If you build it, will they come?

building blocks

Back in the sixties, when I was a kid, I loved to play with a well known building block toy (you’ll know the one).Essentially it was a collection of plastic blocks in a range of sizes. Some were grey and some were red and at some point in my childhood, they introduced clear plastic ones. With these basic blocks I built castles and forts, aircraft carriers and rocket ships. They were clunky and angular but my imagination filled in the curves. The point is, from those basic building blocks, I made whatever I wanted. There seemed no limit to the things I could construct.

Some years later, the parts became more sophisticated and were clearly intended to build a replica of whatever was illustrated on the box.

Now, this post isn’t about corporate greed dulling the creative capacity of our children. I’m using this as an analogy for public consultation. Local Authorities deliver stuff. It may be the management of refuse, a working road network, libraries (for now) and leisure centres. But in future, what will it be?

Perhaps if we began with basic blocks and not proscriptive solutions and had a dialogue with residents around that, we could identify what people need, rather than want. We could start with a snap shot based on known data sets and local intelligence at the hyperlocal level. We’d need to manage expectations and establish some ground rules. For instance, asking for a positive, can-do attitude. That isn’t about air brushing out failures. When we get it wrong we should fess up but airing old grievances wastes time and if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Most importantly, the blocks don’t have to be three-dimensional because people are infrastructure too; they have interests, passions and transferable skills. If we harness those, that’s a lot of energy. And if you add those into the mix, you’re on your way to creating sustainable solutions. So, when it comes to public consultation and building communities, let’s see what happens when we don’t put a picture on the box.

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with Rob Francis @ThinkingRob on Twitter. Check him out, he does this kind of stuff for a living.

In Moderation

Consultation was always a hit and miss affair. We tried to run it by appointment but more often than not, the community centre would be empty apart from the local government officers and the tumble weed. Social media has changed all that. We need to pay attention now, because the comments and feedback come when our residents feel inspired. It’s useful stuff and it helps us design the way we deliver our services. Mind you, there is that other stuff too. And if you want to retain your sanity, it helps to recognise it for what it is.

Recently, I was listening to a radio interview with a moderator for a successful community swap & sell Facebook page. Like many such sites, it’s run by volunteers. Asked what takes up the most time, he cited the amount of energy used to respond to what he called the ‘me too’ brigade; people who see a comment and can’t help but add their h’apenny worth. We all know the scenario and we may even have done it ourselves in our private lives. But not all comments are prejudiced or misinformed Sometimes, a voice of reason speaks out as if to reset the balance. It put me in mind of when I first moved to rural Shropshire. A local farmer used to graze his sheep in the adjoining field to our property. After a few days, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The sheep would graze silently for long stretches of time but as soon as one broke the silence with a bleat, one-by-one, the rest would join in. After a short time they would fall silent again before repeating the process a little later. If sheep do communicate, I wonder if the last bleat has some significance and if social media moderators can learn anything from it? Hope you enjoy the following strip by way of illustration…

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

 

 

Telford Brewcamp

Last night I attended the second Telford Brewcamp. The venue was HOME: Bistro and Coffee House, Lightmoor Village. It was a fitting location for a gathering that featured a lot of community action and social enterprise. Their business model is one founded on sourcing local produce whenever possible and using profits for charitable action…and the carrot cake was gorgeous!

The evening was ably facilitated by Peter Jackson (@pete62jackson).We were honoured to have Brewcamp veterans Dan Slee (@danslee) and Simon Whitehouse (@siwhitehouse) with us to add an air of authority to the proceedings and it was good to catch up.

But on to the business of the night – A few years back there were a lot of articles and papers written on the subject of social capital; the notion that within every community there is latent talent just waiting to be tapped. It’s true that there is passion and pride and often in unexpected places. What last night proved was that Telford has it in spades. Example: Telford Memories. Marcus Keane   created a Facebook group back in November to help people share memories and photos. It’s three months on and a staggering 8,000 plus people regularly follow or contribute on a regular basis. We heard from @dawleysue that her partner complained so bitterly about the amount of time she spent reading posts and viewing old photos on that site that she introduced him to Candy Crush so at least now he understands the nature of online addiction! But it’s not all about nostalgia. Telford Memories has spawned a number of community action groups. There’s a group wanting to save The Anstice, a much loved social venue in Madeley. There’s another group aiming to restage All Hands Round the Wrekin – a dramatic illustration from the early 80’s of people coming together on a grand scale.

Another example – the live streaming of council meetings by community volunteers. If your local authority is still naval gazing about the ins and outs of citizens tweeting from council meetings, this story may either depress you or give you hope. Jon Farmer (@viperdudeUK) told us about his small band of tech-savvy residents who approached Telford & Wrekin council with the idea of live-streaming council meetings and the council said yes. It seems they were pushing at an open door. A few tech iterations and they’ve settled on Google Hangouts as the medium of choice. The videos are archived on YouTube and key issues flagged with timings for easy reference. That’s accountability. As an aside, the team were a little disappointed when the viewing figures were only in three figures. But ask yourself, when was the last time over 100 people attended a council meeting? There’s a whole other discussion to be had around engagement in the democratic process but surely this demonstrates that there is another way; one that engages with citizens via the media they choose. A public meeting is an appointment to attend but if I can’t be there, I don’t have to be excluded if web technology is harnessed. Telford Memories didn’t get 8,000 followers by calling a public meeting; the meeting is on Facebook, whenever it’s convenient for you.

We heard from Jake Bennett (@JakeSnr) that Telford Crisis Network (formerly Telford Food Bank) organises support almost exclusively through Twitter. It led to one resident taking it upon herself to organise a fundraising charity ball and raffle. And they in turn have been promoted through another grass roots, social media driven idea, #telfordtogether. This micro-volunteering group was created by @telfordlive; a Twitter newsfeed trusted by 6,285 followers. The news is provided and shared in seconds by the TelfordLive community and is a good deal more agile than established news outlets.

I was there in my capacity as a trustee of the newly formed Clifton Community Arts Centre Ltd. We’re a group formed as a direct result of an Ideas Farm organised by Rob Francis (@ThinkingRob). The trick was to get the right group of motivated people in the same room and set the agenda early on. That’s to say, no negativity, no problems, only ideas and solutions and a will to step up to the plate. We wouldn’t have started The Clifton Group without it. We’ve launched a Community Share Issue and we’re building up a head of steam, so watch this space.

And whilst reflecting on all these ideas, it occurred to me that it may be the fact that social capital exists in communities but it takes a particular type of trigger to set it in motion. It may be local history, a sense of identity or shared experiences and values. But they are powerful things. So, if authorities wonder why there’s so much apparent apathy for engagement, perhaps you’re asking the wrong question. Rather than ‘do you agree that XYZ is an important priority to this locality’ try ‘what do you think is an important priority to this locality’

Perhaps the real work and energy isn’t in planning for delivery but helping people share their stories. If Telford Brewcamp demonstrates anything, it’s that a common sense of place can unlock social capital and set exciting things in motion. That’s the kind of place-making that’s sustainable.

Relevant articles:

Dan Slee on Brewcamps

Rob Francis on Ideas Farms