Cooperation among democracy festivals in the Nordic and Baltic region has increased over the years. However, thus far they had no official platform for cooperation. This changed in March, when eight democracy festivals from the Nordic and Baltic regions and one European-wide festivals joined their forces to establish the International Democracy Festivals Association (IDFA).
During the Association’s founding meeting in Oslo, the head organizer of the Estonian opinion festival Arvamusfestival, Maiu Lauring and fellow organizers of other festivals discussed the aims and principles of the Association as well as shared best practices for preparing, conducting and measuring the impact of the festivals. The highlight of the meeting was of course signing the Association agreement.
The newly founded IDFA gathers festivals that provide a platform for a democratic dialogue between civil society, politicians, business, media, universities and people at large. It aims to strengthen the existing democracy festivals in order to help other countries and organisers build similar democracy festivals and unite muscles in the effort to use the democracy festivals as vehicles for democratic change. The association also serves as a great platform to share know-how, best practices, discuss challenges and help each other find solutions.
According Maiu Lauring, joining the Association is an important step in the progress of Arvamusfestival. „During last years we have witnessed a big growth of democracy festivals popularity in our countries! There seems to be an underlying need for the people and citizens of todays democracies to have such meeting places and meaningful conversations. I’m especially glad, that together we are looking for ways to better the quality and value of conversations and interactions at our festivals. Our heart is in discovering and designing solutions, how to revalitise face-to-face conversations between different groups of interest.”
The Association has already recognised a remarkable interest from other countries for organising their own democracy festivals and will proceed to promote the democracy festivals format as a platform that, according to the Chair of the Democracy Festivals Association, Zakia Elvang „revitalises democracy by strengthening the link between a political system and citizens as well as creating spaces for dialogue and participation“.
The guiding principle of the seventh Opinion Festival is future. Especially welcomed to the programme are discussions that, in one way or another, prepare us for the future and ask questions that don’t really have answers yet. The discussion will be chosen for the programme by a public gathering of ideas which lasts until January 31st.
Future is the guiding principle in light of the Estonia 100 celebrations of the last state-building milestones. “All countries are created to last forever – the survival of Estonian nation, language, and culture through time is the foundational idea of the Republic of Estonia. Hundred years after the birth of the country is a good time to set new goals for the coming centuries. Therefore, it makes sense to look forward, to the future – as well as we can, with the highest academic and intellectual capacity that we have,” said Toomas Kiho, the Head of the Steering Group of Estonia 100.
Maiu Lauring, the Head Organizer of the Opinion Festival says it’s inevitable that the future brings increasingly more changes and that it’s in human nature to be cautious about them. “During the seventh Opinion Festival we’ll ask what will this future be like – the one we’re creating today with our choices, acts, and words. By involving the best knowledge and taking into account the human caution, we’ll discuss what kind of future do we want and, in co-creation, we will take first steps to shape this future,” said Lauring.
During the year of Estonia’s National University 100, the role of the University of Tartu and scientists is of particular importance in the public discussion around future. The Project Manager of Estonia’s National University 100, Kadri Asmer says that it’s important to understand that hundred years of higher education in Estonian is a gift to the whole country of Estonia and not only the pride of one university. “The task of the National University is to be the leader of social development and to offer solutions to problems while looking out for Estonian culture and science,” said Asmer.
The more precise reference point set to mark the future is the year 2035 which is also the basis for preparing a new long-term strategy for the Estonian state. The ideas for the next Opinion Festival discussions should help explain some complex topics, to create a better understanding between opposing sides, introduce new knowledge, provide smart solutions, or ask questions that don’t have an answer yet. As always, discussions by everyone – individuals as well as institutions, businesses, NGOs, and networks – are welcome.
The gathering of ideas will last until January 31st. All the ideas received will be rated by the Opinion Festival’s organizational team consisting of ten members. Every discussion idea will be rated in four categories (reasoning, purpose, form of discussion, diversity of participants) and this will form the ranked list of discussion topics. After this, the ideas are divided into matching fields of discussion. The preparation of these fields will begin in March with the organizers of these discussions with the aim of publishing the programme at the beginning June.
NB! The call for ideas has closed!
In case of questions, please send them to email@example.com and the organizers will give advice. The Opinion Festival will take place on August 9th and 10th in Paide.
The Opinion Festival, taking place in Estonia for the sixth year running, is now part of Democracy Festivals, a newly established network of like-minded events. Eight democracy festivals from the Nordic and Baltic regions, from Visby in Sweden to Birštonas in Lithuania, have joined forces in an effort to foster stronger participatory democracy everywhere in the world and offer opportunities to learn from each other’s experience and best practice.
The network was formed as the result of a joint Estonian-Latvian-Danish initiative. It was initially the brainchild of Ieva Morica who heads the conversation festival LAMPA, who had been supported by the Opinion Festival team for putting on the festival. Kristi Liiva, founder of the Opinion Festival, said: “We spoke about the various areas for improvement that can be found in every country’s democratic discussion process as well as communication culture more broadly, and that spurred us on to lean more heavily on each other’s best practice and together start breathing life into the wider mission of ‘democracy festivals’.”
