One day like this a year…

Summary

The cost of a bus ticket: £4.10. Entrance to the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Free. Outselling some of the big-name bands from the mid-1990s that I saw at the Corn Exchange: Priceless. The Dowsing Sound Collective don’t make beers…

Oh, and we got to sing this number to over 1,000 people in a packed out Guildhall too. Not only that, just before the gig I handed over a cheque for £250 to The Dosoco Foundation from some of the sponsorship we raised for Be the change – Cambridge.

It was one I wanted to give a go myself a few months back, but when I read the music I realised it would be out of my vocal range. Which was why I was more than relieved for our Lungjam gig on 1st April 2015 we had Cambridge’s Trevor Jones to do the lead vocals for us – and a splendid job he did too!

Blown away by the audience. Again.

Funnily enough, it was a group of teenagers from my old sixth form college who had turned up to see one of their friends on guest-lead-vocals for us that helped electrify the rest of the audience. Being in & around Cambridge’s local music scene means I get to see & hear my fair share of up-&-coming talent. This time around it was Daisy Hill – who is in the same cohort/age bracket of students as Grace Sarah, Rachel Clark and Ellie Dixon. (What would a collaboration by the four of them be like?)

@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange.
@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange. (Pic – Dee Morey)

From where I was perched at the top of one of the chorus stands, most of the energy in the audience was coming from Daisy’s crew – Dee Morey and friends. Whenever they started singing or moving, most of the older adults around them started to do the same – even the new chairperson of the Cambridge Live Trust – who’s launch we were there to celebrate. (Some of you eagle-eyed watchers may remember my original idea for a ‘Cambridge L!VE’ back in 2012 – see here. My mental health crisis of April 2012 sort of put paid to running with that project in a big way. It was to be another three years before Be the change – Cambridge took its place.

Watching with pleasant astonishment fellow singers deliver commanding performances. Have a flick through the photographs by @KimberlyOhBrien here and you’ll get the feel. What our musical director Andrea Cockerton is really good at is rotating lead vocalists. Yes – even I had a go last summer in Bury St Edmunds!

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds - Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)
Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds in July 2014 – Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

Silence, a stunning performance and the loudest applause of the night

The photo below by Mike Oliver (who took the above one of myself) speaks more than a thousand words.

Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver
Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver

Daisy’s also got an album on iTunes here.

There was a big ‘hush’ before Daisy sang a cover of ‘Stay with me’ by Sam Smith. Andrea had auditioned about 15 incredibly talented local singers before selecting five to sing with us. As well as Daisy and Trevor, we had Shakila Karim, Steve Linford and Katey Grant, all of whom were brilliant too. All five guest vocalists stood out for different reasons – whether it was Steve for getting everyone going with ‘Let me entertain you’ by Robbie, Shakila covering Amy Winehouse or Katey with Paloma Faith. The three high-profile musicians with very distinct voices were not easy to cover by any means.

This meant that Daisy’s challenge was to deliver an alternative to the bright lights/high energy performances that the others gave. And she more than did that…along with the added pressure of friends and family in the audience too! (I still can’t cope with the idea of family being in the audience at music gigs I’m on stage for.)

Slaying a demon or two from the past

There were a few tracks we sung that gave me very mixed emotions – not that the organisers would have known. With quite a few numbers from the mid-late 1990s – ie my teenage years, I was a little nervous about how I’d react. But my place on the stage (ie not at the front) and with Erin McAlister next to me as this stabilising presence, I needn’t have worried. The most emotionally powerful performance of the night for me was by Rachel Hanna (below) covering ‘Don’t look back in anger’ by Oasis.

Rachel Hanna singing 'Don't look back in anger' - photo by Catherine McDonnell
Rachel Hanna singing ‘Don’t look back in anger’ – photo by Catherine McDonnell

Funnily enough, it’s one of the Oasis tracks I like the least because commercial radio overplayed it in 1996. I was a massive Oasis fan at the time but by the time I got to sixth form college, they had ceased to be ‘trendy’ – to the extent that I got abuse for my troubles. It was also the beginning of the end of a number of childhood friendships as I both grew apart from people I had known for almost half my life (if not more), while struggling with as yet undiagnosed mental health problems in the final few years before the internet became mainstream.

