Category Archives: Travel Log

Three Rural Universities in Mexico

My learning journey got on steroids at the end of May. I met 22 learning architects in a three day Symposium at Universidad del Medio Ambiente. The next day after the Symposium, 11 of us started a 8 day road trip of 1300 km to visit three disruptive universities in the South of Mexico.

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First stop was Universidad Campesina Indígena en Red. “We are a university that has no hierarchy, no rectors, no directors. Relationships are not built on people that have knowledge and those that have not. We don’t pay the teachers and we don’t charge the students, it is a collaborative experience.” – said Benjamin Berlanga, as we started our first meeting with the team. The team had been doing this work since 1982, when a rural development center (CESDER) was founded. Aside from UCI RED they have built 15 secondary schools and helped design many rural educational projects. In the meantime, many former students joined as team members.

The meeting revealed a deep pedagogical philosophy: After 30 years we realised that the disruptive is not in the learning or teaching but it is in the relationship.

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Our group with Benjamin Berlanga, co-founder of UCI RED

The fundamental question for UCI RED pedagogy is “How is life going for us?(“Como nos va en la vida?”). It is not an innocent question. It brings along what they call an epistemic displacement: “Before asking what is life, we ask how is life right now, for us. We are included” They also say that “education is the gift of time, because we are time. Education is opening spaces of conversation. Conversation is to give the ear first and then to give your word.” Because of this approach, 35% of the students give up in the first months saying “to have a conversation I can go home, here I come so others tell me how it is”.  The ones that stay say: “This is a place where we can express ourselves” and “I have learned how to rename the old labels and to resignify living life”.  

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Alejandra and Udi, exploring UCI RED

We visited the shop, their agroecology lab and seedbank, a water collection project, a greenhouse and the pottery center. UCI is very much involved in local development, that is no longer understood as the neoliberal foundations advertise it (focused on having running water for example) but more like living in harmony with nature, family and community. As a former student put it “UCI taught us how to be revolutionaries in our own day to day life“.

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A special moment on the road from Puebla to Oaxaca.

After 350 km and a car radio show, we reached Oaxaca City. It is a rebellious place where ten years ago the city was occupied for seven months by Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. After ten years, when we got there, the city central square was again occupied by a few thousands teachers protesting against so called “education reform”. It was expected that after the 5th of June elections, the government repression will start. Sadly, just two weeks after we left, at least nine people were killed by police in confrontations.

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In Oaxaca, after nine people were killed by police

In this troubled environment, UniTierra is a university like no other. It was founded by Gustavo Esteva, around one core principle: learning by doing. Gustavo was a good friend and collaborator of the “maverick social critic” of western institutions, Ivan Illich. He told us: “We don’t have education, we are escaping education. Accepting education equals accepting the authority of an educator. The main product of education are dropouts; it is disqualifying 60% of the people. Only 8% in Mexican universities will be able to work in their field.” They also note the destructive effect education has on indigenous culture: “You can survive as an indigenous up until university but it is almost impossible to survive after going to university. Your indigenous soul is gone.” UniTierra also rejects the idea of diplomas together with the corresponding ideas of professions and experts hidden behind them, claiming exclusive rights to manage learning, or health or justice for everybody else.

An important step for Unitierra was to go to communities. We visited two villages where a UniTierra was developed by local people.

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In San Bartolo Coyotepec

What one could see was some a living museum of eco techniques but what the conversation revealed was a process of community learning. In San Bartolo Coyotepec, an entire community learned to stop burning trash, collect it separately in 16 types and sell it. The learning process was a mix of rules, citizen reporting, public displays, training for adults and children and empowering children to take responsibility.

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At Unitierra Huitzo, on the water tank

In San Pablo Huitzo we saw the same process in an early stage where they had built the water cistern, the buildings and the dry toilets but they were just beginning to engage the community in a collective learning process. There are more UniTierras, for example, one in the neighbouring state of Chiapas or another further away in Canada, in a chocolate factory. Here is a wonderful movie made by my friends at Enlivened Learning about Unitierra:

Re-learning Hope: A Story of Unitierra from Multi-Sense Media on Vimeo.

We left Oaxaca City to go further into the Oaxaca state, in the mountains of Mixe region. Getting to Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk (ISIA) was not that easy. We had to stop for the night somewhere in a village. At ISIA we got to see the place from three different perspectives: the team, the students and the leaders of the community.

Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk

This was the occasion for me to witness the uphill battle that young people in the indigenous communities are fighting. It is a struggle for their identity and for their dreams. Trapped between the glossy advertised and hard to reach city life that is alienating for their deep rooted worldview of life in community and a life in their communities that is labeled backward and poor and is seen as futureless. The university is there to re-value the indigenous language and worldview, helping students in their fight for dignity, self respect and a good life. One evening I shared the table with a student that wanted to go back to his community and create radio station and another student that had plans to develop an educational project in her village. Hearing other students clearly articulating their situation, their options and their reflections in the assembly, I had the uplifting feeling that this small rural university is succeeding in one of the most difficult learning challenges a higher education institution can have.

Meeting Don Antonio and other leaders of the community hosting ISIA, we had an insight in how they see the university, after ten years. For example, they value students participation in community events or the partnership they have for writing the recent history of the community. They also expressed that the project still has to fulfill the initial expectation that graduates will energize the rebirth of their communities.

Meeting with Don Antonio and other leaders of the community

Meeting with Don Antonio and other leaders of the community

We left ISIA on 7th of June, for the last segment of the road spent together. A big part of the journey was on the road, telling stories, getting deep into some aspects of our projects, making plans and having fun. My fellow travelers were neverending fountains of inspiration and learning. The intellectual idea of comunalidad or the friendship that Ivan Illich and Gustavo Esteva are talking about took a powerful real life incarnation in the friendship we shared in this journey. 

One month later, I realise how much this journey enriched me.

I have a collection of important words and one of questions. Both are now richer. The words profession, expert, development and education drifted further towards a negative meaning. Comunalidad and fertility of relationship gained a place on the list. I internalized the question “How is life going for us?”. It seems such a fertile starting point and the spanish version – Como nos va en la vida? – has something poetic. I’ll keep with me two other questions: “What resonates in you?” and “What do you take in your heart?. Speaking about what do I take in my heart, I take the idea that powerful learning can mean “to rename the old labels and resignify living lifeand “make revolution in our day to day life”.

The journey opened my mind to new learning possibilities. First, I experimented the power of a collective learning journey. We had enough space to get past the first conversations, to let the comfortable silence set in end then for the beautiful random topics to emerge. Some of them were not random. Now I realise that my curiosity around vision quests and ceremonies was generously attended to in long conversations with Silvia, Genaro and Victoria. A door is now opened to an entire new world.   

My idea of the learning environments I would like to design also enlarged. The involvement of Unitierra in the political struggle in Oaxaca sparked the insight that people building revolutions (in the street) are generating a collective learning process. A learning environment would ideally engage with that real time collective learning, maybe even generate it. The idea of light (un)structures generating rich learning environments was another insight. Unitierra, with its light structure seems to have spread out organically around Oaxaca City, in the neighbouring state of Chipas but also to a chocolate factory in Canada. At UCI Red nobody gets paid and students are not charged. So now I hold this question: what is the minimal structure that can generate a rich and adaptive learning environment?. 

Finally, I had a strong confirmation for an intuition I have: the base for my work as a learning architect will be in a village. I’d like to nurture knowledge systems that have synthesis as core. I believe that the knowledge system of the monoculture makes us “specialists of nothing and fools of everything else”. This fragmented view of the world keeps us dependent on the unfriendly machine that we’ve built for ourselves. I have an incredible enthusiasm for a different system that nourishes the autonomy of people and their communities and I think that the village environment is better suited as a base for this. 

Valle de Bravo Gathering of Learning Architects

I believe that reinventing higher education is one of humanity’s important milestones going forward. Here I recount my experience of a recent gathering of creators of alternatives to the mainstream university. It is one window open to the messy process of reinventing higher education and an invitation to walk through the door.

