I met Katie Welford and George Bell, co-directors of the Small is Beautiful festival a few months ago at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth. We were attending CAT's pioneering Zero Carbon Britain course. During the weekend the participants discussed many things while socialising and absorbing the information from the workshops. We talked about community energy projects, art and imagination, sustainable housing, the current Wales v England rugby game. We got to know each other and shared our visions for the future. It was intriguing to hear Katie and George talk about their plans for the festival, which seemed to be a bit unusual. A festival of ideas, they said, as well as the usual music and revelry. And why not? Yes, the thought stayed with me. After all, aren't new ideas the most valuable currency a culture can posess? Especially in times of crisis. I wanted to know more...
Can you tell us something about the history and origins of the 'Small Is Beautiful' Festival?
The festival was set up by a group of staff at international development charities Practical Action and Engineers Without Borders UK in 2009. They work to implement Schumacher's idea of appropriate technology in communities around the world – that is, technology that can be made and fixed by people in a community, that is also socially or culturally relevant, rather than relying on costly infrastructure from elsewhere that may not actually meet the needs of everyone. The festival was set up to engage a UK audience in these technologies and techniques and also continue to explore the ideas of radical economist E.F. Schumacher – who founded Practical Action as the Intermediate Technology Development Group and inspired the work of EWB-UK as well. It is now an independent venture, although we work closely with both organisations for festival content.
How is the 'Small Is Beautiful' festival different?
We find that a lot of events looking to change the current system are about being angry or raging against something. This isn't really how we want to approach change, so the festival looks at all the positive things we can all do to create a better future. It is positive, uplifting, but also practical, so people leave with tangible ways to act – indeed, this is probably the only festival that you would be able to get your company to pay for if you work in renewables or development! Everyone is welcome and due to the range of practical, artistic and academic content, you really do get a mix of people coming along, so it isn't just the same people having the same conversations with each other. We think this is unique.
Can you give us a taster of what festival-goers can expect this year?
Firstly, if you have never been to the Centre for Alternative Technology, then you are in for a real treat! It is a magical venue, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Welsh mountains. Festival-goers will be encouraged to explore the site and stumble across acoustic music, art installations and workshops in unexpected places.
We have a lecture series, currently including Jane Davidson, former Welsh Minister for Environment and Sustainability and Aubrey Meyer, trained violinist and founder of the 'Contraction and Convergance' programme to tackle climate change.
New for 2015 is our partnership with the brilliant Machynlleth Comedy Festival and we have two top notch, socially aware comedians, the first of whom is the one and only Rob Newman, which is going to be amazing!
In terms of music, we will host local acoustic and folk talent over the weekend and get everyone dancing to a huge ceilidh on Saturday night, so bring your dancing shoes.
And the main focus for many people is our practical workshops - too many to mention but the Soil Association will take you through the wonders of soil and you can do a 2-hour session on Strawbuild homes.
The festival is named after E.F. Schumacher's famous book of essays on economics. What can we learn from Schumacher today?
Schumacher's book has at its core the principle of not actually the necessity of small, but of appropriate size and scale ('Appropriate Size is Beautiful' was a far less catchy title). Human kind, and the world in which we live, do not always benefit from constantly upscaling, and whilst scale can indeed produce benefits to us, much is also lost to the constant search for growth.
The strapline 'A study of economics as if people mattered' speaks to the connection between the economy and well being of both people and the planet. We live in a time when corporations are getting more and more legal rights over us and space is commodified to the point where it can be hard to be out and about without feeling like you need to buy something in order to sit down and catch your breath. Re-positioning economics to focus on the importance of community, health, society are all things that we can learn from Schumacher today.
How important are the arts to society?
The arts are hugely important to society! Whether we realise it or not, the arts provide so much of what we derive most pleasure. The arts give us a chance to see and experience the world through a different lens, an opportunity to ignite imaginations, to conceive problems, questions and emotions through the kaleidoscope of our own creative imaginations. This is why we see it as vital that the arts are integrated into the Small Is Beautiful offering, leading people to challenge conventional viewpoints and to see things from fresh perspectives.
Could you share with us an optimistic vision for the future of our society?
There are lots of examples that we will be sharing at the festival of things people are already doing that make us optimistic! Communities coming together around a local energy or food growing scheme, and learning how to build and run these things always make us hopeful. CAT's rapid decarbonisation model, Zero Carbon Britain, shows us that there are ways in which we can enact real change. A society where everyone has the opportunity to participate and play a hand in her own development is an optimistic vision for the future. This is a primary aim of Small is Beautiful, to create a space where positive action and real change can be presented, discussed, shared and enjoyed by everyone. That's our small contribution!
The 'Small is Beautiful' festival runs from September 4th-6th. Readers interested in CAT's Zero Carbon Britain project can choose to take advatage of a joint ticket offer.
Kristian Evans 13.07.15