Joining up the dots in Cambridge


More observations to throw into my CambridgeL!VE project

Some of you may be aware that I’m playing around with an idea that I call CambridgeL!VE. (Have a look at that link). My view is that Cambridge as a place to live & work can be far greater than the sum of its parts. But we’re nowhere near getting even to the sum of those parts. I believe that we can use digital and social media as tools to getting to that sum and beyond. Cambridge is growing

I’m still at the research stage at the moment – getting out and about to get a feel for where the baseline/starting point is. The reason for this there’s only so much social media can do to help bring people together. A hammer doesn’t hammer in nails by itself. It needs someone to do the hammering. Ditto with any website or social media platform: they need people to provide the content and to interact with.

I met the great and the good with Puffles at the Cambridge Family Law Practice open house event this week, along with attending Centre33‘s 30th anniversary party at the Guildhall this week – the latter having provided me with free long term counselling in 2002/03 just after I had graduated, trying to make sense of what to do with my life as well as dealing with my first real mental health crisis. With the people I spoke to at both events, there is a sense of wanting to break out of the ‘bubbles’ that they find their professional circles are currently inside – but are not entirely sure how.

This compares differently with London, where there feels like there is something of a critical mass of people who are beginning to break out of those professional bubbles. Dare I say it, but there is less fear associated with using social media – that risks leading to a bizarre situation of those users less fearful becoming trapped inside their – our – own bubble. This is what struck me with the Bristol event – stay within your own bubble and you end up believing that the force of your own argument will win through, if only you repeat it loudly enough times over. It doesn’t work like that.

This is one of the challenges with explaining Puffles to people

In order to understand Puffles (or the concept behind), you need to have some understanding of social media, which involves having some understanding of the internet. Otherwise I’m just a bloke carrying around a cuddly toy everywhere.

An audience that is a mix of social media users and non-users tends to be the one that has the greatest impact in terms of showing the influence of social media use. At a number of events in recent months I’ve had conversations with people trying to understand why I’d carry a cuddly dragon with me everywhere, only to have the latter interrupted with “Hi Puffles!” – much to the surprise of the listener, who otherwise cannot understand why someone from seemingly out of nowhere would choose to interact with Puffles like that. It was more difficult at the Centre33 event where I knew fewer people, but as a result of which I’ve agreed to do a free social media workshop for a local sexual health awareness charity. Interestingly, Puffles was the ice-breaker for the conversation that led to it.

It’s not just about putting stuff on a website and waiting for stuff to happen

If it was, my article on my main website would be a sea of comments and expressions of interest. It isn’t. But then no one said this would be easy or straight forward, and I have had a bit of sand kicked in my face from one or two quarters locally about all things social media.

Part of the problem is that there is no problem – in the minds of some in a few of the silos that I’ve blogged/written/spoken about. It’s the “this is the way things have always been done” mindset. If things are functioning with no major problems, there isn’t a huge incentive to change things. However, there is a fine line between stability and stagnation, just as there is between change and chaos. I’ve seen the impact of both – where the domination by people who have been in place sometimes for years has led to stagnation (not because they don’t put in the work, but because there isn’t anywhere for new blood or fresh ideas to come in from), to where continued ‘restructuring’ has destabilised entire organisations.

CambridgeL!VE – it’s got to be more than just about networking

There are a number of phrases that I’m not particularly comfortable with. “Social media” is one of them – mainly because I don’t like the elongated “e” in ‘media’ – the word itself bringing up negative connotations with people. The other is “networking”. I detest the term with a passion & cringe when I see the word listed on an agenda. “Networking lunch” or “networking time”. I prefer making friends rather than networking. For me the line is blurred between professional and personal – despite efforts in some quarters to sharpen it again. Different people have different world views. Mine is one where the people I interact with are people who I also want to socialise with as well. This differs from my time in banking in the late 1990s where the entire cultural mindset of people in that office was that 9-5 was one life with one group of people, and everything else was outside of it. In one sense it’s safer separating the professional and personal – especially if you’ve got appearances to maintain. Wouldn’t want the boss to see X or the wife to see Y? It’s that sort of mindset.

The way I have seen networking done locally is that it’s all too often financially driven. Money is the incentive. I can see why, but I can also see that it puts people off very quickly. A number of people who have asked me for advice on social media have complained that contacts they have made or people they have linked up with on social media have simply thrown direct marketing at them. A sort of behaviour I find incredibly anti-social on what is supposed to be a social platform.

Hence why at the heart of (for want of another word) vision for what CambridgeL!VE could become, is a sense of ownership about the place that many of us here call ‘home’. It’s one of the my main drivers. Why here? Because it’s home – and I think it can become a better place. I’m not getting paid for it – the attachment to Cambridge (the city rather than the university – which institutionally had a habit of kicking sand in my face as a child) runs far far deeper than that.

In order to get on, you have to get out to get back in again

The former Cabinet Secretary said this to an audience of civil service fast streamers I was in some years ago. The same could be said about wanting to improve your home town. While there’s something comforting about staying in the same part of the world for most of your life, in order to see the differences that can be made, getting out and about to see who has made what differences is a great help. “If they can do that there, why can’t we do that here?” sort of thing. There’s a sense that this is happening in the civil service – especially at the top where a number of high profile vacancies are being filled by people from outside the civil service.

You could say my previous eight years have been like me acting like a sponge – certainly when it comes to engaging with all things political. (Being in the civil service puts restrictions on political engagement – especially if your post is a politically restricted one, which half my career was in such posts). When it comes to ideas like this, politics cannot be avoided. One example is my desire to host free or low-cost social media workshops and awareness sessions for the general public – like some of us did with Net2Camb earlier this year. In order to get the suitable facilities, we need to engage with schools and libraries – the latter in particular meaning engaging with the county council. (We’re a 2-tier area here, with Cambridgeshire County Council running things like transport, education & libraries & Cambridge City Council running things like planning & housing, waste disposal and leisure).

It’s going to take time though

It’s taken nearly 2 years to get Puffles up to 4,000 broadly high-calibre non-spambot followers. Even though it hasn’t felt like it, it’s taken a lot of time, thought and consideration. My first take was that everything set out for a societies fair, a hack camp and a fully-functioning community portal was something that could have been delivered in a season – this autumn. Now? No chance. It simply isn’t long enough for people from different professions and backgrounds to get to know each other, let alone trust each other. Yes, I could organise each of the three things mentioned in the link above, but going ahead with something prematurely can do more damage than good. If you talk something up as being huge without doing the preparations, it can end up putting off the very people who might want to work with you. Ever been part of an office/organisational restructure? Think of all of the people that say they’ve heard it all before. It’s the same with ministerial initiatives. Too much goodwill is wasted because things have not been properly thought-through or planned. I don’t want this to be one of them.

Hence much of the rest of this term will be more of me in listening mode with Puffles. There’s still a lot I don’t know about my home town.


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