Educators Symposium, 27-29 May, Universidad del Medio Ambiente

We gathered at a Symposium held at the Universidad del Medio Ambiente, In Valle de Bravo, Mexico, from the 27-29 of May 2016. I got to Mexico City a day before to travel with Udi and Genaro to Valle. I was very curious to meet Udi. He and his wife Kelly resigned from UK academia and started a one year trip to alternative universities around the world to make a documentary. Their project is called Enlivened Learning and I wanted to know more about it. Genaro – a small farmer, in his words – just returned to Mexico from Hawaii where he learned (even more) about agroecology.  He is also the co-founder of a university called Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk, formed by 11 indigenous groups of the Oaxaca mountains. When we got to Valle, Victoria was waiting with a welcoming “at last you are here” smile. Victoria is one of the co-founders of Universidad del Medio Ambiente (UMA). Before UMA, Victoria was putting her Phd in economics to work for the environment, promoting the creation of a Natural Protected Area in Valle de Bravo and setting up a Trust Fund for environmental projects. The frustration with the way projects received were researched was one of the impulses for starting UMA. Here they are, the first three learning architects I met: 

Victoria was also responsible for all of us converging there. UMA together with Un-School of Disruptive Design in New York were the institutions behind the Symposium and Victoria and Leyla – the Unschool founder – were going to be our facilitators. We arrived at our homestay, a house with a serene lake view. There we joined Liora – long time actionist and co-founder of Gaia University (Global) and Johannes – co-founder of UnaVision (Germany), an organization dedicated to learning journeys.

We sat on comfy armchairs overseeing the lake and a casual conversation started. It kept going and growing for the next three days. To organize my thoughts on it, I will answer three questions: “What?”, “So what?”, “Now what?”.

What (happened)?

Friday (27th of May) – Get to know each other

A twenty minute drive from Valle’s center, there is UMA’s beautiful campus.  We walked through a garden that opens up in a wide green pasture. The main building is composed of a central courtyard surrounded by classrooms and offices. The four corners are open, shaded by a green roof. The mustard colored bricks were made right there, from the clay of the land. The whole building has a warm and natural feel. Next to the main building, there is a kitchen and a wide porch. On that porch we sat at a rectangular table that could fit the whole group. One by one people showed up at the table and introduced themselves.

UMA Campus

UMA Campus

After breakfast, we made a circle on the grass and Victoria welcomed us and introduced the three-day flow. We would present ourselves and our work in the first day, and explore, brainstorm, prototype and plan in the next two days. A round of brief introductions followed and then we went for a silent walk around the UMA campus to get familiar with the place, gather our thoughts and intentions, and arrive. My intention was to make long-time friends and listen deeply. I also wanted help with deciding where to go next in Latin America for documenting my Break/Free from University book.

Silent walk

Silent walk

Back in the main building, each of us took 5-10 minutes for presentations. We had, in that room, a few hundred years of experience in trying to disrupt, reinvent or improve (higher) education. Here is a gallery with all 22 of us:

In between presentations we took a walk in the woods, paired up for a conversation about remembering a moment in our childhood when we felt a special connection with nature. I walked with Silvia, who used to live in big cities like London and Mexico City but now lives in a ranch in Valle that is a space designed for home-schoolers. I shared a memory of me watching ants for long stretches of time asking myself “What are they doing?”. Silvia had a similar question as a child, but much larger in scope: looking at the people in the city, going around being busy, she was asking “What are we humans doing here?”. Towards the end of the walk, all of us sat down in a circle and shared a one minute version of our partner’s story. I enjoyed this moment and the “humanizing” angle it offered on this group of rebel over-achievers.

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The afternoon was the time for serious playing. My playmates Claudia, Doris, Frederico, Kirby and I, were sitting at a table outside, in the shade. The serious part was to share a learning practice we do that we consider “disruptive”. We invited Doris to start, as the elder disruptor of the group. In 1982, the year I was born, Doris was co-founding what is now Universidad Campesina Indígena in Puebla, Mexico. Doris shared how, before they start the actual learning, they nurture the transformation of the groups of new students into communities of learning. Sometimes it can take up to six months for the meaningful relationships to be formed. Then it was Claudia’s turn to share a few of the practices used in Escuela DIA (Development of Intelligence through Art). Claudia founded the organization that develops the DIA methodology in 1992, when I was already ten. In the meantime they worked with 25.000 teachers. You can read the entire list of practices shared here.

The last activity of the day was for each group to design a theater sketch representing one or several of the disruptive practices of the group. The practice that fired up the the imaginations of our small group was to integrate “pause” in the learning processes, in different shapes or forms. We decided to play with the idea of “pause” and instead of creating a theatre play, we would create moments of “pause” in between the plays of other groups.

