EFC AGA 2018: New common spaces for culture (and for Europe)


Pietro De Matteis


Despite the unprecedented level of interconnectivity of our societies, today’s world is marked by growing social fragmentation. At a time when interdependence is extremely high rebuilding social cohesion at the local, regional and even global levels is key to develop solutions to global challenges that are felt as locally owned and are locally implemented. Be it migration, climate change, security or economic growth, none of these challenges can be tackled only at the global or only at the local level.

Developing a shared understanding of our common challenges requires spaces for encounter and dialogue to build trust and mutual understanding. However, across the world, traditional public spaces seem to be shrinking and social media – with all their strengths – have been unable to fill the gap: while empowering local actors they have also tended to put us in comfortable ‘silos’ where we are increasingly exposed to what we would tend to ‘like’ and, doing so, they have arguably undermined our possibility to develop a shared visions through a contradictory dialogue.

It follows that one of today’s key challenges is to re-create spaces for encounter, dialogue and mutual understanding and possibly to connect in a network of new commons.

Culture and inter-cultural dialogue can play a key role in creating such spaces capable of building trust and mutual understanding as it allows reaching out to wider shares of our societies. Creating spaces for dialogue is even more important when dealing with global challenges given the need to building consensus among people having different priorities, background and worldviews. As such, culture and intercultural dialogue can help fostering mutual understanding and empathy and eventually trigger a sense of solidarity and common purpose that is required to tackle common global challenges.

Historically cities and towns have been the actors to provide such spaces for living together around the ‘agora’, the ‘forum’ and the likes. Cities were often planned to fulfil some of the key services that are necessary for the quality of life of its inhabitants ranging from social life, politics, trade, warship, security and health. Today, cities have become global hubs and reflect the diversity of the world. Political, economic and social life takes place well beyond the main city square. If mass media allowed nation states to create national conversations, their slow demise in favour of tailored communication through social networks is challenging that paradigm.

More broadly, there seems to be insufficient spaces for people to meet and develop a shared vision of society at these higher administrative and political levels. In other words, there seems to be an increasingly evident mismatch between the need to take decisions at the European and global levels and the available spaces to hold such conversations among citizens. This often results in the absence of a sense of community at the regional and global levels and in the return of nationalist tendencies across the world.

Against this backdrop this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture is focusing on the concept of ‘freespace’ which describes the need for an architecture that provides opportunities for citizens to benefit from it in new, inclusive and unconventional ways. This freedom is reflected in the possibility to imagine new uses of public spaces as demonstrated by the French Pavilion or even to rethink Europe as a whole as put forward by the Belgian Pavilion under the theme of ‘Eurotopie’. The need to develop new commons for Europe (and the world) allowing such conversations to take place seems becoming increasingly important across civil society as it is proved by the growing number of initiatives in the field and by the fact that the European Foundation Centre dedicated its 2018 Conference to the theme ‘Culture matters: connecting citizens & uniting communities’.

Of course, the European institutions are also contributing to this effort of creating more spaces for dialogue and mutual understanding, by empowering and enabling actors at local, regional and global levels, by facilitating people-to-people contacts, by facilitating the sharing of good practices and even via the rehabilitation of urban spaces that are given back to the society.

The joint communication by the European Commission and European External Action Service ‘Towards and EU strategy for international cultural relations’ and the recent the recent ‘Agenda for Culture’ provide a framework of action to create of spaces for building trust and mutual understanding by supporting culture as an engine for sustainable social and economic development, promote culture and inter-cultural dialogue for peaceful inter-community relations as it was done in Kosovo and between Armenians and Turkish communities and reinforcing cooperation on cultural heritage. Our shared cultural heritage can reinforce our resilience to destructive narratives, which is arguably why Daesh so vehemently attacked it in Syria. It is also in this light that 2018 has been declared as the European Year of Cultural Heritage aiming to ‘encourage more people to discover and explore Europe’s cultural heritage, and to reinforce a sense of belonging to a common European family’ while also creating spaces for intercultural dialogue and boost cooperation in the field of cultural heritage with citizens in third countries on an equal footing.

In conclusion, living together in a society is not necessarily easy, and requires investing on it constantly by ensuring sufficient space for dialogue. Like a field, it must be sowed regularly with good seeds if we wish to have a good harvest. To benefit from the great diversity that lies in Europe and avoid falling in in the nationalists’ traps of the clash of civilisation we need to give ourselves the tools to get to know and understand the level of our interdependence, knowing that there cannot be peace and prosperity for us if our neighbours are not also prosperous and in peace.

Pietro De Matteis

Pietro De Matteis holds a PhD at the University of Cambridge, he is one of the initiators of Alliance Europa and of the platform www.theActivist.eu (beta).

He also works as a Public Diplomacy Advisor at the EEAS.

Twitter: @PietroDeMatteis

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