Iolanda Pensa, project lead and initiator of Wikimania Esino Lario, tells the whys and hows of an extraordinary experience
Transcript of the video-interview.
- Why hold Wikimania in Esino Lario?
A world that belongs to everyone for everyone: Wikipedia as the practical translation of post-colonial thinking
- How does an ambitious project materialize?
In theory: by identifying resources and needs
The case of Esino Lario: “Why not do something crazy?”
- “Let’s show them!”: what motivates an entire village
- Conditions for cooperation
- To achieve big dreams, study and play
- It’s not easy to achieve a crazy plan
- The Wikimania Esino Lario legacy
1. Why hold Wikimania in Esino Lario?
Wikimania Esino Lario was an event that began in 2014. The result of endless conversations. If I think how an event can materialize in a small mountain village, I think above all about the relationship between Wikipedia and small places.
Wikipedia is this encyclopaedia, but not only, it is also a point of access for online information and, in theory, it should also be the encyclopaedia that talks about the whole world, the encyclopaedia that allows everyone to have a say; but it’s not that simple to make it actually happen. Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia that anyone can write anywhere in the world.
But can anyone anywhere in the world really write this encyclopaedia? Not really. It’s called information geography: if we look at how the Internet works, if we look at how Wikipedia works, lots of places are missing, some places are well represented, but lots of places in the world – especially in Africa and in many mountainous areas – are not represented. So taking Wikipedia to places that are not well represented on the Internet, or that have little say on Wikipedia itself, was part of the reason why we brought Wikipedia to Esino. A way of telling the world that anyone anywhere in the world can contribute to human knowledge, a way of showing that a small place may produce small things, but can contribute to universal knowledge too.
A history of everyone’s world for everyone: Wikipedia as the practical translation of postcolonial and African thinking
I have been involved in contemporary African art, in person, for a long time, since 1988. Contemporary African art is one of the world’s truly niche subjects, an extremely difficult topic. Hardly anyone is aware that the African continent is teeming with artists, creative people in general, magazines, thinkers and intellectuals, because information about the African continent is not distributed evenly, a lot of the information stays within specialist circuits or within particular networks of people. So dealing with contemporary African art and doing so on Wikipedia is a way of bringing such specialist niche products into the world so that anyone can discover it. Another interesting thing about working with contemporary African art on Wikipedia is that post-colonial studies, that is studies carried out after the end of colonization, have been asking themselves precisely how to talk about a world that belongs to everyone, to any geographical area, to any person, to the conquerors and the conquered, to the new conquerors and the new conquered, or in other words how to ensure that the world effectively is a world that can let anyone, women and men have their say and that can let their voices build collaborative knowledge and new knowledge, knowledge that no longer respects colonial criteria. This dream of creating an encyclopaedia, knowledge that is truly universal, that can set the records straight, is Wikipedia’s dream and, working on these African themes, for me, taking Wikipedia to a small place, off the beaten track, far from the usual circuits, major cities or revered universities, is a way of demonstrating to everyone that the voice of the world really IS represented in this encyclopaedia.
2. What can motivate a whole village? “Let’s show them!”
I don’t think that saying “Let’s get Wikimania to come to Esino” was the real motivator. And nor was it: “And what if Esino won?” that motivated people? No, I think the real motto of the whole project was: “Let’s show them!” – “Let’s show them Esino!, “Let’s show them how competent we are, how beautiful our dot on the map is”, “Let’s show them how good we are at getting things done, how we gathered the necessary resources, how smarter we are than the others”: because if you are small and not, obviously, the most probable candidate, you have to demonstrate more than others that you are much smarter because the event that you then have to organize is going to be a really tough challenge. I believe that what motivated people was this dream of ensuring that, just maybe, the least probable, the most improbable place, could actually win.
Because bringing Wikipedia to Esino was not a dream; many didn’t even know what Wikipedia is – in fact, Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia that everyone uses, but without necessarily being aware that they are using Wikipedia (..). Few people know that anyone can edit Wikipedia, that is the ideal of a Wikipedia community of volunteers, of the openness to the world. And opening up to the world is something else that is not a common concept. So don’t dream that Wikipedia might come to your village.
