A couple of weeks ago we had the pleasure to be part of the Emergent Berlin Fest. An open-air for everyone interested in sustainability, social entrepreneurship and networking with people that want to make this world a better place. Because we can only imagine how difficult it was to organize an event like this, we talked to Scott Bolden, the host of Emergent Berlin Fest. In the interview, he talks about his top 5 learnings and his favorite part of the open-air: the Open Greeting Zone!

Scott, you have hosted another Emergent Berlin Fest a couple of weeks ago. What was your intention behind organizing this event?

The idea behind Emergent Berlin is to bring together a growing network of local changemakers in Berlin to showcase their sustainable initiatives and strengthen our collaborative connections between each other and the general public.  There are so many wonderful projects running in the city that I thought would be interesting for people to know about so that they can participate in those projects, support them, learn from them or just be inspired to start their own sustainable initiatives.

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Over the past several years 'sustainability' has become an over used buzz word, often used to 'green wash' otherwise unsustainable projects, products and processes.  This is unfortunate because sustainability is perhaps the most critically important concept of our time that we need to refocus our efforts on.  If you will allow me to elaborate a bit...

Sustainability can be defined as: the ability of a system to maintain balance (keeping in mind that balance is a dynamic activity).  In my humble opinion, 'balance' is a fundamental and inescapable principal of the universe of which we are all subject to.  For example, the reason why we have life on earth is that our planet is in a sustainable orbit around the sun and (until recently) has been maintaining a balance of the right chemical composition and dynamic balance of the seasons etc.  Almost every bit of technology we have figured out stems from the use of mathematic equations where xyz "=" abc; the simple act of balancing one side with the other.  Even when feel good or bad about something in our lives it is a reflection of some sort of balance or imbalance like getting enough love, respect, help, social interaction, privacy, food, intimacy, entertainment, +, +, + ... you get the idea.

In the context of the Emergent Berlin festival, I wanted to highlight and expose various initiatives that engage in exploring a broad spectrum of sustainable categories which have significant impact on our lives and the world around us namely:

  • Personal Sustainability - understanding who we are, what drives our own behavior, what desires are we trying to satisfy, how do we deal with certain inescapable experiences of the human condition, where we are at in our lives and having an idea of where we want to evolve to and how to get there?
  • Social Sustainability - how can we better understand and communicate with each other in meaningful ways, figuring out how to work together collaboratively and peacefully to the benefit of all?
  • Cultural Sustainability - how can we find ways to celebrate and learn from our differences while focussing on and nurturing that which we have in common?
  • Ecologic Sustainability - how can we act in balance with the natural world around us?
  • Economic Sustainability - how do we create more equitable and stable systems to manage the exchange of goods, services and experiences...?
  • Aesthetic Sustainability - how can we awaken, value, express and use all of our senses of perceiving the world (visual, aural, tactile, smell, intuition and spiritual awareness)?

This brings us back to the concept of emergence, where 'emergence' is a process of collective and collaborative intelligence manifesting itself into order.  What is emerging in Berlin is the development and growth of , "A Sustainable Urban Culture".  If it's not possible to manifest this here in Berlin then where, if not now then when, if not us then who?  In general, I feel super lucky to be here in Berlin these days, I also feel a sense of responsibility to take advantage of that good fortune and do what I can to help facilitate the making of a better world here and perhaps, by example, in other parts of the world.

I am pretty grateful to be alive and actively able to contribute some influence to getting good things done while having fun at this critical junction in the history of humankind; Emergent Berlin is one of the ways in which I share this joy.

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Organizing such an event is a lot of work, how did you manage to pull it of? What are your top 5 learnings?

For me, the first and most significant factor that made this festival happen lies in having a solidly good idea that has a great deal of resonance.  Sure, I thought the concept was good so I really believed in it and therefore I was highly motivated to stay committed to it through all of the ups and downs.

