News & Politics

The Visionaries of Barcelona

What's radical and fantastic, beautifully simple yet incredibly ambitious? The Universal Forum of Cultures, a five-month global gathering in the heart of Catalonia.
"Definitely crazy," thought a visiting journalist last May in Barcelona, as she listened to the charismatic Oleguer Sarsanedas describe the city's plans. He laid out the idea in sweeping terms: Barcelona would host a global conference dedicated to proposing visionary solutions to the world's problems. He produced diagrams and illustrations showing the construction of a mini sustainable city outside Barcelona to house the conference, which would incorporate massive dialogues among high-ranking global leaders such as Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev and millions of average people. "Right, that'll happen," she thought, nonetheless impressed with Sarsanedas' enthusiasm.

A year later, the journalist received an email from Barcelona. "Can someone from AlterNet participate in a round table on media in Barcelona this spring?" wrote organizer Patricia Estevez. As Estevez went into further explanation of the event, the journalist realized that not only had Oleguer Sarsanedas -- the event's spokesperson -- been crazy, but he had also been superbly effective. The far-fetched dream that he described a year ago had indeed become a reality: the Universal Forum of Cultures, Barcelona 2004.

To hear the scope, the vision, and the goals of the Forum, as it's familiarly called, is to understand the original skepticism. A joint project of the Spanish government, the Catalan Autonomous Government, the Barcelona City Council and the United Nations for Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO), the goal of the Forum is nothing short of involving global citizenry in helping to create a more peaceful, sustainable and inclusive future. Organizers call it "the realization of a global dream, a visionary event guiding humankind for the new millennium; a gathering of people from societies to spontaneously and freely participate in creating a better planet."

The Forum -- which will span 141 days -- is expected to cost $2.3 billion, taken out of the public purse. The campus that is being built on the waterfront in the city's northeast corner will be used for future conferences and conventions, but the Forum will be the area's coming-out party.

The Forum is structured around 10 different overarching themes, including Cultural Diversity and the Media; Freedom, Security and Peace; Globalization and Development; and Unheard Voices: Women, Youth, Intergenerational and Intercultural Communication. Expounding on the themes are 45 different conferences, or Dialogues, which features round tables, workshops and face-to-face debates designed to encourage a free-flowing exchange of ideas.

The Dialogues will be a major emphasis of the Forum, and every effort is being made to ensure the participation of you and I and people just like us, from India and Cuba to Italy and Kazakhstan. In addition to the face-to-face dialogues, those not able to attend in person can participate virtually via Forum Media (the Forum TV Channel) and via online discussion programs for debate, surveys, and questions.

"The idea is to help citizens peel off their indifference," Sarsanedas told the New York Times. "The hope is that people who participate will know that they are not alone in the world."

Communication across boundaries and cultures is paramount, and the idea of communication is being expanded beyond the realm of the written and spoken word. Large portions of the gathering are dedicated to cultural expressions that go beyond the standard menu of dance, theater, music and poetry to include games, puppetry, circuses, street theater and cabaret. The Forum's philosophy is that playing, laughing, dancing and singing together may perhaps ally people of different cultures and languages more strongly than conversations or written documents.

The Forum will also include a Peace Camp that teaches children from 18 different countries about peace and sustainability issues; 423 concerts (including appearances by Sting, Norah Jones and Bob Dylan); a mini auditorium bus that travels around the region to educate citizens on issues presented at the Forum; shops selling sustainably produced and traded products; and five major art exhibits. Not to mention the construction of two new ecologically sound conference halls, two recreation parks and an island accessible only to swimmers called Pangea Island.

So what comes after these five months of intensive sharing, debating, analyzing and proposing?

"The goal is to mobilize a global community of like-minded citizens," answers the unabashedly optimistic David Rippe, who, along with partner Bill Gladstone, is handling North American publicity for the Forum. "Concrete plans for collective action will emerge and plans are already underway for future Forums, but the emphasis here is on individual connections. Ultimately, individual relationships are stronger than strategic plans or formal treaties because they create a global understanding that is personal and therefore powerful and lasting. By igniting compassion between people, we realize that we can individually and collectively make a difference and together build a path to overcoming global crises."

In short, what comes after these five months is the globalization of humanity. It's a radical, fantastic and beautifully simple concept -- we make a difference by understanding each other personally. The Forum is revolutionary because the focus isn't power, it's humanity.

And the world sure could use a good dose of that.

Darci Andresen is associate publisher of

AlterNet is proud to be the Forum's primary U.S. media sponsor. If you'd like to learn more about the Forum, make plans to travel to Barcelona, or want to participate in the Dialogues, visit or call (513) 618-6449 for general information or 888-743-6786 for travel information.