A Celebration of Democracy
On June 29, 2015, I walked through the eastern gate of the ancient walls of the medieval city of Visby, Sweden and into my first Almedalen Week.
I was floored. Like a child walking into Disney World for the first time.
Swedes often describe Almedalen Week, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, as political week, but that does not capture its essence.
Almedalen is a celebration of democracy.
A festival of ideas. Thousands of seminars, speeches, and receptions taking place on town squares, in open-air tents, hotel ballrooms, convention centers, medieval ruins, and the yards of the local citizenry. All of society is invited and the broad spectrum of Swedish society is there.
The week is imbued by the “Almedalen spirit”. And there is a unique, open, informal and relaxed atmosphere – really a pre-vacation vibe. Titans of industry, politicians, and leading figures of civil society stroll the streets and mix and mingle. They are open and accessible to all – even the random Delawarean in their midst. It is not Davos or Aspen. As the official website states: “Almedalen Week is an unusual combination of political summit and openness.”
The political parties that comprise the Swedish Parliament form the foundation of the week. Each day is assigned to a party with representation in Parliament. On their assigned day, they, and their stakeholders, host seminars, press conferences, and speeches. Concomitantly, civil society, business, and individual citizens host programs that amplify, oppose, or simply ignore the political party of the day.
For many, Almedalen is simply an invaluable opportunity to meet others in an unstructured and convivial environment. People within their own company, organization or everyday sphere as well as people they might not otherwise encounter in the grind of daily work – whether that work is policy-making, profit-making, or difference-making
In my own experience, everywhere I turn in Visby offers a thought provoking panel discussion, interview, or speaker of note addressing issues as varied as healthcare, education, business, politics, access to justice, climate change, and more. And a walk down any street leads to chance encounters with friends and acquaintances, and those I have not yet met.
What started in 1968 as an impromptu speech by Olof Palme, a political leader who later became Prime Minister, has blossomed, organically, into a festival of civil discourse, democracy and ideas.
Civil society, government leaders, business leaders, non-governmental organization leaders, and people of all socio-economic and political backgrounds fill the streets and venues sharing their perspectives and ideas. Asking probative questions and engaging in civil discourse.
Mere moments into my first Almendalen Week, my immediate thought was that we desperately need this back home and indeed in every society.
Almedalen strengthens democracy and the links between the myriad and many spheres of society. While ideological divisions can catalyze innovation, ideology for the sake of ideology has the opposite effect. Indeed, in a 2015 paper, Marina Azzimonti of Stony Brook University found that a 10% increase in the partisan-conflict index is associated with a 3.4% decline in aggregate private investment in the U.S. (Source: https://rppe.princeton.edu/sites/rppe/files/2015-16_w21273-partisan-conflict-and-private-investment.pdf).
Strict adherence to any ideology assumes a preternatural monopoly on knowledge and saps innovation and investment. For me, Almedalen means to listen in good faith, with an open disposition and in recognition of the dignity of the other person. It symbolizes the human yearning to seek solutions to common problems.
Too often the angriest and loudest voices are heard, but they represent only a fraction of society. We need space for good faith dialog to solve the problems that we all face. Almedalen is a model for that.
Is it perfect? No. But the spirit and intention are the key.
The spirit of Almedalen fosters constructive dialog across and among all stakeholders and in that spirit.
The Great Listening will bring together great minds that want to make the world a better place summoning our better angels to evoke the best of shared human values.
Written by Peter Dahlen