An evening with Cambridge Past, Present and Future (CambridgePPF)- and friends, trying to answer the question: “How can we encourage as many people as possible to be actively engaged?”
I took Puffles along to a gathering of the great and the good – despite fatigue from a busy week last week. Yet something inside me said I had to go and live tweet because no one else was going to. As it turned out, I couldn’t live-tweet because the venue where this was hosted – Cambridge University’s Centre for Mathematical Science had zero mobile reception and no accessible wifi. One of the top mathematical science institutes in the world failing on something like this…astonishing.
The other thing that made things awkward was having the gathering in somewhere that felt like it was in the middle of nowhere – in particular somewhere not easy to get to by public transport.
Accessibility was a core theme throughout
How do you encourage people to be actively engaged when so many of them are locked out or priced out of the facilities? It was an issue I raised at a previous meeting I went to not so long ago about community facilities in Cambridge. Being locked out is a huge issues – especially in a city so dominated by the University, and where a number of the sports fields in the city are owned by private schools, thus limiting the public’s access to them. It’s not just the private schools. On grounds of security, schools too have tightened up on access, thus locking out children from the very playgrounds that in my view are theirs in the first place.
As with the last gathering I attended, the lack of young people – teenagers & young adults – was noticeable. To be fair, CambridgePPF have run similar sessions in schools, but it’s a shame that we as a city are not engaging with young people in a comprehensive, systematic and continuous manner. Are young people as apathetic as this example makes out? I’m not so sure. While that example is disappointing, is it more a reflection of engagement processes than a single project? I’m tempted to think the former.
I’m not going to pretend to know what the answer is – other than not another committee. If you want to kill passion and energy in an idea, set up a committee. I’m more interested in existing networks – especially digital and virtual ones – or ones that are supported by a strong social media presence.
This is one thing I’m particularly interested in around the student societies in the city – of both the further and higher education institutes. But not only that, things like large employers that employ lots of young people (such as supermarkets and department stores), and the nurseries, to engage young parents too. It’s all too easy to slip into the mindset that young people = schools and colleges only. Part of shaping the future of the city – which is what the Cambridge 2030 Vision is all about, has to involve those young people that may not be in formal education. After all, aren’t they the ones that are least likely to be able to move out in the near future?
The scale of the challenge seems to be getting bigger
Some of you will have seen my ideas for a Cambridge L!VE project. My suggested sequencing of getting community groups and voluntary organisations trained up and using social media, followed by a societies fair followed by a hack camp to make a single community portal resonated with some but not others. (I’ve set these out here). In particular, the concept of a hack camp – let alone the one that took place in June 2012 for the arts sector in Cambridge. Again, this further underlines the issue of lots of good stuff being in the city, but it’s sitting in little bubbles.
Part of my response is to find the social media advocates across the city – for example through Teacambs, as well as reaching out directly to the people through free social media workshops and surgeries through Net-squared in Cambridge. But in the grand scheme of things, my efforts are a drop in the ocean. The challenge is getting the local institutions on board. Hence the direct but very labour-intensive activities of turning up to gatherings, arranging 1-2-1 meetings and generally trying to raise awareness. Easier said than done.
Not being part of an institution myself
While spending my days with Puffles has its advantages, I can no longer call on the firepower of being part of a large institution. During my civil service days, a phone call to a local authority more often than not would result in people at the other end dropping everything to respond to my beck & call. These days I’m more likely to be thought of as a direct-marketing sort of person: best avoided. A gov.uk account gets you noticed in hierarchical public sector land. I’m no longer that. Just a bloke with a dragon.
At the same time though, it also means I’ve got to be that little bit more creative. Bringing Puffles to such gatherings is part of that. People may not remember who I am or even remember my presence, but chances are they will remember that a dragon turned up. Puffles is a very useful little filter too. As I’ve mentioned earlier, those people not put off by the presence of Puffles tend to be the people that ‘get’ social and digital media. Given that one of my top priorities is to build a network of social and digital media activists in and around Cambridge, this is no bad thing.
Maybe make a short digital video to capture people’s imagination?
Now there’s a thought…