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You can observe in the image how well a pause fits between (1) a chaotic group progressing from confusion to collective intelligence and (2) a teacher with his troubled pupils that discovers a more personalized, self-directed and mindful approach. The fourth play was about a controversy dialogue and mind-mapping.

Saturday (28th of May) – Ideation and Prototyping

We started our second day in a circle on the grass with Leyla as facilitator. Leyla is a star in the design  world. She designed games, installations, booklets but also the Un-School of Disruptive Design in New York. She was a fireball of energy even if she was jumping into our gathering right after a four day workshop she facilitated. She invited us to start by finding three professional connections with three other people in the group. I discovered I was connected with Gaby around using gamification and design thinking in our projects, with Udi around enjoying to facilitate learning and with Liora and Johannes around our intention to develop a meta-university.

Start of the second day

Start of the second day

We continued with connecting ideas on six flip charts with the words: Impact, Communication, Validation, Space, Pedagogy and Economics. We also had a page to write questions for each topic.

After we collectively brainstormed and filled the flip charts, we formed a group for each one. In the small groups, we came up with three ideas independently, we shared them and chose one of them to present to the larger group.

On the “Economics” table we synthesized our ideas into something named “Free University Architecture”. Its features are:

  • self organized and managed by students who do everything from cleaning to governing; 
  • the system architecture (software, knowledge) is open source, created in Wikipedia style by hundreds of learning architects around the world;
  • the experience (teachers, mentors) would be offered in a gift culture system;
  • students will be engaged in productive enterprises and projects that provide resources for expenses like rent and utilities, supplies or books.

Each of the six groups presented, all of us contributed more ideas and we ended up with this whiteboard:

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We voted, combined ideas and from the five clusters that resulted we developed five rapid prototypes:  


Theory of Change Guide/Portal

12 - theory of change prototypeEach of our learning environments aims to stir the world into a different direction and each of us has an implicit or explicit theory of what that change is and how it happens. Then there is the reality of the change we actually produce. This being so central for our work, we want to benefit from looking into the real impact we produce, sharing the raw data related to it and developing methods and tools to evaluate it. This way our theories improve, our reality gets closer to the theory and we inspire each other towards better impact. We will have an online portal to collect stories of our students successes and also of their excellent mistakes while doing their best trying to have an impact. Anyone could look into the data, match it with our theories of change, figure out patterns of change between organizations and even come up with a meta-theory of change.


The Learning Journey

The Learning Journey rapid prototypeThe learning environments in this network are incredibly diverse responses to the same reality: higher education needs to be reinvented. And we are doing this in small experiments, on different continents, inside different movements. Even if we have the common essence of rebellion, the manifestations of it are beautifully diverse ecosystems of learning, thoughtfully designed, forged in experience and fueled by love for learning and people. We are excited by the idea that some learners could self design a “meta-program” that would be a learning journey to a number of these ecosystems. This learning journey, nicely documented, will tell a powerful story of the potential in our friendship and will kindle further collaboration. 

Badges, Micro Certificates and Peer Review

13 - badgesWe recognize that certificates and diplomas are at the core of the problem of higher education. Those of us who are not prepared to abolish them completely, want to re imagine them. To that end, we see the potential in Mozilla’s open badges infrastructure. Our collaboration would have three levels: (1) designing and using a pool of (micro)badges together; each of us would aggregate them in macro(badges) in his particular way but we would share the smallest units; (2) the (macro)badges would be mutually recognized and endorsed, even going as far as creating an evaluation that is distributed in the network and awarded by the network; (3) each institution can ask to be peer evaluated and endorsed by the network. The second iteration added the flip side of the idea, where students offer badges to institutions.


Cosmovisions Exchange

14 - cosmovisionsSome of the members of the network emphasized the need to preserve indigenous knowledge systems in the face of the monoculture of thought pushed by mainstream university system worldwide. There is an awareness in our network of the urgency to create real intercultural dialogue. So we see as a distinct task for our network to develop tools that facilitate that intercultural dialogue. For this purpose, we developed a cosmovision exchange exercise. It starts with a “fishbowl setup” where four people from different environments make visible their interpretation of a piece of art and their reactions to what others perceive. Subsequently, the whole group who was watching is involved in a facilitated dialogue.


Mutual Currency

15 - mutual currencyWe imagine a near future where the circulation of people between our learning environments will be facilitated by an alternative currency. The working title is UNA. Members of our communities would earn some UNAs by hosting someone in their country and spend them by covering their participation in a program of another learning environment in the network.


