Some constructive criticism of Cambridge Carbon Footprint’s Food for a Greener Future Conference – including how to avoid death by PowerPoint
I went along to this event having made the choice at the last minute – but in the end I’m glad I did. You always learn something new and meet someone new and interesting at these things. In my case on sustainable food, it was the Cambridge Sustainable Food City programme and those working on it. On the latter, it was a case of meeting people for the first time who had either heard of or have been following Puffles for quite some time.
There were around 100 people there for an event hosted by Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Transition Cambridge. For Cambridge, this makes it a fairly significant community gathering – the sort that I’d expect at least one of our local councillors to be conspicuous at by their presence. Unfortunately I didn’t spot any of them there, which was a shame. That’s not to say the councils are not doing anything – they are, as Cambridge City Council sets out here. We also have an active network of recycling champions too – see here. Despite what was a broadly positive event for most of the people there, for me there were a number of things I wanted to pick up on – things to consider for future events.
Death by PowerPoint
Most of the speakers were knowledgeable, passionate and enthusiastic about their subject areas. But much of the energy they could have drawn out from the audience was killed by the number of slides. I noticed the slide number count at the bottom of the screen. When it gets into three figures, you know there’s something wrong. All of the presentations could have been halved in length – easily. Some of the presentations went on for 50 minutes each. There is no way that anyone is going to remember all of the content of all of the presentations.
We also had wifi-fail – something I’ve experienced the hard way as a presenter too. For these things, the best thing to do is to try and upload the digital videos to your laptop before starting. Only one of the presenters used digital video. In my view all of the presenters could have had short video clips to illustrate much of what they were saying – if only to shorten their presentations. Handouts or links to further content via email/social media can make up for the rest.
Lack of Q&A time
It would have been nice for people to have had the chance to question the earlier speakers, but the length of the presentations and the timetable prevented this.
Mored ‘guided’ group conversations earlier on
Rather than leaving group-based discussions till the very end, these should have been held just before lunch – to allow any conversations stemming from them to continue should people so desire. By the time the group discussions were scheduled after 4pm (10am start), I was tired & exhausted so went home to sleep. (#MentalHealth).
The other thing was that the topics of the group conversations had already been decided in advance. The event felt too structured along the lines of a traditional conference perhaps with the exception of the pledges that we were all asked to make at the end. (Personally I like the idea of asking people to state what action/activity they are going to undertake after having attended an event).
No ‘open space’ slots
For those not familiar with what I mean by this, have a look at this from UK GovCamp
This would have allowed people to come up with their own ideas on what they wanted to discuss – things that might have been different to what the organisers had anticipated. Again in my experience of events of scale like this, they inevitably are. That said, Transition Cambridge have a couple of new interesting projects that they want to get people practically involved in. Hence the decision.
To be fair to several of the speakers, they acknowledged what is a continual criticism of environmental groups over the years: They are predominantly seen as the hobby of affluent White-middle class people looking for ‘the good life’. It’s all very well trying to be green and reflecting it in your choices, but some people cannot afford the price premium that supermarkets charge for all things free range and organic. (No, Christmas won’t be ruined if you don’t get your organic cranberry sauce). Let’s look at some examples of where being more sustainable is definitely not the easy choice:
If you live in private rented accommodation – as I have done over the years, getting improvements to sort out insulation is easier said than done. You need the consent of the landlord – who may increase your rent for the pleasure. Ditto with boilers. The sort of sustainability measures you can take as a home owner are not the ones you can easily take in unstable private-rented accommodation – especially if it is short term.
Not all of us have access to gardens or allotments.
Low incomes – impact on food budgets
You’ve all seen in the news about the rise of food banks. I find it bizarre that ministers are happy to be photographed smiling at food banks given that for me, the existence of food banks are a symptom of a failure of ministers and government policies – and of politics too. The fact that too many people have to rely on charitable hand outs for food basics is for me a scandal of the 21st Century. With the premium shops all too often charge for more sustainable foods, it’s understandable that when you are on a tight budget you’d go for a more standard option.
Buses ain’t cheap no more
That’s if they exist at all in areas outside the big cities. For some people, spending that extra on transport to get to the shops that sell sustainable foods is simply not an option. Sometimes it requires a change of bus routes – which takes more time, while for fresh foods it requires more regular trips – at increasing expense. All too often, people in more economically deprived parts of our towns and cities avoid extended local travel altogether – even in a stereotypically affluent city such as Cambridge – see here.
Where were all the young people?
Probably having something better to do on a Saturday? Or did we all simply not do enough to make them aware of the event and go out of our way to invite them? The day before this conference I went into Hills Road Sixth Form College with a series of self-made posters advertising a series of local groups and events. Knowing that emailing would probably not get past the firewall that is the college’s administrative staff, I bypassed them completely and went to the subject teachers directly – all of whom were delighted that someone was ‘looking out’ for the students regarding local events. One of the teachers there was someone who was around when I was there in the late 1990s and we had a good talk about how to ensure schools and colleges are systematically informed about interesting events put on by universities, the colleges, academic institutes and community groups alike in Cambridge.
All too often it seems to be the case that there are some parts of town that are simply ignored or missed out. I don’t think it’s a case of people deliberately choosing to ignore, more a lack of awareness – or perhaps never having been challenged on this before. From an organisers point of view, you have to take extra care/precautions if your event is open to younger people – and rightly so. But that need not be seen as a burden. On the contrary, there’s much to learn from them. Also, given the sizeable number of middle-aged and more elderly people there, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for younger people to bust some negative stereotypes perpetuated in newspaper stands near you.
Little mention of campaigning aimed at politicians and policy-makers
I’d have liked to have seen more of this from the speakers. Sometimes it feels as if party politics has become so toxic that gatherings want to avoid the existence of political institutions because of their toxic nature and/or for fear of being seen to be politically partisan. This is precisely the sort of event that needs to have the presence of elected representatives, as well as exploring how people can influence them. (Eg via writetothem.com).
In the latter part of the programme I would have liked to have seen three action-based workshops based on what people could do to make a difference – under three themes:
- Personal lifestyle changes – from shopping choices to taking part in existing community activities such as foodcycle
- Outreach to the wider general public – raising public awareness
- Lobbying local elected representatives and engaging in politics/policy debates – and how best to do this
With a general election next year, I’d like to think it would be an ideal time for some of the things I’ve mentioned above to be included in next year’s gathering – or even at events before then.