The Art of Convening: Learnings from the SDG Places

The SDG Places initiative is centered on the conviction that systems change starts with the individual and cascades out to organizations and networks. That means that we need a new approach to events that inspire and encourage agents of change. However, in putting this theory into practice, the organizers of the SDG Places Initiative discovered that even sophisticated event designs are influenced by power-dynamics and an overwhelmingly western perspective. Thus, the organizers gave their approach a critical overhaul and eventually succeeded in overcoming these challenges by partnering with unexpected allies—artists. Here is their story about the “art” of convening.

When the SDG Places initiative was founded in 2020, the initiators wanted to create a new way to think about and organize events. They wanted to reach participants’ hearts and minds and unlock their potential to affect change. They believed that by completing the triangle that joined inspiring places with purpose-driven organizations and skillful facilitation, they could create events based on mutual trust that participants could truly connect with and be inspired to change. However in practice, many of their initial assumptions about the balance of power and the impact that events could have on a personal level fell short. Here is what happened—and how the SDG Places eventually reached their goals.

Experimenting with shifts in power dynamics

Contrary to initial expectations, power imbalances persisted as the hosting—and funding—organization still held most of the power. Together with the host organization, the facilitator defined the “how,“ therefore garnering some power as well. However, the role of the third point of the triangle—the places—didn’t grow beyond simply being inspiring venues, and their true potential was not realized in the events’ designs or programs.

This realization led to a shift in approach: The places and their hosts were put fully in charge of the budget. They could invite the facilitators and be part of the program’s development from day one. This shift aimed to balance the dynamics within the triangle.

Following the kick-off at the SDG Places Festival in 2021, events were organized in 2022 using this new approach. Although there were noticeable improvements, the new approach didn’t fully provide the desired effect, as it missed the point that the SDG Places had set out to address in the first place: to provide a setting that starts at the “me level” of participants and cascades out to the “we level” and then the “system level.” The transformational aspect was still missing.

The role of art

Parallel to reworking its own approach to convening, the SDG Places initiative embarked on a collaboration with the Porticus Foundation, which contributed its vast experience with its Community Arts Lab and Community Arts Network. Artists from the network created interventions to enrich the SDG Places initiative with the possibilities that art offers as a means of transformation. This is when it all came together. As artists were now invited to be co-designers of the events—and not just part of the social program—the whole concept changed. They contributed an entirely different perspective on how to build an emotional connection to and among the participants.

This proved highly successful at the Somewhere Places Festival in September 2022. For five days, 36 participants from all over the globe came together with 17 hosts, facilitators, and support staff in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees to exchange, experience, and reflect on the transformational power of the arts and its potential to enrich the art of convening. Participants were actively invited to co-design the program through the means of art, thus transforming the spirit of the entire event into an “artful gathering.” The artistic experience inspired a more genuine and diverse form of expression and participants could better connect with their inner selves, their peers, and nature.

Singing, dancing, writing, and poetry created a heightened sense of belonging, trust, and community that far exceeded what could have been achieved through conventional, rational approaches. Afterwards, participants jointly agreed on four central discoveries from the festival:

  1. Arts at the core
    Art communicates and conveys a vision. Art heals and creates safe spaces. Art is not a product, but a way of thinking and living.
  2. Transformation
    Artists and changemakers are redefining storytelling, changing stereotypes, and giving voice to the voiceless.
  3. Together
    Together, we can create a sense of belonging, generate meaningful change, and affect how networks give and receive.
  4. The journey beyond
    Funding is needed, but the time to act is now. New conversations have started, new understandings were formed.

Using art to break down mental barriers

It takes a grand alliance to create a better future. This explicitly includes decision-makers, who are often hard to reach with existing approaches to inner transformation as these are often associated with esotericism or spirituality. Art can not only positively change gatherings, but also provides a way to overcome these mental barriers. Art is widely accepted throughout much of society and is therefore an ideal door opener.

The full integration of art into the design of events creates opportunities to fundamentally change power-dynamics. Participants are given pathways to connect on both a rational and emotional level, and are more open to accepting this new approach to inner transformation. The changes made on the “me level” can now flow out to the “we level” and the “system level” … just as the SDG Places initiative intended in the first place.

SDG Places will be renamed as Somewhere Places in 2023. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) will still be an integral part of the initiative, but the new approach called for a new name. The collaboration between the Community Arts Network and the Somewhere Places Festival provided the ideal motivation for this change.

The Somewhere Places Festival was designed and implemented by SDG Places, The Home of the Pioneers of our Time, O Jardim, Porticus Foundation, Community Arts Network, BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, Robert Bosch Stiftung, and iac Berlin. iac Berlin served as the initiative’s incubator from 2020-2022.

This article was orginally published in the iac Berlin Activity Report 2022. The entire report is available as free download:


If you want to know more about the iac Berlin's role as incubator or want to contact the SDG Places / Somehwere Places initiative, please do not hesitate to get in touch with:

Darius Polok