The 12th Culture Next Conference was hosted by Oulu2026 – European Capital of Culture between February 28 – March 1, 2024. 

This past week has brought together 25 cities to discuss the 2024 network agenda regarding SDGs, Thematic Working Groups, and the Mobility Program, among others. It was an opportunity to discover Oulu as the European Capital of Culture for 2026, to interact and connect with local actors, and, of course, to have a taste of Finland’s delights.

The conference opened with an intensive meeting exploring culture’s output on each of the Sustainable Development Goals. Together with Beatriz Garcia, associate director at the Centre for Cultural Value (Leeds, UK), Lizzie Raby, service design lead at (Belfast, UK), Jack Spencer, co-founder of (Belfast, UK), and the pilot cities currently involved in the process, we took on the challenge of sorting and questioning SDG related indicators that could help us measure the impact of cultural activities from the SDG perspective. 

The following day was open to all city representatives, local authorities, and local culture professionals, inviting us to dive deeper into the meanings and nuances of the Oulu 2026 bid book: Cultural Climate Change, and to get to know the local scene from up close. Participants had the opportunity to meet local cultural entrepreneurs, listen to their project pitches, and establish connections for further initiatives. The day had Andrew Melchior, Chief Technology Officer for Massive Attack, as a special guest, for a conversation that connected arts and technology, showcasing a series of experiments that questioned and challenged the link between the two. 

The network development sessions were centered around the initiatives that will take shape this year, including Thematic Working Groups and a Mobility Program meant to connect member cities and create a framework for collaboration and co-design. The now traditional therapy sessions helped us have an honest conversation addressing the pre-, during, and post-implementation phases in the ECoC candidacy process and the questions they raise: What are the risks faced in any of the bidding phases? How can we work on keeping the ECoC legacy, despite not winning the title? How can we prepare for the implementation phase of the ECoC programme? What’s there to be aware of?

Besides the incredible connections that we made throughout the conference, Oulu gave us access to local joys that turned the experience into a highly unforgettable one. It’s impossible to not mention three of the informal highlights of our visit:  

  • listening to Henri Turunen, executive producer of Oulu2026, perform with his band Neondad;
  • attending the Polar Bear Pitch – a crazy experience for brave entrepreneurs;
  • experimenting the original Finnish sauna – which, by the way, is a must-try, if you ever pay a visit. 

Many thanks to the team of Oulu for creating such a cozy atmosphere for this Culture Next Conference. Waiting 4 years for it to finally happen was absolutely worth it. See you in Cluj in a few months!