november 2009 | Almedalen Week
Almedalen Week in Visby on the Baltic island of Gotland is Sweden’s largest political meeting place and democratic forum, open for anybody who wishes to debate current affairs. The basic concept is based on being able to listen to and respect each other’s views. Almedalen Week celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008.
“There is a great need for a live forum, which we find gratifying. Meeting during Almedalen Week is regarded by many as being cost-effective because “everybody is here”. The financial downturn has not impacted the interest level year either. The type of forum provided by the week, where politicians, trade and industry and organisations can meet, where everybody can talk with everybody and where all people have the same value, would be hard to find anywhere else. It’s a large concept, but I gladly use the word democracy. It’s extremely important to preserve and develop the openness that prevails here.”
The person behind these words is Karin Lindvall, and she expresses them with an engagement that radiates. For the last 15 years she has managed Almedalen Week on behalf of Gotland’s Municipality. She is responsible for project coordination, the website, the calendar, media outreach, partners and consultancy with organisers and other delegates.
This summer saw the implementation of 1,041 events by 560 organisers and the presence of 400 accredited journalists, a record figure. Environment/climate was the dominating subject, followed by health care/welfare, trade and industry, children/youth, and employment/job market. A total of 7,500 people are estimated to have taken part.
These meetings-intensive summer days offer breakfast meetings, seminars, debates, hearings, speeches, lunch meetings, afternoon seminars, short programmes and mingle before and after the political speeches in places in around medieval Visby. Informal meetings pop up in restaurants, bars, cashpoint queues, shops, hotel lobbies, and on the street. The location’s geographical concentration is its strength; everything is within walking distance of the quaint Hansa town with its 22,500 inhabitants.
“Almedal Week is also a forum for creating and maintaining contacts with representatives of the various organisations, many of whom understand the importance of rubbing shoulders with political decision-makers,” says Karin Lindvall, who has also been involved in the municipality’s EU meetings since the mid 1990s.
“With winning host, humour and a twinkle in her eye, Karin Lindvall helps countless organisers to tackle seemingly insurmountable obstacles and create opportunities for organisations and Gotland to continue to develop”, was the motivation behind an inspiration scholarship she was awarded two years ago by MPI Chapter Sweden and Meetings International magazine. Karin Lindvall is practically the uncrowned queen of Almedalen Week’s and has a widespread influence.
“But I’m not the only one who makes the week what it is. The whole arrangement is built around the hard work of many people. Not least all the local contractors. Together we have a great collective knowledge, and we are good at organising meetings.”
In Karin Lindvall’s experience, should a debate start during Almedalen Week then it is important to be in place and make one’s party’s or organisation’s voice heard. The week offers ample opportunities to take part in a broad offering of seminars. There are plenty of opportunities for networking and forming contacts that you can benefit from when you return to your workplace. But, points out Karin Lindvall, it is possible to take part in the democratic debate without large resources or a long list of contacts. One condition, however, is that you are in Visby during the week in question.
By tradition, Almedalen Week is the parliamentary parties’ week and is run without any interference from Gotland’s local authorities. The council contributes by building the platform that the parties stand on. The week stretches from Sunday to Saturday and the parties each have their own day according to a rolling schedule.
“When the week is underway I hear discussions in the corridors and see how people stand talking earnestly with each other. It’s clear to see how the week is of great benefit to everyone.”
Previously, politicians went home after they had held their speeches. Nowadays they remain to talk to the press or sit on panels at question time. As well as parliamentary parties and local parties, representatives from political organisations, trade unions, and trade and industry all find their way to World Heritage Town Visby. Karin Lindvall is expected to answer questions regarding everything surrounding participation, formalities and prerequisites.
“I talk unabated with people, find solutions, solve problems, give advice. For me, all problems are just as urgent. I try to be responsive, open and do my utmost to see interconnections that could possible improve the programme. I want the organisers to enjoy being here as it’s a good place to meet in, and, of course, for them to return to Gotland again.”
A meeting of the calibre of Almedalen Week generates large revenues for Gotland and its close on 50,000 inhabitants. This year the week generated around €5 million not including VAT and travel revenues. The number of guest nights totalled 19–20 thousand. Karin Lindvall says it is a win-win situation for all Gotlandic entrepreneurs: catering companies, carriers, guesthouses, and other local services. The value of the media coverage is estimated at €11.2 for web-based and printed media.
An official programme magazine was produced containing the same programme information as the calendar on the website. It is in the programme that organisers advertise their events. Taking part in the calendar programme and in the official programme is free of charge. And all organisers arrange and pay or their own events. But having their event in the calendar is nothing anyone should take for granted.
“Those organisers only wanting publicity will not be accepted. An organiser must have a political topic, a debate issue, then they’re welcome. If they won’t change after we’ve discussed it with them they won’t get a place.” Being on the calendar is a privilege, nothing anyone can demand.”
The political parties form the basis of the event, but the seminars are most important. A glance at the programme magazine clearly shows the skills enhancement opportunities offered by the week. The seminars keep up a good pace, raise current issues, and those taking part are well-prepared. Karin Lindvall’s work tasks include sifting through the seminar programme, finding the subjects that belong together and then compiling the programme. The content not being controlled in detail is one of the reasons that the week has such a strong position in Swedish politics.
