Be the change – Cambridge: It’s over to you


As tickets go on sale for Cambridge’s first big community action ‘unConference’, some thoughts on how an idea from 2011 turned into something real

What’s ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ on Sat 13 September about? Click here. Where do you get tickets? Click here. Want to volunteer on the day and get a free hoodie? Email me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com.

Bringing together over 200 people from across Cambridge’s diverse range of communities and getting them to agree on what our city’s big problems are is one thing. Encouraging them to come up with ideas that they can put into action is quite another. But we’re giving it a go. We’ve been very fortunate with sponsors that have stepped forward to meet the event costs. See who has stepped forward already on our sponsors page here. Some of you might be surprised at who is stepping forward to support a community action event such as this.

Strength in diversity

Although this has been something I’ve been pondering and planning in my mind for nearly three years, it was Dr David Cleevely and Anne Bailey who challenged me to turn these thoughts into something concrete. Ceri Jones joined us recently as the creative brains behind our website and brochure. We’re all from different backgrounds in more ways than one. The big benefit of this is being able to bring different insights to the challenges we face in putting on an event such as this. I’ve probably learnt more from/as a result of the aforementioned trio in the past couple of months than I probably think.

At the same time, all four of us (and more besides) seem to be coming across similar problems with the way our city functions. By this I’m talking about systems and processes rather than individuals. Only recently we saw (in my opinion) another failure of local systems and processes – see here. What in the systems and processes of the partnership allowed for Cambridge City Council not to be represented on the board of a Greater Cambridge partnership? What also allowed for the lack of diversity on the board? (Only one of the 13 seats being held by a woman).

What do you do when someone puts their trust in you?

That’s probably been one of the biggest emotional burdens to deal with on my side: Other people putting their time, effort and resources into a vision or an idea that I have had in with the belief both in the idea and my ability to deliver it. This is very different from the world of public policy where in the grand scheme of things you are either playing with ideas or scrutinising the mistakes made by others but not yourself. Having worked in public policy as well as having run an audit function in the civil service, I’ve seen where things have gone wrong and looked into why in projects and programmes across the country.

It’s a very different emotional sensation when responsibility for delivery primarily falls on you – even more so when you are carrying some of the financial risk. I remember feeling the latter when first commissioning my original digital video guides for social media (see here). Spending public money on an investment is one thing. Spending your own money on an investment is quite another.

Turning growing interest into ticket sales, and attendance into actions

I’m really pleased that a number of councillors across Cambridge have stated publicly they are going to attend – including the Leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert. One of the reasons is the event is going to be different to the traditional area committees we have in Cambridge – the community forums where people can raise issues with councillors for the latter to solve. Our event on 13 September is where everyone takes part in scoping the problems, identifying solutions and ideas, and then taking action to make things happen.

The conversations the four of us have had (me, Anne, David and Ceri) have indicated strong interest from a variety of fields. The common theme that is coming up is how people feel Cambridge needs an event of this type:

  • Something different – and that will challenge existing ways of doing things
  • Something that is big – on a large scale
  • Something that unleashes the talents from across the different communities
  • Something open to those at the top of large institutions to the resident who feels that no one is interested in them
  • Something that won’t be forgotten about after the event is over

On turning attendance into actions, I’ve taken inspiration from Walthamstowe MP Stella Creasy. Her way of working on community issues is to invite whoever raises the issue to be part of the solution rather than expecting the MP/MP’s staff to deal with the issue alone. Similar principles apply with our event. Area committees (see here) and our local MP’s surgeries (in our case Julian Huppert’s – see here) already exist where people want local or central government to take action on their behalf.

A natural worrier organising an event

I probably won’t sleep for the first fortnight in September! But dealing with that is part of the planning process. Hence bringing together experienced and talented facilitators from a range of backgrounds to help the workshops run smoothly. For events as large as this, and to ensure we get as much information and as many ideas out of the workshops, one person cannot micromanage. Knowing that the workshops will be in good hands is a big weight off of my mind. It’s also part of the learning process having not organised a big event like this before. Being the main organiser means learning how to delegate, allocate tasks and ensure things are done rather than doing everything yourself.

Managing expectations

I’ve come away from many an unConference buzzing with excitement in recent years – although less so over the past 12 months. The reason for this is I didn’t see the exciting things from those unConferences transferring into life in Cambridge. I remember a few people a couple of years ago telling me that Cambridge wasn’t ready for an unConference for public services along the lines of UKGovCamp. Hence having to adapt the unConference model to make it fit Cambridge’s unique circumstances. In this case, it means spending the morning in sessions where we collectively identify the problems to solve, and go into more detailed problem-scoping in the workshops before lunch.

Cambridge as a city is full of ideas. Over 2 years ago I went to one such event where people were pitching lots of interesting ideas. I was one of the pitchers:

I have no idea what actually happened to the idea though. Hence I believe we need to get agreement and community consent on what our city’s problems are before looking at what our roles are as individuals and groups in solving them. If the idea fits, or can be adapted to solve an agreed problem, the greater its chances of becoming an action.

Next steps?

There are still lots more things to do on the essentials side. One of the things I’d like to have for the 2 weeks before the event are a series of short digital video clips/vox pops with people from across Cambridge submitting their suggestions for issues they would like to discuss, and potential solutions to problems.

Be the change – Cambridge: It’s happening!



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