At a certain point, there was the battle to win the contract, and many were betting on that. Then there was the next step, which was to realize that it wasn’t just any old event that was coming to Esino, it was Wikipedia , the great encyclopaedia that informs the world about the world; Esino hosted Wikipedia – which represents all the knowledge available on the Internet, because with 500 million readers and over 30 million articles, it is a veritable powerhouse of knowledge – so a tiny place was about to host the world! No fewer than 1368 people from 70 nations converged on this place but more especially it was Wikipedia that came here, representing the knowledge that people all over the world consult and which the world contributes to compiling. So that was the next moment.
But representation was another moment too: what happened in Esino was seen by the Esinese, and by the people outside Esino, in very different ways. At a certain point, the Esinese realized that other people were starting to see them in a new light, the image of Esino in the media had changed and at that point the Esinese saw themselves as they had been reported in the media or how people they met out and about, were addressing them: “Oh! Are you from Esino? Was it you that did this thing?” So over the years that it took to prepare for the event, their mentality changed too, precisely because so many things happened and the various stages of the project were all different, and the whole process was very dynamic too.
3. How does an ambitious project materialize?
The theory: identify resources and needs
To prepare a project, first of all you need to analyze the resources available; i.e. first you need a map, then you can pore over the map and find the cultural heritage sites: churches, tourist attractions, services, roads, bus stops. In other words you need to map out a fairly wide area and analyze all its resources.
It’s not just a question of mapping the resources that can be geolocated, but taking into consideration the stakeholders, that is all those people, associations, institutions, sponsors, that whole network of local intelligence and skills available in the area.
Once you have seen what is available around you, you then move on to looking at it all with a critical eye, in other words looking at what there is compared to what there could be. You realize what is missing, you start thinking about opportunities but also about where there may be room for improvement. And at that point, you will be in a position to draft a proposal.
This is the process required to give shape to your idea and it is also the process required to turn an idea (or simply a suggestion that may never actually materialize) into something that is effectively a project, something you have to achieve within a specific time frame.
The case of Esino Lario: why don’t we do something crazy?
In actual fact, in the case of Wikimania, the procedure was slightly different, in the sense that it was not something that emerged from an analysis of the context.
In 2005 I opened a Foundation in Holland which was subtitled as: “Not based on problem solving”: and I have to admit that I have always been intrigued by all those ideas that do not necessarily solve problems.
In the case of Wikimania, it didn’t start from analysing the context and then solving the problem, but rather from something more than that, something exceptional, from saying: let’s give it a go! For years we had been saying: “oh, Esino has lost its tourist appeal, we need something that can shake the place up, something that could restore Esino to the glories of the visibility, appreciation and involvement of the holiday-makers that used to flock here all those years ago”. And in the air I used to hear these words: what we need is something, an event, that could shake things up. So, in a way, Wikimania answered precisely what was on everyone’s lips. Sometimes, when I see projects, also in Africa, often I imagine them in really poor places, in which people are longing for basic services, a better shack or a nicer home, etc. But in my experience, very often in difficult areas, in Senegal, in Cameroon, people dream of winning the lottery, or a Ferrari, or becoming rich or famous overnight, in other words: dreams take flight, we don’t dream of having a house that is not falling apart, we dream big and in glorious technicolour, of things that would make our hearts skip a beat, because otherwise, dreaming about things that would only just be enough may be about what we need here and now, but dreams have wings of their own and maybe they are destined to fly over the proverbial rainbow.
4. Conditions for collaboration
Perhaps the best thing about Wikimania is that it is an event of such scale that it cannot be managed by just one individual, Wikimania is a collaborative event, not because it is great to collaborate, personally I find collaborating exhausting, the most complicated thing of all, and anyone who says: “Oh, what a great thing collaboration is, is evidently not used to collaborating. Collaborating means discussing, exchanging ideas, tackling problems, fighting, it also means putting yourself on the line, in other words collaborating is very complicated and collaboration is what you get when you really need other people.