Karin Lindvall also helps organisers plan their participation in Almedalen Week with what to consider if they want to take part. She has the answers to questions like “How shall we plan, when should we do what, how do we actually do it, who will be sitting on the sofa in the Breakfast Show tomorrow morning?” Or, as she puts it: “Each problem solved gives extra time on the air.”
“Previously, politicians went home after they’d held their speeches. Nowadays they remain to talk to the press or sit on panels at question time. It feels as though everybody is in pastures new, which makes it easy to create something. This is an unconventional meeting place.”
With a firm grip Karin Lindvall “educates” representatives of organisations in how best to get their message across. She is also the person who brings together representatives of different organisations, thus broadening the perspective in an issue.
“Including a few experts is much better than only party leaders taking part. People with in-depth knowledge contribute to better coverage of the subjects under debate. It creates a more qualified debate. You reach out to a new audience and spread knowledge to people that the organisation would never normally reach out to. The aim of the questions may vary, but here you can discuss, turns issues on their head in an open forum.”
Karin Lindvall says that the commitment of the organisers is a challenge when planning Almedalen Week.
“Everybody has their own way of approaching the issues. The power and energy that grows around the programme items is fascinating. It’s extremely important to preserve and develop the openness that prevails here. When the week is underway I hear discussions in the corridors and see how people stand talking earnestly with each other. It’s clear to see how the week is of great benefit to everyone.”
On the subject of sustainability, Karin Lindvall advises organisers to choose locally produced food, publish printed matter locally and persuade people not to use bottled water. “Here you have to work yourself free, you can’t buy yourself free.” When on TV or during a photographed interview for a newspaper or magazine, Karin Lindvall wears clothes produced on Gotland. “It’s deliberate and I pay for it myself.”
“It’s extremely important to preserve and develop the openness that prevails here.”
Karin Lindvall is not one to be fooled into easy solutions but carefully regulates all collaborations. She describes herself as an extreme negotiator who works 14 hours a day from the middle of May until the week is over. The checklist of issues that crop up during the course of the week is endless and sprawls in all conceivable directions.
“The starting point is to think and act in a way that prepares the ground and helps all concerned to manage their job in the best possible way. What are the needs of the security police? How can I help them? Do any of the participants have personal protection? What can I do to help there? Uniformed police and emergency services? How do I create the ultimate conditions for their work? When should the streets be cleared?”
Since it began in the late 1960s, a spirit has gradually grown that is now called the Almedalen Spirit. When Karin Lindvall hears the question “What is the Almedalen Spirit?” her voice shimmers:
“It means being accommodating and obliging towards others. You should be generous with your time and share your knowledge. You should be approachable and let others speak. You can go up to anyone on the street and ask: “You’re familiar with this issue, what do you thing about…?” A discussion then takes place, a meeting.
The informal atmosphere is manifest and the dress code is definitely ties off. Karin Lindvall has often wondered how the atmosphere could be so unpretentious. One of the theories is that the meetings take place outdoors, which opens up for completely different contact surfaces. Also, Visby’s medieval streets are very narrow. Other reasons are that summer invites a relaxed atmosphere with people meandering between seminars and other activities. Intimacy, conversation, democracy, education are words that Karin Lindvall returns to.
“Standing in a hotel lobby during politics week can open up for new meetings that would never be as easy otherwise. During these days you could bump into a politician who you’ve been trying to contact for weeks on the phone without success. And now suddenly you’re standing in the same queue in Visby.”
Historically, Almedalen Week has been Swedish in content, then Nordic and thereafter European. Today international issues play a much greater part in the debates. Or as Karin Lindvall puts it: “We’re all dependent on each other’s decisions, we’re very dependent on the context we find ourselves in.”
The unique meeting forum offered by Almedalen Week is attracting a great deal of attention from other countries. Karin Lindvall reveals that Gotland Municipality has received enquiries about the concept from, for example, Germany, Norway, Finland, Korea and Balkan countries. Politicians and officials want to come and experience the week for themselves. A representative from Finland’s association of local authorities was amazed at how such an open forum was possible.
Prior to the Korean election, the Koreans sought a democratic forum. When they came here they found what they were looking for. It resulted in an hour-long Korean TV programme about the meeting place where everybody speaks with each other. This year a new group of delegates came on a study visit: ambassadors based in Sweden came to learn more about Swedish politics. The German, US, British and New Zeeland ambassadors have already visited Visby. “It’s all part of political progress,” claims Karin Lindvall.
Taking Almedalen Week to an even higher level is an issue that is high on the agenda. According to Karin Lindvall there are different ways of looking at it, but reiterates that the lack of meetings venues and hotel rooms impedes growth. Another bottleneck is communications with the mainland.
“There are many quality issues to consider and that work is ongoing. The meeting forum in itself is a success factor, we know that. We have a good infrastructure, collaboration, real enthusiasts, people with good judgement and we meet across the borders. As a concept, Almedalen Week is hard to beat.”