Why we need to lose control to change the system: Reflections from OPEN 2019

Jamie Pett from the Losing Control Advisory Council attended “OPEN 2019 Community Gathering – Decentralised Collaboration” on June 27-28th.

To share learning across the Losing Control network, this blog features Jamie’s reflections and outlines some key insights from the event.

The OPEN 2019 Community Gathering consisted of a group of people discussing the big challenges we face. The organisers call it “an inter-network event for community builders, network organisers and key connecting members of organisations from a wide range of progressive communities”. Attendees had some radical ideas, experiments and initiatives that add up to what we could call an alternative economic imagination.

This is necessarily partial – they are glimpses of what the future might look like over the horizon. There is no grand plan, which is where the Losing Control principles may be helpful. How can we openly talk about how power and technology go together? How can we nurture and connect up different initiatives? How can our ‘social technologies’ – the way we meet gather, make decisions and build community – keep up with digital technologies?

The conference did not shrink from the scale of the challenge we face: Our current trajectory leads to climate breakdown and increasing inequality. It would be easy to respond to this with a utopian vision, either emerging from the bottom-up across the world or imposed top-down. However, participants were humble and honest that we do not fully know what a response will look like, admitting that there are limits to any single solution.

A window into the future

Nonetheless, the conference offered a glimpse of what the future could look like – an alternative economic imagination that includes new ways of thinking about money, different mindsets, and a redistribution of power.

One of my favourite examples was the Open Food Network, who are creating alternative food distribution networks for independent producers. They operate on the principle of subsidiarity with control delegated to the appropriate level – growing carrots at the local level, coordinating production at a regional level and developing software for the network at a global scale. I was also impressed by Citizen Action Networks, who aim to solve global problems such as the climate crisis with localism, bringing people in by meeting their immediate needs then giving them access to an alternative system. 

Many of the ideas (such as alternative monetary systems) do not neatly fit with our current economic system – and that’s the point. This made it difficult for me to get my head around. But several of the ideas have been rattling around my head in the weeks since the conference and they are starting to make more sense as I read up more. 

A recurring theme for me was the relationship between digital technology and social change. Where the internet once promised the opportunity to connect up communities and movements, it has often in practice seen existing power dominate in new ways and created new centres of control in the shape of big tech companies. Digital technology also creates the possibility of more extensive monitoring by those with money and power. This includes funders and commissioners wanting to know details of charitable projects – creating incentives against losing control.

Knowledge, trust and enthusiasm flow through the relationships that connect people to one another. Participants at OPEN 2019 therefore spoke about using tech to reinforce positive patterns and interactions. For example, Enspiral spoken about how collective decision making is based on trust built over time. The Open Food Network shared how being vulnerable in person allows for effective remote working in distributed teams.

Systemic change is personal, it’s messy and it’s surprising. It requires ‘losing control’ because we don’t have one single solution to our systemic problems. Rather than making a grand plan, we can highlight what has potential, nurture the experiments to let them bloom and link them up with others, building overlapping movements. I was impressed that people were sharing emergent ideas and being open to feedback and iteration – even where ideas can feel rough around the edges. Some of these ideas may disappear, some ideas await their moment, others may be a glimpse of a future in which we thrive together. I couldn’t tell you which is which, but I’m excited to know there’s a network of people supporting each other to think big and experiment. 

An open space to explore

Part of the reason I signed up for this event so enthusiastically was that it would use a format known as ‘open space’. In open space events, participants create and manage their own agenda, with parallel sessions around a theme. Having recently blossomed into a full-blown facilitation geek, I was keen to see what would happen. After a morning spent creating ground rules, getting to know people at our tables and hearing from half a dozen participants giving lightning talks, we were presented with our agenda for the remaining one and a half days. It was largely blank. Everyone was given a few minutes to write a proposal for a session they would like to host on a post-it note before queuing up to share quickly with the whole group. After clustering similar topics, the facilitators placed the post-it notes on the blank schedule and those who had volunteered to host but had not prepared anything in advance prayed that they hadn’t been allocated the first session!

I co-hosted a session on collective decision making and participation, generating examples from the group and asking, ‘who needed to let go of control to allow this to happen?’. The second half of the double act was a Green Party activist who wanted to explore how could this be done at scale and remotely at a party conference. Idea included treating everyone as virtual, holding viewing parties and building trust locally first. Hosting an open space session rather than a conventional workshop meant that I had to be more prepared to change direction according to who did (or didn’t!) come and what they wanted to discuss. This was daunting but meant that overall, the sessions were much more interactive and the hosts more in tune with participants – there was (almost) no PowerPoint.

Losing control of the format and content of the conference had its joys and its pitfalls. Previous years have been more structured and focussed on platform cooperatives. This time, because the conference used an open space format, it was not carefully curated to give a single message. This could be frustrating if you came looking for answers. As someone without the base of knowledge to engage fully in the conversation, it could be overwhelming at times. However, it seemed like most attendees came with an attitude of curiosity and were happy to arrive with some questions and leave with even more – they understand that big changes go hand in hand with losing control.