However, there is no way I could have pulled this off without the help of so many other enthusiastic, generous and engaged people (whom I shall mention by name on the Emergent Berlin website in my forthcoming final review of the event). The simple fact is that many of the ideas and concepts embodied in Emergent Berlin resonated with a lot of other people. At the core, probably the most attractive notion is this idea about being able to exercise one's sense of self initiative in regards to acting upon a surprisingly common thought, "What is it that I can do to make the world a better place?"

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Furthermore, I tried to follow one simple rule: Let people participate by doing what they love to do and want to do.  When people can exercise their most profound sense of self determinant behavior then there exists the possibility of real magic to occur.  Of course, managing all this unbridled enthusiasm requires plenty of patience, understanding and the ability to maintain constant lines of open communication.  It really helped quite a bit to set up some basic organizational 'systems thinking' structures for people to place themselves into.  In this sense, the project sort of took on a life of it's own allowed many of the 95 participants and 900 attendees to actually live the concept of emergence throughout the entire process instead of merely theorizing about it or discussing it.

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As far as lessons learned goes, there where certainly more than 5 but I'll try to stick with the main ones:

1. Find more committed core team members to help organize - I tried to learn this lesson from last year's event but I still have not mastered it yet.  Every year I start off by asking folks about 4-5 months in advance if they want to help organize the festival and each year around 8-10 people volunteer.  By the time the festival rolls around the team is just down to 2 or 3 people who are really taking responsibility for one part or another but then just me at the core with the gigantic overview to manage... fortunately I'm a decent multi-tasker and can live on just 3 hours of sleep for at least a week.  The good news is that the team for the next event is already starting to take form...

2. Secure more funding - This festival can not get any more non profit / grassroots than is has been the past 2 years.  The first year, all the up front out of pocket expenses came out of my pocket.  Fortunately, that was only a few hundred euro and we ended up +150€ after all expenses were paid.  This year we also basically broke even because we set up a crowd funding campaign on betterplace.org, that along with donations at the festival kept my out of pocket expenses rather low.  However, compared to the hundreds of hours I spent organizing it would be nice to do a bit better than just break even.  I feel like the festival is a valuable service to society and it would be great to secure some more significant funding for all the effort (this might also help take care of lesson #1 above).  In any case, our crowdfunding is still open and we could use a bit more so that we can afford to give something to our video production team (they operate on the gift economy) for their wonderful documentation efforts still in process.

3. Be patient and understanding but don't take too much crap from people - There were a lot of people to deal with and everyone has their own perspective to be aware of and responsive towards.  This can sometimes be a bit tricky to deal with especially when you are asking people to help for free or at significantly discounted rates.  I definitely had to exercise a lot of patience with various situations but I also learned not to take too much nonsense from people and hold them accountable for what they promised to do and for their bad behavior under stressful conditions.  The good news is that just about every conflict that came up was eventually resolved to peaceful and balanced satisfaction.

4. Clear Communication - This one is always a challenge and sometimes comes down to the basic issue of capacity, having enough time to get things clearly communicated and questions answered.  I realized that when organizing this event there are many different cultures and factors to deal with, especially because we did this event on the grounds of an area where people lived and this was their first experience with a big event produced by outsiders.  For the most part things worked out pretty well but there is plenty of room for improvement.

5. Content Screening - I tried to make sure that I had a full understanding of each 50 or so initiatives involved in the festival, had first hand experience with all the workshops and had heard all the musical guests performances before hand.  Inevitably, I missed a couple of things, one of which I outsourced the curation of and the other slipped my attention.  Overall, the vast majority of feedback I got about the festival was overwhelmingly positive.  One important feedback I got was that the festival had so much content that it could easily be spread out over 2 days as opposed to 1... let's see how things evolve for the next Emergent Berlin experience.

Now that the event is over, what was your favorite happening / outcome of the Emergent Fest?

By far, my favorite part of this year's festival was the response to and success of our social innovation initiative called "Open Greeting Zone / offene Grüßzone".  The idea was to figure out a way to get people who don't know each other to interact with each other in meaningful ways.  You know the experience of going out somewhere to a public or private gathering and people show up in their familiar groups but often don't interact with each other...  Sometimes you can find yourself in a crowd of hundreds of people and still feel a bit lonely.

