Pop-up Communities: The Importance of Retreats to Build a New and Generative Culture

By Ria Baeck and originally published in Medium

Freshly made bread — by Lucia Die Gil

I recently found myself near Lake Balaton in Hungary, in the beautiful setting of an old farmhouse and barn with view on a wider landscape, all renovated to host and welcome a bigger group of people. We were not really tourists — although we enjoyed the daily swimming and walking the countryside. You could call each of us change agents, in one way or another.

As is usually the case, gatherings-retreats-events only happen because one person or a few people sense a potential, share the idea with a couple of others and decide to act on it. This people invited to this retreat were all interested in the Future of Work. This particular crowd seemed to be all bridge-builders, each trying in their own way to integrate self-organisation and self-management, with caring for the commons, all mixed with deep practices of participation (or Art of Hosting conversations that matter). I just learned about the concept of ‘expert-generalist’ or ‘neo-generalist’—“a person who has knowledge about multiple realms and ideas in lots of different areas. They mix and mash ideas.” That pretty much describes the people present!

I have been in many gatherings and similar kind of retreats — and called and organised quite a few myself— and I have always learned way more in these than in any conference I have attended. What makes them different? These retreats and gatherings aim to build an experience of community, pay a lot of attention to building relationships, seek the collective intelligence of all present and mostly support the commons in one way or another.

Most standard conferences are still one-to-many — the people on the stage having the microphone — even when there are panels with a bit of exchange between the panelists. Still, in no way are the intelligence and wisdom of the audience involved, except for a few scant minutes of Q & A, which again means: one person asking a question and one person answering to the crowd. How a conference can tap into the collective intelligence, you can read here.

What was new in this particular gathering was that we were not members of a single network coming together. As mentioned, I have been in organising teams for quite some other gatherings over the years, but these have always been within a specific network of practitioners; in my case the Art of Hosting global network. Other networks, like Deep Democracy or Agile or Open Space Technology and many others have similar formats to let their members or practitioners meet and learn from and with each other. Here, in the beautiful surroundings of the Hungarian countryside we found ourselves coming from different communities, each with our own practices.

Our daily view from the garden — by Phoebe Trickell

Experimentation and prototyping

The weaving of many new social practices — from non-violent communication, over agile, and Sociocracy 3.0 and Art of Hosting, and Theory U and scrum, to name just a few — seems to me crucial in establishing a new culture of work and organisation. We need to interweave the essence of each of these methods, and we each, personally, need the capacity to drop ‘our’ way of meeting or convening in order to listen carefully and without judgment to what others have to offer.

Together we need to explore how we can best weave them together in service of our shared inquiry and all those present. At this gathering, we didn’t do this very explicitly, but we were all sensing what felt right, what could we offer, when it was too much our own idea etc. We laid the path while walking.

Retreats as immersive experience

These kind of retreats are (very) immersive experiences, where every aspect of our human beingness is cared for. Immersion means having shared experiences. It is hard to stay in the mental and conceptual space when we collectively need to take care of the kitchen, the bathroom and the dining room. Each one of us is involved with our whole being when we share stories in the circle. Sitting by the fire at night, singing songs together — it invites way more than just our professional persona.

Sharing professional stories while you are standing in the water of the lake makes for a different — often deeper — conversation and an altogether different relationship. Venturing away from the venue, visiting a local attraction — like wine-tasting in the most idyllic surroundings! — engages you with all of your being. It is through these many immersive experiences that we build the relationships, the relational field, the social capital.

In a typical conference or meeting and its typical PowerPoint presentations the social capital is not tended to.

In some organisations I have seen it damaged to the point of destruction.

We built social capital

We realised in this retreat that it was all about the people, the people, the people… The people and the relationships. Even us, as change agents, working a lot on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, we realised ultimately it is about ‘who’. You and me: what I can share with you, the dreams we both hold, the learning from each other’s projects and experiences. We have inspired each other with the deep sharing of our experiments, prototypes, insights and wisdom. The bonds formed will be long-lasting, and are already leading to new initiatives to be organised in a couple of months.

Daily lunch and dinner outside — by Melinda Varfi

We are building a new and generative working culture

Richard Bartlett, another bridge-builder, wrote: “the best place to grow culture is in small groups.”. I think he is spot on! And if you don’t want to fall into the trap of ‘my group is the best’, or ‘we have figured it all out’ then joining a retreat with practitioners of other practices is the best way to enhance your social tool box and get a flavor of what a generative working culture could be like. We need diversity on all levels and in all domains — because complexity is not going away or diminishing any time soon!

It is amazing to see that we were not the happy few living this experience. At about the same time, other people sensed a similar potential and organized a similar kind of retreat, this one in the UK. Like us, they felt: “There was an overwhelming sense of potential within the group and the wider network to create something special. What exactly that something is, is yet to be fully understood.” My hunch is that we are creating a new working culture, one that is able to let everyone flourish in their unique capacities while tackling some big issues of our time.

Phases in a typical retreat

We had no choice but to allow the first phase to be some down-time. We are all pioneers in the experiments and prototypes we run; we are the change agents coming into retreat — even if many spoke early on they would like to get ‘to work on something tangible’ the first days were spent just arriving, and mainly relaxing. Only after that we come naturally to a big sharing circle — what is alive in you now? We heard quite a few stories of exhaustion, of transition, of not being sure where to go next… Then the attention shifted to: what can we create together?

There was a doing work together phase. It was fascinating to watch our shared appetite and intention to write more about our experiences. We actually started on the spot; editing each others’ writing, starting some new articles. Quite some blog posts came online since the retreat! Phoebe wrote this one: on refuelling ourselves, and the training needed to become good astronauts. MJ gave her impression of this retreat here. Sam posted this one, which was a bit longer in the making, and wrote this one after the retreat. Her big achievement was the compensation model article that had been dragging for 6 months. And I am happy that I finished this one too!


In the UK retreat, they name 10 ingredients for such a co-created retreat to happen. One of them is ‘a soft landing’. We softly landed on the idea of an Art of Hosting training in New Zealand, after the Summer Fest of Enspiral; it was named in 3 different conversations simultaneously… I always feel alive when such real emergence happens!

Some of us are now thinking to offer retreats and gatherings as products and service for co-creating the new working culture… we will see if that gets into manifestation…

* The concept of ‘pop-up community’ was mentioned in an email, after the actual retreat by Gil, one of the participants; and actually describes well what it is!

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.