In between working on these ideas, we refreshed our minds and our bodies with a treasure hunt around UMA campus and of course, with lunch. The treasure hunt was a lovely design that engaged different creative capacities and skills. We built a floating egg nest, we planted, we found our way blindfolded through a minefield and we solved word puzzles. It left me with good creative energy.

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The day ended on a high energy note. So high that right after dinner Genaro and Liora started dancing salsa without music. Some music was eventually improvised and more of us joined in a joyful celebration of a fruitful day.

Sunday (29th of May) – Who does what, when?

Sunday being the final day, we had to get our ideas down to who’s going to do what and when, after we split. I got into a small group working on “the website”. We kept the “phase 1” of the project light so we could complete it in a month. But we need to have a name. We knew it is going to be hard to come up with a name that everybody would embrace. We created a few proposals for the bigger group to choose from. Then in the big group our chief disruptor Leyla seduced us with an even lighter perspective. Let’s just use the platforms that we have or that are already there (like Medium) and communicate about our network in an unstructured and decentralized fashion. We didn’t even chose a common #hashtag. Each of us will choose the #hashtags that we like and we will let time filter the few ones to converge towards. Two examples mentioned were: #ecoversities and #edhack. 

We ended up with individual commitments, things that each of us wanted to do. For example I wanted to write this article and help with online facilitation. Victoria is going to catalyze the Learning Journey prototype. Johannes will facilitate the work around our common currency. Udi and Manish will facilitate the merging of “Valle” group with the Ecoversities group that met in Tamera (Portugal) last August. Gaia U will facilitate the development of the “Badge” system with Traian as part of the team. Beyond this there are probably tens of smaller, one on one collaborations and visits that were set up.  

We kept our playing habit for the third day with a collaborative game followed by the testing of the cosmovisions exercise that one of the teams designed Saturday. We ended the day by sharing what we learned. You can see in this image some of the keywords.

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After we closed the formal session Manish facilitated a closing ceremony that was a deep and beautiful gift to take with us, further in our paths. For a few of us the day ended later with a couple of beers in a local bar.

So what (does it mean)?

The Symposium was a standalone gathering but I see the significance of it as part of the process of small alternative universities and un-universities getting closer. There was another meeting in Tamera, Portugal in August 2015 and there will be another one by the end of the 2016. My reflections and learnings are informed only by the Valle de Bravo Symposium but tend to refer to the dynamic of the overall process.

The (centripetal) force is strong

1 - coverAs Udi was saying at one point, these places we’ve built are fragile so we need to stay together. Actually, I see them as intrinsically powerful structures whose fragility comes from going against the current. In any case, our need to stay together is as natural as survival instinct. On the flip-side, our aspiration to steer the world into a different direction needs a much bigger army, so we are natural allies on that road. The values we share are another glue. And on top of all this, the fact that around this common essence we have a wide diversity of architectures, methods, tools, stories and metaphors is a potential treasure that we all see. So what I saw in the meeting was a genuine and strong intention to get closer and weave our small experiments into a connected ecosystem that has more impact.

Taking the time

19 - plantingOne of my main sources of learning was to experience the pace and the rhythm that is given to the growth of this network by people wiser than me. It is a slow pace that follows with patience the growth of our relationships. I know the challenges that we are taking on are felt with urgency by everyone. The impatient side of me that wanted to jump right away into massive action was now witnessing a counter-side of me, of a more recent date, that can appreciate the power of moving slowly and attune itself to it.  

An example of that was the play element in the design: the walk in the woods, the treasure hunt and the collaborative game. I think that if we can enjoy playing together and being together, then our work together can have vitality. It was refreshing to see that Victoria and Leyla artfully introduced that in the design and that the rest of us played along and extended it beyond the formal design. My feeling is that we play well together so I’m confident that we will do great work together. I am also aware that it is going to be a long and slow process before we will see the fruits of this collaboration. We are just growing our roots.  