Our solution was to make functional art in the form of signs that read, "Open Greeting Zone" or "offene Grüßzone," with an explanation near the sign that reads, "if you are standing in or near an Open Greeting Zone, O.G.Z., then it is ok to introduce yourself to anyone else in the area and if someone you don't know approaches you, don't panic it's ok to say hello and meet them too."

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By having these signs located all over the festival site we effectively re-framed the social expectations of festival attendees, who in turn, reacted quite positively and started talking to each other.  This worked surprisingly well over the course of the entire day and night, it was a pretty magical vibe of strangers walking up to and engaging each other without the normal (a) social stigma that normally comes with coming in contact with complete strangers.  By the early evening, people did not really need to be near any signs to just start meeting with each other... we were able to re-frame and shift normal/standard social behavior.

The great thing is that this initiative is ongoing and we will showcase this action at our next major events in the Baumhaus on September 13 and 14 during our open studio program at the Wedding / Moabit Kultur Festival (WMKF).  The O.G.Z. signs that we made at Emergent Berlin and the ones we will make for WMKF will be auctioned off over time to raise funds for the building of the Baumhaus and funding future culture events.  The best part is that when people buy these artworks they will not hang on a private wall or be placed out of reach in a museum but they can be taken out into the real world and used to create real social impact!

You are also planning to build the Baumhaus Berlin, can you tell us a bit more about that? How is it progressing? Is there already a date set for the opening?

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Das Baumhaus Berlin will be an indoor tree house in Wedding designed in the style of Gaudi meets "Lord of The Rings" meets "Avatar".  My partner, Karen Wohlert and I are planning this a space for meaningful engagement, a place to have fun but also get some good things done.  Practically speaking, we will be a hub and a platform for 'broad spectrum' (ie. personal, social, cultural, economic, ecologic & aesthetic) sustainable development.  The space is being designed and built collaboratively with folks in our network.

We and those in our growing network of 'people who want to make the world a better place' will offer regular programming Thursdays through Sundays of workshops, seminars and events that have to do with building a sustainable urban culture.  In essence we will be doing what we did at the Emergent Berlin Festival but on a regular daily basis with more in-depth content and follow up.  Our platform will also feature regular social business coaching seminars in coordination with our collaborative partners from .garage, one of Berlin's most well established and respected business coaching institutions.  Our partners are currently working on opening up funding opportunities for our future social entrepreneurs.

In addition to privately renting out the Baumhaus on Mondays - Wednesdays, we will function primarily as a sustainable solutions design consultancy staffed by freelance talent.  Since we have such a broad range of professions represented within our network we will market ourselves as a truly multi-disciplinary creative problem solving and opportunity finding agency for projects ranging from product, interior and furniture design to various systems, communication and research development activities.  Essentially, we will put together teams and use various methodologies to work on a wide range of projects.  The Baumhaus space and our programming will serve as a walk in portfolio of what we have to offer as well as a hybrid model of a face-to-face facebook+LinkedIn+Xing.  I ran a consultancy similar to this in New York City for several years so I have to trust that my experience will serve me well in this new endeavor.

Karen and I (along with 150 other collaborative partners) have been developing this project for over three and a half years and we are currently at the end of our financing phase, in our final talks with a couple of banks.  By the end of September we will know what type and the amount of funding we will be getting and we can start building the space in October.

At the moment, we are finalizing design details and looking at portfolios/resumes of potential building collaborators who would also like to create and showcase their work.  In early 2015 we will begin setting up our event programming schedule, review more resumes for potential freelance consultants and we hope to be finished with construction in May.

What makes you a Changer?

Well this is an interesting question... Hmmm.  First, I suppose I would consider myself 'A Changer' as opposed to 'The Changer' in humble recognition of the many good people out there who are working to make a real difference everyday.  More abstractly, I suppose I'm a changer for the similar reason that I am an activist; I am 'active' and I 'exist' therefore I am an 'activist'.  More concretely, I have been lucky enough to be a part of developing innovative ideas and projects that resonate and have had actionable impact.

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