Great collaborative projects – and by “collaborative” I mean a project that requires the involvement of several people for its success – work in two conditions:
either in a state of emergency, such as woodland management in mountainous areas, council woodlands: everyone fights for the confines of their own allotted land and it is the same on Wikipedia, where everyone fights for the confines of their own article, so they fight with those that have just arrived, they fight with the trolls, with those who endorse other proposals, so it’s normal for people to fight… and then, when an external threat arrives, such as a fire in comunal woodland, everyone rushes to help and this is true collaboration in a state of emergency;
or, when something exceptional happens, in some ways it’s like an emergency. There are even studies about the fact that festivals and other major events are situations in which people take greater risks than they would normally. Risks, exceptional events and states of emergency aIl have dynamics that anyway create interference in a fabric with a status quo, so they create something new, they mostly create dynamics that then foster cooperation because we all need others, we need to manage the unexpected, you alone do not have the skills to understand what the solutions could be, you need to exchange ideas with others even if only to hear their opinions: What do you think? Does that sound like a good idea? Will that work?
My advice is: the more you do at the beginning, at the planning stage, the easier it is to involve other people, because the more people participate in the initial stages, the more they will feel part of a process and the closer they will become engaged in a meaningful way with the event itself.
5. How to make big dreams come true
If I can suggest how to develop a project like Wikimania, I would say: take a long, hard look at all the documentation of all the events that have been held, start by defining the method according to all the indications you can find, copy systems designed by others, study all the systems you can find, work with an analysis of the area, work with an analysis of the resources, make a check list of all the things that need to be done. Then, my advice is to become extremely meticulous in preparing and producing an executive plan. In reality, great dreams take a whole lot more than just counting “one, two, three, go!”. You can make them come true by working tirelessly and solving all the problems that a great dream throws up at you, because great dreams have not generally been realized before, because they are complicated, so you have to cover every single item.
I read approximately 200 books on organization before planning Wikimania, I did nothing but read books on organization, project management, as well as how to do things in an orderly fashion, anything that helped me to imagine how to structure a project, achieve it and what you can do to organize an event properly. The problem was that we were doing something rather different, so none of the event organization handbooks actually told us how to manage transport flows, how to foresee how many Wikipedians would arrive in one day, from which countries, at which airports, (Milan has three), how many coaches we had to foresee… but to be able to make an estimate and organize the logistics, you had to make a hypothesis of the flows … so it’s a question of trial and error. You ask around, you give it a try, ask for opinions, compare notes, exchange ideas, listen to suggestions, and eventually things start to coalesce in your head.
I think one of the most useful exercises for getting ideas is to play, especially Lego and Playmobil, or even with Barbie dolls… Imagine different scenarios, planning is basically that, you have to imagine what that thing will be like and you have to imagine it in the minutest detail, I mean, the more details you can have, the more you can imagine a Wikipedian reaching Esino, sitting down (so there must be a chair), he gets out his computer, his computer battery is flat, he has to connect it, then he connects his mobile too, then he uses the connection, then he feels hungry, Wikipedians eat huge quantities of biscuits! You have to try to learn as much as possible about these people to imagine what will happen and by imagining it clearly you produce a decidedly more functional, detailed project.
The crazier the idea – and Wikimania coming to Esino was indeed a rather crazy idea – the more the executive project has to be detailed, so at that point you have to turn the scenario, your vision of what an event, a future, a change might be and you have to imagine it in the minutest detail, taking every single component into account. Then: “where is the money going to come from?”, “how shall we spend it?”, “which people are involved?”, “where can I go to look for money?”, “do I absolutely have to pay every single person or are there people who can give me a hand as volunteers?”, “what already exists? Do companies that provide transport already exist or do I have to invent a solution?”, “Do similar situations exist? Has someone already staged this event?”.
At the beginning of Wikimania I started looking at all the events that had been held outside big cities. Usually plots of land are purchased and joined up, flattened, tensile structures are assembled or there are events that are organized from A to Z, even making transportable tribunes… there are solutions of infinitely different types. Very often, the solutions involve completely transforming the site and building the actual venue. And we didn’t want that. I wanted the event to be part and parcel of the village because I did not want the village to be a bystander or side-stalls for the event, I wanted the event to be the village itself and thus, from there, the idea of using all the available infrastructure, using the bars for “get togethers”….but all this was the result of a critical analysis; the minute you decide what you actually want and why you are doing it in a certain way, this will also orientate the way in which you plan your project.
