As part of Congress’s first key theme, Examining Our Cooperative Identity, delegates gathered on the afternoon of 1 December in Seoul and online to discuss cooperative and cultural heritage. In 2016, UNESCO formally recognised cooperatives as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and in her introduction, the session’s facilitator Stefania Marcone referenced this decision as something to reflect on in this conversation,  saying, “if we want to rebuild a better world, cooperative culture and the culture in cooperative sectors are fundamental.”

Thomas Mende, Vice President and Head of Committees and Communication at DZ Bank, spoke to the Congress session about UNESCO’s decision to recognise cooperatives as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and reported on the application process which was led by the German Friedrich-Wilhelm-Raiffeisen Society and the German Hermann-Schulze-Delitzsch Society. Mr Mende stressed that “just because the application comes from the German cooperative movement, it does not mean this is an award for only German cooperatives. It is an award for all cooperatives in the world.”

Thomas Knubben, Director Institute of Cultural Management at Ludwigsburg University of Education set the scene for the discussion with ideas, strategies and opportunities of cooperatives in cultural heritage management.

Mr Knubben explained that the term “cultural cooperative” is a diffuse one, and can operate across various sectors, for example cooperative media, arts venues, shops and even historic breweries. He highlighted the role of cultural cooperatives at the macro, meso and micro level. Macro being the level at which attitudes and minds are changed(and the level at which the ICA is best placed to have an impact), meso being the level at which laws are amended and education is developed and micro being the level at which cooperatives practice in various civic and cultural fields, in order to show they can “solve essential problems of daily life.” Mr Knubben stressed the need for further research to gain a deeper insight into each of these levels where cooperative culture is at play, and recommended that the ICA develop a compendium of cultural cooperatives to gather data and develop cooperative cultural understanding.

A number of panelists shared their experiences with cooperatives from their local contexts, including 12 year old Cerge S. Perualila, a student at the integrated school for exceptional children, who explained how her experience with cooperatives in the Philippines enabled her to “embody the values and principles” of the cooperative identity.

Ouim Aziz, Director of Cooperative Af Toudarte in Morocco, spoke about how the cooperative has contributed to the empowerment of women in her community as well as tackling environmental challenges, and Dinara Chochunbaeva, President of the Kyrgyz handicraft association, shared some of her experience of engaging with intangible cultural spaces, in particular women’s felting cooperatives in the mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan.

David Smith, lifelong cooperative activist and Trustee of the Robert Owen Memorial Museum offered a presentation from Wales, where he shared that despite having global recognition in the cooperative world, Robert Owen, whose 250th birthday is being celebrated this year,  is little known in Wales. Mr Smith explained that there is poor understanding of the cooperative movement in Wales, something he and his colleagues are working to counter through educational programmes, media coverage and events. He ended his presentation with a question to Congress: Would the creation of a global annual Robert Owen Day spur us to action in creating a co-operative education system for the co-operative world we wish it to be?

Hyeonggeun Yoon, CEO of Hansalim cooperative, shared the history and culture of cooperativism in Korea, from the spirit of community and mutual assistance of Korea’s rice fields to a culture of thought which acknowledges the various aspects of nature that must come together in order for food to be grown.  Mr Yoon also cited the challenges of the climate crisis, food insecurity and inequality, and said that we need to revive regional communities’ traditional cultures of coexisting with nature, collaborating and helping each other in order to meet these challenges and enable cooperatives to survive in the future.

Giovanna Barni, President of CoopCulture and  President of  Culturmedia at Legacoop, the Italian cooperative federation, shared insights on her experience of leading an apex organisation dedicated to culture. Ms Barni explained how the work of CoopCulture develops quality employment, involves audiences and produces value towards the aim of territorial sustainability and stressed the role of international organisations in enhancing culture within the coop sector, saying, “more cooperation is only possible through a new and fostered approach to culture.”

On the subject of new approaches to both culture and cooperatives, Francesca Martinelli, from creative platform co-op Doc Servizi, gave a presentation about how artists and creative professionals have been cooperating to gain greater recognition and collective security both during and before the pandemic. Also speaking from a platform coop was brandon king, who spoke on behalf of Resonate music streaming service, explaining that “Resonate coop is in a unique position to be able to reconfigure how we relate to the ancient cultural practice of sharing and listening to music, by being intentional about how we develop our cooperative community and platform.”

Christine Merkel, head of the Division of Culture, Communication, Memory of the World at the German Commission for UNESCO, ended the session’s contributions with the assertion that the issue of “culture for social good” is “clearly becoming visible in a much different way than it was 10 years ago.” Ms Merkel made a number of proposals to the ICA to aid in the safeguarding of cultural heritage, including the mapping of the current role of coops in creativity and for a cooperative contribution to be made to UNESCO’s 2022 second Mondiacult World Conference in Mexico. Ms Merkel ended her presentation by thanking the session’s other contributors from around the world, saying that they had “demonstrated so forcefully how vibrant this field is.” Ms Merkel urged listeners to consider their shared responsibility for taking care of the cultural sector as a public good, saying “from all I have seen in the UN and Europe, I would say – the momentum is now. There is a job to be done.”