The need to be around old-time rebel doers  

20 - rebel doersMy realization was that in this moment in my journey, I need to be around long time rebel doers. Most of the times I feel like an old-timer: for 13 years I have been investing all my creative energy towards transforming higher education. And as they say, “its not the years in your life, but the life in your years”. So I discovered I highly cherish the time  around “rebel learning architects” that have been doing this specific kind of work for even longer, some for 20 or 30 years.  My gratitude for this insight goes especially to Liora, who took the time to have long conversations with me in the breaks. (Liora, if you read this: Thank you! I am coming to California for more :-) )

Many times I can’t even ask a specific question because I’m not seeking the explicit knowledge but the tacit one. The wisdom. I realized that I just need time around experienced learning architects to absorb their way of being and seeing the world. To catch the small differences that make a big difference, the insights and the very practical habits they have. So I found myself excited and challenged by the idea of us designing a learning environment for ourselves as learning architects. That could be a strong root for everything else.

The unstructure

21 - unstructureWhen we gave up the idea of building a website, it was like a relief. It was not shying away from work but more like an instinct shared by the group. A  suspicion that traditional infrastructure of a collaboration would be too heavy and energy draining. We want to be lighter and more fluid and use the energy we have in a more free and organic way. So, we won’t spend time to decide what is strategic. It will emerge from where we choose to put our energy. Each of us will choose a way to name it and #tag it. We won’t have a central page but we will write about this in a distributed way and make various aggregations and links. Our experimenting with the “Un-structure” is one of the most exciting things to participate in, for me. Especially so as I feel it is in the direction of our instincts, right on the edge of what we know. 

Now what?

What this global group of alternative universities will do next is an interesting question. I know Manish is reminding me to translate a clip for the Ecoversities Film Festival. Udi is preparing the next Ecoversities meeting. Johannes started the mutual currency workgroup. A few of us are playing with an open badge for a recent learning journey we took. As we choose to skip the project management approach, we will have to watch this “thing” emerging from our individual actions synchronized in an uncentralized way. What is clear is that it is alive and it grows. So I invite you to leave a comment below answering the question “Now what?” or just share anything you like. As an example, here are two individual to do lists:

Traian's list:

a) research each project and ask for a visit or an interview for #breakfreebook;

b) online facilitation: enliven the space for online conversation in a way that it blends nicely with our offline meetings;

c) kick off a small, “low hanging fruit”, exchange program: with energy of writing a few emails help something like 10 people from the Alternative University travel to other places in the network and recieve 10 to spend some time in Bucharest with us; connect it with the Learning Journey and the UNA currency prototypes.

Victoria's list:

a) identifying and asking for specific mentoring from the participants that may help me strengthen the processes in UMA for self-agency development and change experience (specifically, I would like to move learners from co-designing one big change-project during the program, to experiencing several smaller change projects that feed into a lighter design of a bigger project by the end of the program;

      b) find space for experimenting the learning process designs and practices that were shared;

c) incorporate into the design of the UMA degrees, the possibility for learners to spend time in any of the network organizations – strongly for the Bachelor’s Degree we are designing.

As a more broad outlook into the future, I know I will dedicate my energy to see universities reinvented on my watch. I believe it won’t be me, or a lone genius, or a Silicon Valley “unicorn” that can achieve that. I bet it will be a collective genius born from trust and friendship of many exceptional learning architects, like the ones gathered in Valle de Bravo. So I can gladly report that in this Symposium at the end of May, humanity made small but significant step towards having a collective genius that will create a new kind of university.

@Radio with Ecoversities friends

The last 15 days I have been on the road, crossing Mexico from San Miguel de Allende to San Cristobal de las Casas. I stopped in Valle de Bravo at Universidad del Medio Ambiente for a gathering of around 20 learning architects, education disruptors and creators of universities. After the gathering, ten of us embarked on a ten day learning journey to three remarkable alternative universities. As we were getting closer to one of them (CESDER – Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Rural) five of us stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a small village and we looked for a place with internet for an interview about our recently born Ecoversities Network. Meet my beautiful rebel friends …

  • Genaro from Mexico, co-founder of ISIA – Insituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk
  • Manish from India, co-founder of Swaraj University
  • Udi from Brazil, co-founder of Enlivened Learning
  • and Victoria from Mexico, co-founder of Universidad del Medio Ambiente

and hear abour our collective explorations …

District China

It is -7 degrees Celsius in Beijing. I am tired from the 21-hour journey. When I get out at the Dongzhimen station, it feels like -50. I take a guess and go right. I can be under a warm blanket in 20 min. I pray to get this right! Just like Google Maps, God does not work in China. When I get to the hostel 40 minutes later, I can’t even articulate words. Cold was the first discomfort in China, but not the last.

