, the conversation shifted here to the Europe that we experience and shape every day: our communities and neighbourhoods and how we interact with our direct environment.

A second theme that emerged in this conversation was responsibility – for nourishing the communities around us. It is one thing to ask "Europe" for something. It is another thing to ask "What do I do to nourish my surroundings to make them more livable?" and yes: maybe even more beautiful?

What goals would emerge or be validated for Europe when we would ask these questions?

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