The change agency We Do Democracy, headed by Zakia Elvang, is leading the platform and the project. “It’s fair to say democracy festivals have really gone viral in the Baltic sea region. They are all well known and respected in their countries, they have all become a must attend event for people from all corners of society who are interested in the country’s future. We believe this is open democracy in the making,” says Zakia Elvang.
The ambition of the Democracy Festivals platform
The unique participatory democracy and experience of democracy festivals in the Nordic and Baltic countries deserve wider recognition, and the aim of the Democracy Festivals web platform is to capture and share some of that experience. Here you can find an introduction to eight individual festivals whose aim is to advance democracy, as well as guidance for anyone who would like to kickstart their own festival or promote discursive democracy in some other way. In addition to the Opinion Festival, members of the network include Almedalsveckan (Sweden), SuomiAreena (Finland), LAMPA (Latvia), Fundur Fólksins (from 2018 known as Lysa; Iceland), Arendalsuka (Norway), Taani Folkemødet (Denmark) and Būtent! (Lithuania).
The ambition of the democracy festivals is supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Christer Haglund, Director of the director of the Council’s Office in Estonia, commented: “Today’s democracy is in constant flux, bringing with it challenges as well as new opportunities. We support cooperation between the Baltic and Nordic countries to improve the culture of public debate, inspiring people to take part in social discussion which in turn supports their sense of safety and welfare, their ability and courage to express themselves, and their willingness to listen to others and respect different opinions. We want to help this kind of culture of public debate take off beyond our region.”
The format of the democracy festivals has attracted interest from several countries, including Ukraine, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Belarus, but also places like the Catalonia region.
Opinion Festival stands out for extensive volunteer support
The Opinion Festival in Paide is distinct from the other festivals primarily for two reasons. According to Maiu Lauring, head organiser of the Opinion Festival, “unlike the other festivals where the main organiser tends to be the local government and/or local enterprises, in our case the festival comes together as a combined effort of hundreds of volunteers and supporters. Our partner festivals have been amazed by our capacity to involve so many volunteers and especially the local community totogether keep the festival going. Nordic democracy festival organisers have also been impressed by just how well the festival grounds layout, the creation of space and ambience of the Opinion Festival supports discussions, both those organised beforehand as well as spontaneous ones. Within the family of democracy festivals, the Opinion Festival is a community and boutique festival in the best possible sense.”
The Estonian example inspires
The conversation festival LAMPA, which takes place in Latvia, was modelled after the Opinion Festival. Estonians also shared tips and best practice with young people and civic society activists in Belarus, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. On 9 September 2017, Severedonetsk, a small town in Ukraine, played host to the country’s first one-day opinion festival, which brought together experts and locals to raise topics that matter to them. Six other regions are keen to try out the Opinion Festival model, with an aim to establish their own festival within the next two years. From an Estonian perspective, the expansion of the idea and format of the democracy festivals to Europe’s eastern borders is only a positive development and this year an even greater number of steps will be taken to provide active support.
Olof Palme’s legacy and the birth of democracy festivals
The tradition of democracy festivals stretches back to 1968 when Olof Palme, Sweden’s education minister at the time, gave a speech from the back of a pick-up truck. The truck was parked in Almedalen park and several hundred people gathered to listen to him. In all likelihood, none of them had the faintest clue that they had changed history and made a lasting impact on the whole Nordic and Baltic Sea region. Fast forward 50 years later and democracy festivals have made their way into several countries in the Baltic Sea region, becoming seminal events where people from across the social spectrum but who share an interest in the future of their country can come together. In 2017 alone, the eight festivals collectively lasted for 29 days, hosted 8,700 events or discussions, and brought together up to 500,000 participants.
This year’s Opinion Festival received submissions for over 200 discussions, with topics ranging from human capital and medicine to innovation and forestry. Ideas related to values, education and youth issues formed the largest category.
According to the Festival’s head organizer Maiu Lauring, the submissions help map the topics that are currently important to people living in Estonia and point to the questions that call for more social debate. “As with previous years, the Festival will explore a broad array of topics — submissions included ideas for discussions on education, the environment, economy, innovation, medicine, foreign policy as well as culture. Meanwhile, human capital and forests stood out as specific areas of concern,” said Maiu Lauring.
This year, in addition to ideas for individual discussions, the Festival also welcomed submissions for themed discussion areas. “Our aim was to inspire discussion hosts to start thinking about collaboration from the moment they start developing ideas so they’d have more time and energy to get the discussions themselves ready. This approach seems to have worked – there were 15 submissions for themed discussion areas, most of which are likely to end up in the final programme,” explained Lauring.
The idea evaluation team will consider each submission based on four criteria: stated objective for the discussion, clarity of the topic, diversity of participants, and discussion format. This year’s evaluation process will also involve delegates from the Estonia 100 Youth Assembly, which will help to ensure that the festival programme also includes the topics most relevant to young people.
Discussions will be selected at the beginning of March. The final programme will come together as a result of collaboration between a number of organizations acting as discussion hosts, and will be confirmed by early June.
The sixth Opinion Festival will take place on 10-11 August in Paide. Last year’s Festival attracted over 9,000 participants.