Hello China!1-selfie-china

The hostel had seven malls in its neighbourhood, and malls and coffeehouses is all I visited in my first six days. Gloria Jeans was my favourite.

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I spent my first days in the company of this nicely designed laptop by the chinese brand Lenovo

51rR2rp4-jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After six days of self-confinement in front of the laptop, I hit publish and go explore. I was not going to visit any organization here. For now, the thirty I visited in the US are enough. I decide to reverse the pattern and spend some time alone, reading, writing and reflecting. It is time to dive into my quest for the big picture. Out of the three intentions that I have for this year-long journey around the world, the “big picture” got no attention yet. I picked a book that would give me an overview of the country: Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got Here and Where It Is heading. I was roaming the streets with the kindle in my pocket, weaving the narrative of the book with my observations and the conversations I had with both expats and chinese people.

When I got to Tiananmen Square area, in the center of Beijing, I knew that was the place. It will serve as a background for my reading about China and my reflection beyond. I am the opposite of the tourist with a list. When I find one place that inspires something in me, I will not go see the next one. Instead, I prefer to go back and spend more time there. I read about it, I absorb its details and use it as a spark to reflect and imagine – the people, the context, the ideas, the meaning.

I spent half of day in the National Museum of China, visiting the permanent gallery about China’s history from ancient times to the last emperor.IMG_20151204_141200

Then I went to see the Road to Rejuvenation, explaining the last century when chinese people finally emerged victorious after a century of “semi-colonialism and humiliation”. The Communist Party of China was responsible.IMG_20151204_161417

I skipped the Great Wall for going back the second day and the third day to Tiananmen to have long walks and spend time reading in the museum. The grandiose building feels appropriate to host hundreds of thousands of years of human history. The time at the museum was the most inspiring and meaningful for my bigger quest.

Although I did not visit the Great Wall, I experienced equally impressive walls: the great firewall that I endured for 6 days before installing a VPN and the language barrier that was significantly higher that in any other country. Finding vegetarian food was a treasure hunt.IMG_20151129_185809 (1)

Going back from Tiananmen Square to my hostel, I was walking with my head at 45 degrees up and wondered at one building after another. They were mostly headquarters of banks I never heard of. The buildings and the infrastructure are impressive. The huge screens in the malls and on the street, the metro, the airports, the bridges. It seems “bigger and shinier”.

Sometimes, I used the subway to go back. After visiting India, I expected to see many people dressed in some kind of chinese distinct style, wearing the equivalent of sari, salwar, kurta or dastar. Everybody was wearing stylish western clothes. I also expected lots of poor people. Everybody had huge smartphones and used them intensely. The China I experienced in the subway seems to have embraced the material culture of the west to the full.

“There is a new religion in China: it is called Money” – my hungarian roomie Andras used to repeat often as a conclusion to his stories and examples. He works in the beauty industry, himself concentrating on making money. Other expats told me that they feel the influence to become more “pragmatic”. The myth goes that it is not uncommon for a girl to ask a guy on their first date how much money he makes and what car he’s driving. Maybe that story is exaggerated, but China surely feels materialistic.

Energized by this new religion, coordinated by the Communist party, China moves at an impressive speed and scale. Looking through one gigantic bridge in Shanghai, you can see the cranes with the smog in the background. I took this picture as a metaphor to hold about China. In economic terms, you feel this is where the action is. There are many reports of corner cutting but they sure move fast.

The masks that many people wear in Beijing bear testimony that there is a price to be paid for the speed. As the Paris Climate Summit was underway, I witnessed this apocalyptic sky. The picture does not capture the intense yellow that made it even spookier.smogy day

The smog and the masks, the luxury, the huge screens, the smartphones, the impressive buildings and the censorship remind me in many ways of the science-fiction dystopias from  Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World or Hunger Games.IMG_20151214_235158

The Communist Party of China is ruling this mammoth of a country without the show of free elections. They use a different story and that also works. They use force more brutally to protect their power. The control of the media is not so sophisticated. But beyond the elements of style, the essence seems to me the same in China as in Romania or US: people accept the power system, suffer from it and get on with their lives. They make the most of playing in the game whose rules are not of their making. Sometimes they fight back but they do it inside the game. The rules of power don’t get touched. Normal people get the scraps. The game is rigged. Like in a casino, the house always wins.

