Culture of debate and the art of disagreeing

November 5, 2018 - by Cecilie Meyer

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The conference “It stays on the island” held on Samsø February 2017 was about more than the future jobs on the small island. It was also a necessary training of the conversation muscle that underlies Samsø’s special meeting culture.

In June 2012, wi-fi signals waved into the air from a newly established broadcaster at Samsø’s Rescue Team. The station had in fact acquired an extra life-giving function that should prove essential in the establishment of Samsø Broadband.

The local internet association had seen the light of day a few weeks before on the initiative of citizens who wanted a fast and cheap network at the speed of the rest of the country. The sending mast of the rescue team became the first in the row.

Today, Samsø has masts distributed all over the island and an efficient internet that connects both business and locals with the rest of the world, thus supporting one of the basic conditions for the survival of the island community. 

A beautiful story that is neither politically nor economically founded since the association was made up of volunteers who had a case on behalf of the community.

The constructive conversation is kept in shape 

Samsø has more than 120 associations. An impressive figure for an island with almost 4,000 inhabitants, and the associations are far from just about ‘hygge’ and fresh air: there are other cohesive lines running than just wifi signals through Samsø’s backbone. Interconnections that anchor the individual in the community and exist because the island has built up a special conversation culture that has been massaged over the centuries and with particular focus since 1997. 

That year, Samsø won the title as Denmark’s renewable energy island and the appointment initiated a process of change that required focus and commitment. The result is an island where the conversation processes are refined in the reminder that it is the disagreement and the ability to handle the difference that defines a community:

“Constructive conversation is a muscle to be massaged. The muscle is found in all societies, but if it is not trained, it becomes rigid. Here on Samsø we have for 20 years had the sustainability case to assemble around, something that is bigger than us and which is not personalized. We have worked on how a transition to a sustainable society based on common energy resources such as sun, wind and biomass could give us a better life, and that has influenced our way of meeting. We have learned to accommodate the differences and know that we need to reach agreement because we live on an island. No one comes from the outside to helps us. That is a very special kind of fitness,”  says Malene Lundén, project manager at Samsø Energy Academy and one of the planners of the conference” It stays on the island “. The conference is held every four years as a great signal mast, calling the citizens into a conversation about the future of the island.

At the 2017 conference there was a particular focus on the ambition of becoming a fossil-free island in 2030 and the opportunities for employment that such a transition could entail. The first debate at the conference was held between the island’s stakeholders, the other involved the island’s citizens, and a total of about 8 hours were spent on all the processes, where the citizens themselves presented topics and set up working groups, discussed and made action plans.

During the conference, participants could also stand up and join new groups if they wanted, and physically, there was a focus on keeping a circle that facilitated the conversation and was inclusive. 

Social grinding and an educational approach 

For centuries, Samsø has been working for the larger whole, with farmers who traveled abroad to learn about the latest technology and later introduced it at home. And the island’s location in the middle of Denmark is advantageous with its people sailing all over the country and being socialized. All of this has created a foundation that is now up to the locals to keep up. The center of the conference was 5-legged exercise that Malene and the Energy Academy have developed since 1997:

”You most work with several transmitting surfaces if you want to train the good meeting culture. First you have to let every opportunity come into play. It is a social and educational approach where you give room for more truths so that people can experience that they are able to navigate in the disagreement. Then the collective trust in the group is activated, and then one finds an informal method of how the meeting should proceed. This is something many here on the island have inherited by watching their own parents consult with their neighbor, and it has given people a training and makes them dare to run a risk. After that, a mandate can be given to the strong voices in the group that will take the lead on behalf of the community, and finally an action plan is put in place so that one can go from theory to practice, ”Malene says.

After the conference, it was time to round off: Was everything said? Were things followed up? Could people have been more present? Ideas are gathered in a documentation that everyone on the island gets digital access to.

After that, the conference’s broadcast signals are waiting to return to society in the form of concrete projects. But the team from the Energy Academy does also have a realistic eye for the whole: “It is arrogant to believe that only the conferences make the difference. The long, steady move is done by all those we do not see, those who goes to work every morning without being consciously conscious of their efforts but who could never dream of failing the community ”, Malene says.

Samsø’s 4 Steps to a Better Debate Culture That Gives Action Skills: 

General action skills:     

critical reflection    

change management 

Specific Acting Skills:    

to be able to consider the long-term future    

to handle risks and uncertainties 

3 good rules of debate from Samsø:     

Create a method based on the social and educational approach.    

Focus on the case, not on the person.    

Be sure to meet regularly. At Samsø, the big conferences are supplemented with smaller ones.