Festivals And Social Change

I am intrigued by what moves and motivates people – especially in my work in social change.   Festivals in the UK are certainly something that motivates - there are now over 400 Festivals each year – something for everyone- with over 2 million people attending annually.  There are debates on whether or not the Festival bubble has burst, however it seems to keep raving on.

I decided to do some fieldwork this month, so I literally went to the Festival field as a participant and observer.   At one Festival we presented our work at Finance Innovation Lab (obviously a more arty set festival) and at the other, a friend and I volunteered to serve beer to the punters (and you guessed it- this was a festival for the teenage right of passage).

Here’s what I found:

Sense of Belonging and Connection

I could feel it in myself – especially at the arty festival – we as humans crave a sense of belonging to our tribe.  We like to be with those with whom we share things in common – our worldviews, our values, our behaviours, our activities, our traditions.


On the other-hand, we all want to be different and be recognized for the special person that we are.   From face painting, to handmade masks and hats, to our choice of music, to the myriad colours of Wellies we wear – we all want to be recognized for being unique.


Being & Freedom

And in between these two, there is just Being.   Not in commune and not separate – Festivals are great places to go to just plainly express yourself for you who are.  Child-like freedom. Go nuts: dance, get drunk, shout, hang about, eat, sing…..a pleasant reminder that we are all part of this wider universal entanglement of animalistic ‘beings’.

For hundreds of years, there have been Festivals of many types – often providing a place for entertainment, informing of traditions, transferring knowledge, finding mates, establishing unity in communities.  So they are a true mirror of cultural significance of our time and our place.

Which is why I find Festivals very eye-opening and revealing as to who we seem to be becoming as a society.


Although some Festivals are positioned as connected to community meaning – much of what actually goes on is about personal gratification.  This shows itself in the drugs, drunkenness, and disrespect that transcends the community.  I have been a victim of sleepless nights and very swamped toilets.

Corporatised Mass Market

Pints were a fiver. Double J&D and Coke a tenner. In just one evening, the three bars we were working at grossed over £250,000.  All to efficiently serve 65,000 captive people in one weekend. Multiply this up by annual takings of the ‘Festival Industry’ in one season. Now, that is some heavy metal earnings.


 Throw Away Society

At both Festivals, I found myself literally walking on white fields of plastic cups. It was reported this year at Leeds there were 72 pairs of recovered Wellies, 177 portable chairs, 164 mats and 238 tents (last year there were 700 tents)– most of which was brand new kit.  Our disposables were collected and shipped directly to the refugee camps in Africa.  The irony is that the festival and refugee campsites look identical – unfortunately one does appreciate what it has.


So what does this mean for our work in culture change?  Perhaps a few things which to ponder as questions:

  • How can we create conditions so tribes can connect and find meaning?
  • How can we host processes so that people feel they can be recognized for their individuality?
  • How can we convene people place and spaces and in ways that allow them ‘to just be’ free?
  • How can we work at ideal scale to maintain a sense of community, meaning and circular wealth creation?
  • How can Festivals be a place where we can shape culture and help people reframe what is meaningful beyond self?