China was a revealing mirror to look into as a world citizen. It lacks the sophisticated cosmetics that dress up the “development model” sold to or imposed on humanity by the West. China embraces this model and pushes it to its limits. Here you can see the absurdity of sacrificing the environment, people’s health and social justice for greedy growth. They don’t use the democracy story so it becomes clear that whatever the story – the power asymmetry is the same. Looking from China district, the whole world resembles the Panem dystopia.

Before getting depressed about world’s current politics and power distribution, I will take another step back to look at humanity’s trajectory over time. You can read about that in my next article: Big History (coming soon).

Learning City UnConference – India

I landed in India on Monday at 3:50 AM with no other arrangements other that 4 nights booked at Moustache Hostel and the intention to stay for a month. And I knew I wanted to visit Swaraj University so I asked my friend Martin to help with an introduction. Martin kindly helped and also mentioned “the unconference”. Almost too good to be true: The Noida NCR Learning City UnConference was taking place right in my first week in India! What other starting point for exploring alternative education in India could I ask for?

The warm welcome to my tribe in India

I got there late enough to miss the introduction. As I walked through the gate, a cheerful energy invited me to relax about being late. Someone who appeared to be among the participants, probably noticing my disorientation, spontaneously asks: Do you know what an unconference is?

What you see as you enter the space.

What you see as you enter the space.

I know the concept and love it. I used Open Space format in a few events and organized the first RestartEdu Unconference in 2012. RestartEdu Unconference is now probably the most important anual gathering of education innovators in Romania, thanks to its wonderful host for the past three years: Ana Răducanu. (Bragging sidenote: Ana is also a graduate of Alternative University and one of the most promising young leaders I know in Romania. Read her blog here.)

But I did not mention any of that to Vijay. I wanted to hear what he will choose to tell me about this unconference. Vijay is a professional dancer and instructor, about to start his own dance company. He encouraged me to go around, talk to people and hug them. And then gave me a welcome hug as a proof of concept.

That is probably the most welcoming large event that I steped into as a total stranger. And the best thing about it: this detail was not ”organized and planned for”. It was something spontaneous emerging out of that space and Vijay’s friendly personality. This welcoming spirit was the highlight of the UnConference for me. I probably needed a warm welcome to India :-)

A diverse tribe 

This continued throughout the day, as I met Manish, Deepankar, Surhabi, Manik and his young brother, Vibhuti, Naman,  Chandra, Kunar, Sonali, Rahul, Manish Kataria and others that I did’t find on facebook yet. Although I talked to only a small part of the 400+ attendees, each minute I was absorbing details and felt enriched and fascinated by people attending.

For example, Manish Jain is one of the founders of Swaraj University and Shikshantar – The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development. Deepankar founded Anubhavshala – a learning & development organization working in the field of employee engagement and people development. Surabhi is an architect turned into toy designer who owns a brand of toys called Gammat (= essence of play). Vibhuti is just 7 months into being an Expressionist, helping teenagers express their true self. Naman is one month into starting his own company called MakeMe. Akshat is a teenage social entrepreneur, incredibly wise and articulate. Chandra is the CEO of IDG Smart City & Village. Sonali is an energetic software developer, interested in doing “something social”. Rahul has a personal project of 52 weeks and 52 jobs in organizations that work for environment. I also saw a Teach for India T-shirt and recognized a few books by John Taylor Gatto and Daniel Greenberg.  I would guess that freedom is at the heart of all the unconventional approches to lifestyle, work, economy or society that were present. Or maybe the big freedom banner influenced me.

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The level of collaboration and trust

The conference was a collaboration of four organizations but it felt like it was a collaboration of everybody involved. To have a diverse group of cool people in one place is one thing. But to have also this spirit of sharing, collaboration and trust among them, is even more amazing. This I found truly inspiring and goes to my Incredible India list!

Click image for original source.

Click image for original source.

Alter/natives 

All in all, I had the feeling of meeting the alter/natives of India, the heroes that build an alternative world  that is wiser, more just, more joyful and of course sustainable.  And I am grateful to everybody involved for having the chance to experience a piece of that world for a day.

A few more pictures from the Unconference here