“Cambridge: Full of smart people stuck in stupid traffic!”


The above-quotation is from Andy Clark. Having spotted Cambridge’s ‘wicked problems’, how do we go about solving them? An inspiring evening expertly facilitated by Bill Thompson gave us many insights.

The agency Collusion hosted this event for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas – see here for the outline. Also, have a look at the pages by Cambridgeshire Insight as this data will inform future discussions and actions.

Technical Technocrats vs Democratic Democrats

For me, this was probably the biggest ‘policy tension’ that came out of the event. The four speakers all had inspiring examples of problems being solved elsewhere. But what do you do with people who cannot or will not participate? I found it reassuring that Bill Thompson, one of the most highly-regarded people in Cambridge’s tech community, repeatedly brought up the issue of democratic legitimacy. For me, it’s just as important that our highly-skilled tech community learns about (& participates actively in) our democratic processes just as much as it is for holders of public office & public sector managers to be digitally literate.

For me, it doesn’t need to be framed as the heading above states. When I was a policy adviser inside the civil service, I made it my business to learn the basics of what everyone I interacted with was doing. This meant I learnt when to ask for advice and how to put it in terms that would give me the information I needed to make an informed decision. I was dealing with accountants, lawyers, communications and HR professionals, statisticians, economists, engineers, and town planners to name but a few. Part of my job involved interpreting their specialist knowledge and turn it into minister-friendly language. No, that doesn’t mean colourful pictures or sock puppets. Some ministers preferred tables of data, others graphs, others diagrams, others extended flowing prose. This mattered because it was the ministers that took the final decisions. There were times where I got advice pulled because I was not content with the evidence we had collected – i.e. there were too many gaps in it from which to make a firm decision.

“What has the second paragraph got to do with the event?”

A few people spoke to me at the end, mentioning they had read my pre-event blogpost. (See here). Those that didn’t have a background in politics and public policy said it made them realise just how big a challenge making Cambridge a smarter city was. Some of the people seated near me commented on a number of occasions that they didn’t know what some of the terms being used actually meant – such as ‘gaming’. (If anyone’s got a good definition of ‘gaming in a digital public policy context’ please let me know!) Technical experts need to be able to communicate to non-technical types. Doing this not only improves levels of legitimacy and informed consent, but also increases the likelihood that people can then become your advocates in fields far beyond your own.

“So…who said what at the event?”

Best to look at the hashtag #SmartCamb [<<– Click here] for that. The best bit was listening to everyone’s various ideas in the feedback sessions. The top two involved ‘virtual railings’ for events, and alternative governance structures. On the virtual railings idea, something I come back time-and-again to is what Events.OnTheWight have done. Can we have a single city-wide (or even county-wide) portal that does this? Perhaps an upgrade/overhaul to Cambridgeshire.Net where the talented but overstretched team are supplemented with additional resources brought in from interested people & organisations?

The other one was the inevitable restructuring of local government – described as being very 19th Century by people in the room. Cambridgeshire County Council have started that process of exploring alternatives. [<<–Click here]. I’m due to meet with council officials following my public question to their full council recently to find out how it will do this. Watch this space.

I also found it interesting that the final discussion was about the role of local area committees – something that many people in the room were unaware of. (See here to find your committee, and see here to find your elected councillors…& then email them to let them know you exist!). At the same time as the #Smartcamb event, the North Area Committee was having a meeting – with Richard Taylor doing a very good job as always of tweeting proceedings.

Bringing together a number of separate strands and bringing them together in time for the Cambridge Science Festival

It’s on 9-22 March 2015 and it looks like a number of things that started at the Cambridge festival of ideas will be reporting back. This is also the fortnight we’re looking to have the Be the change – Cambridge spring event. Prior to that will be the brilliant Cambridge Community Fair on Saturday 28 February 2015. I set up a landing page on the Be the change – Cambridge Meetup Group until we get a page for the Community Fair. (I’m one of the little helpers for that event – something that I first blogged in detail about in May 2012!).

One of the conversations I was part of at the post-event drinks at Cambridge MakeSpace (where I took Puffles to see a 3D printer and a laser-cutter a couple of years ago) was on co-ordinating future events. Marcus Romer suggested having an city-wide events planner linked to but separate to the virtual railings mentioned above, that would allow planners to avoid unnecessary event clashes. It was here that Cambridge MakeSpace had a number of funky displays – such as these little racing cars made by Cannybots that I filmed!


It’s the multiple conversations where the interesting things happen. Hence why at events time where one person is presenting or where there is only one person speaking at a time needs to be limited if it’s post-event action you want.

“Can we solve Cambridge’s wicked problems of transport, housing and wealth inequalities?”

We can certainly reduce the scale and intensity of the problems. I also think the problems won’t be solved by simply throwing money at them, or through single-action policies such as ‘building more houses’. Having worked in housing policy in Whitehall, it’s one of the most complex and heavily-lobbied of policy areas, with huge and powerful players who can bring to bear the sort of resources that dwarf what Whitehall can muster. Think what it’s like for planning officers in over-stretched council departments.

There’s enough expertise & goodwill in Cambridge to support councillors and council officers. Can we put together a structure/system/process that make it easy for people to get involved and improve the quality of housing that is built? Can we also work with other towns to improve our transport infrastructure that also alleviates the housing pressure? Campaigns to link Oxford-Bedford-Cambridge (which I believe should extend to Norwich & Ipswich), Wisbech-Cambridge and Haverhill-Cambridge could, if successful have a huge positive effect in spreading the wealth that’s currently being thrown at Cambridge’s overheating housing market.

There’s also the work of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, who do an excellent job scrutinising planning applications. Their AGM is on 04 November – see here.

“Could this get scientists, technologists, engineers and programmers into public policy and even politics?”

It’s a huge opportunity. For quite some time I’ve been saying Cambridge’s science and tech communities need to take a more active role in public policy and local democracy. Too many of us are relying on the efforts of too few people running our democratic institutions. The burden – especially on the back of austerity – is too great. Given the huge turnout at #SmartCamb – there must have been over 100 people in the hall, the goodwill was there to see. How can we make it easy for people less familiar with public policy and local democracy to get involved and make an impact?


2 thoughts on ““Cambridge: Full of smart people stuck in stupid traffic!”

  1. One small amendment – remember, you are not ‘stuck in traffic’, you *are* traffic. Change of language, change of mindset …

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