What will really carry you through right to the end is the fact that you are enjoying it, that there is anyway this spirit of friendship, of fun, of turning these meetings into a moment in which you meet people, you get on well, in which you dream too, in which there is also room for saying: “Ah, and what about doing this other thing here?”. Because the minute you have an environment in which people feel inhibited from saying: “What about doing it this other way?” you will have a disaster on your hands; I mean, people must always feel free to suggest their own ideas, to dream, to express crazy ideas.
Wikipedia has five pillars, five guidelines that give you an idea of what Wikipedia is and explain how Wikipedia has to be written, how the community has to behave. In the case of Wikimania, I proposed working with this concept of the five pillars for an event, in some way mimicking Wikipedia and taking inspiration from it; it was also a way of saying: “We are changing Esino Lario as if we were pressing the Edit key on Wikipedia and editing the encyclopaedia; in Esino Lario we press the Edit key and we are editing the village, so we too are following our five pillars.
Sometimes we have this ideological vision; in reality, it was especially these pillars that we created that helped us to make decisions; there are so many that you have to make that in the end, knowing which the criteria are…… for example: you receive some estimates and they are all very similar, so how do you choose? In our case we chose the company that was nearest or maybe the company that would continue to work with Esino because according to our principles, this was a priority. But for sure, defining the style you want to give your event, or project, the sense of it, why you do things, and then turning these into your guidelines for decision-making is really very useful, and I believe that it is a way of working that would be useful for associations too.
7. Managing a crazy project is not easy
I don’t think that Wikimania should be the event that reminds people how easy it is to achieve great things. The Wikimania lesson is, on the contrary, a tough one, but great things can be done. Being able to do them is something that should encourage you, but rolling up your sleeves and getting on with the job – which is something the people in our area have always been really brilliant at, in other words replicating a great event in a very small place is absolutely feasible, but it obviously requires a much greater effort than it would elsewhere.
And the case of Esino was a bit like that, a case involving lots of people… I was the initiator of this event, but then lots of people joined me and said : “And what if Esino wins? Let’s make it win!” and then you can count on an I.T. expert, a corporate expert, another who can deal with the transport question, yet another from a local association, someone from the council who says “Yessss, let’s go for it!”, they all came together and, believing it could be done, we got it done! By believing and by making a superhuman effort.
8. Legacy: rigorous professionalism and opening up to the world
I hope that people use this sense of victory, this fact that Esino actually did it, Esino which represents not only itself, not just Esino, but a small place, a tiny dot on the map of the world, showed the world that small places can achieve great things. Small places don’t only do small things and this is a success for numerous other places, not only for Esino. So I hope that this success will leave a legacy, that it will lead to new things. It must be a success that takes into account the seriousness of the work done, the professionalism, the fact that everything that helped to ensure that Wikimania was a success was done with incredible professionalism and it was extraordinary to see everyone working so well. So this is the first step.
The second step is to remember that this event was magical because it spoke to the world, about the world, and it was part of the world. It was not a small élitist event, a small event that says: “Look how clever we are” It was an event which, however difficult, however technical, because it was held in English, with numerous people talking about very specialist questions, but it was an event that was part of the world, it was not an event that said: “we yes, you no” but: “Anyone can become an encyclopedist, anyone can write human knowledge” in other words it was an event that had this vision of opening up and I hope that Wikimania will have a legacy, that other people who were involved and who saw something to imitate in Wikimania will recognize this as a value. It is not a banale legacy: opening up to the world also means opening up to diversity, to foreigners, even to strangers from a nearby village, 12 km away, or from the other side of the sea. Because it fosters a sense of belonging to the world and respecting all those who help make the world a smarter, richer and more beautiful place. Which doesn’t mean being softies who see the good in everyone but rather acknowledging and respecting the intrinsic value of each individual, adopting an attitude of openness and curiosity and being able to understand defects and virtues and to weigh them up appropriately.
There was a moment in those five days, those two worlds, which are anyway two worlds, or numerous worlds, from India, from Israel, from Palestine, Iran, the USA, all these pieces of world that struggle to converse with each other normally, in some way in Esino they “clicked” and there was unanimity.
Interview by Chiara Somajni
Transcript by Lara Pensa
Translation by Rona Mackay