What would a genuinely “empowering” #OpenState look like? @JayWeatherill

On Wednesday morning Jay Weatherill and 200 or so of Adelaide’s soi-disant cognoscenti gathered at Adelaide Oval, scene of triumphdisaster and foreigners hurling dangerous things at locals.

Everyone was there for the launch of the programme of the second ‘Open State’ festival, which will chart the potential triumphs and disasters of our species as it careens into the 21st century, with no brakes and a wonky satnav.  At the Open State festival – a series of talks running from 28 September to 10 October, some foreigners will hurl some possibly dangerous ideas.

Jay’s speech was everything you’d expect (and sadly not the alternative one I had suggested).  The words and themes were all there – innovation, inward investment, challenges of ageing, putting Adelaide on the map.   He extolled the use of citizens’ juries (without mentioning that the last one hadn’t gone the way he would have liked). He bigged up the attendance of international luminaries such as Richard Watson, Tia Kansara and Beth Simone Noveck.

He was followed by two presentations by entrepreneurs who had been given a boost during last year’s inaugural Open Event. The first, Daniels Langeburg arrived at the stage in one his Eco-caddy vehicles.  He explained his own heritage (ineligible at present for Federal parliament, thanks to Swedish and African heritage) who has been building up momentum for a couple of years

Eco-caddy has been transporting people and goods, and at the launch Langeburg announced the latest custom-built vehicle, which has a capacity of 350kg, and is designed for hauling things around the CBD.  (There is, of course, an app for people to order pickups and pay for them at the touch of a screen.)

He also referred to a recent foray into Melbourne to provide passenger transport at a local festival, at which his vehicles collected real time data on the travels and attitudes of attendees (anyone who saw Wednesday’s episode of Utopia, with Tony’s car survey difficulties will shudder at this).

There are, of course, reasons to be cautious.  Firstly, since so far eco-caddy has been replacing short journeys that would have been conducted on foot, the amount of carbon dioxide saved so far – and it is only early days – is, well, small (6.5 tonnes).  More seriously,  you can see them doing all the hard ‘proof of concept’ work and then being pushed aside by a fleet of electric vans with autonomous machine drivers with bigger capacity, longer range and deeper pockets to loss lead competitors into oblivion.

A bug not a feature

Second up was the founders of Post Dining.  Hannah and Stephanie.  With verve and humour, they took the audience through some of their work, in which they  “merge food with music, art and performance to create immersive and interactive eating experience” and  “meet the palate with an environment of possibility, through creativity.”  This then segued into a brief practical demonstration of Conversations around food entomophagy– eating bugs.  The attendees were treated to rocky road sprinkled with… crickets.

It was all tasty enough, but in the back of my mind was an excellent book by an American anthropologist, the late Marvin Harris. In his book Cannibals and Kings he argues that you can construct a story of humans eating all the easy to get protein, exhausting the supplies and then having to hunt up-and-down the food chain, developing new techniques of hunting and management.  And this is where – in a world groaning under the weight of Western excess and global overpopulation, we seem to have come to.  Earlier this year a shortage of lettuce in the UKwas treated as one of those jokey end-of-bulletin stories, a relief from tales of bombs, fires and elections.  But should it not have been seen as something sinister and full of foreboding. Next step Soylent Green?

The real problem with the launch though, was the programme.  And I don’t mean the glossiness of the impressively thick booklet that was handed out to all the well-heeled attendees.  I mean instead the superficiality of the ‘radicalism’.  It strikes me as a giant series of TED talk, where those with university educations, leisure time and the confidence to come along to listen to various actually-not-as-system-challenging-as-they-sound ideas without ever being able to connect in useful ways with the other attendees.  It’s the hub-and-spoke model, where the speakers are the stars and the audience is, well, ego-fodder.

This is not surprising, given who is sponsoring the event, and how it fits into the wider marketing of South Australia as a ‘happening place.’  If you think I’m being excessively undergraduate and self-proclaimed ‘radical’, well, maybe you’re right.  But incremental changes, which repair or recalibrate the existing patterns of behaviour and ‘governance’, are not going to get us out of the messes we’re in.

There’s nothing on the need for a post-growth economy, for example –that is still the topic that dare not be mentioned, even as we accelerate past 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide, as the Arctic melts and the reefs die.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the sessions on ‘new foundations for social change’ and ‘effective advocacy – what does it take’ will address the issues, but wouldn’t it be great if we had sessions which explored topics like, oh….

Citizens as Mushrooms – how bureaucrats and politicians use corporate public relations techniques and their own obfuscation techniques to prevent citizen oversight: and what to do about it.

How to make social movements effective –  how can social movement organisations overcome spin, secrecy, burnout and betrayal to be effective creators of good public policy that actually gets implemented.

Or something on how academics end up not being quite as useful to social movement organisations as they could be, and what is to be done about that.

Tell me I’m dreaming.

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