So my emotional mindset was: “I can’t sing this song without someone absolutely belting the f–k out of this number on lead vocals!” Step forward Rachel who, in incredible alto tones went and did exactly that. Interestingly enough, I don’t think the song would have had the same emotional impact on me had it been a male vocal lead. So, even though Rachel hardly knows me, she somehow managed to slay a demon that had been around me for a very long time. ***Thank you!*** (It’s one of those strange things in life: you can never predict where or through whom you are going to find inspiration from – & to be grateful when you do).

By this time the audience applauses were getting louder & louder after each track – Daisy’s mates finding the energy from I have no idea where. Now that was music therapy!

In the audience for Dowsing Sound Collective’s London group

I made my way down to the first London performance of our Camden and Hammersmith collectives at the end of March at the Union Chapel up the road from where I used to live in central London. Click here for photos of the venue: It has a *****Wow!!!***** factor – not least because it’s over 100 years old and an octagonal church – part of the congregationalist tradition.

The last time I had been in an audience for such a Dowsing gig was in late 2013 – shortly before I joined them. At that gig the only familiar face I had for company was Puffles. No one else I knew was interested. For this gig, we had a ***party train***

There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie
There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie

Now, the last time I had been on a party train down to London was when Cambridge United went to Wembley at the end of the last decade…and lost. We hadn’t drunk enough to break out into a flashmob like we did in 2014 when we occupied two-thirds of a restaurant between performances.

A sizeable group – over 20 of us – made the journey down from Cambridge to see our new musical siblings take to the stage for the first time. Remember quite a few of them came to see our Christmas gig a few months earlier – see here. Given the emotional state I was in prior to that gig, and the emotional pick up I got from what I can only describe as this ‘wall of positive energy’ coming back, I sort of knew that repaying that favour would be in order for the London groups’ first gig. Being surrounded by so many familiar faces, along with more compliments than I’ve ever had in one night for choice of outfit (including being hit on by a very friendly camp waiter to add to the comedy value) lightened my mood immensely after an intense time with all things Be the change – which concluded only a couple of weeks prior.

We didn’t need to got nuts with applause for the hell of it. It was a superb performance – with noticeably different musical nuances compared to the Cambridge group that I am part of. For a start, having two extremely talented multi-percussionists rather than just one – Paul Richards for Cambridge, meant they were able to do more with the rhythms. On the other hand, they didn’t have a small brass or string section. There wasn’t enough space on the inevitably crowded stage in any case.

I filmed the above clip testing out a new app on my phone. Bear in mind a number of the people singing probably haven’t sung on stage in public ever, a gig with over 600 people in the audience is quite an achievement. The most important thing I felt was that those on stage proved to themselves that they could do it, and that those in the audience who were ‘curious but non-committal’ until that gig would have been firing off emails asking to join having experienced that performance.

And if you’re in London on Easter Monday…

The Dowsing Sound Collective’s London groups will be at the Royal Festival Hall – see here for details. Happy Easter!

On campaigning charities and political parties

Summary

Why the rise of large non-party-political campaigning charities vis-a-vis the shrinking of mainstream political parties leaves me a little uncomfortable

Seven environmental-related charities and organisations have got together to organise a London-based hustings. (See here). You’ll be hearing of various campaign groups from across the political matrix making their case. Earlier today on telly they had a whisky trade federation calling for the Chancellor to cut tax on their products in the run up to next week’s Budget – the last before the election. Conservative-leaning bodies tend to call for targeted tax cuts in their area of business, while Labour-leaning groups tend to call for more spending in their area of interest. It’s then left to a shrinking group of people from what feels like increasingly narrow backgrounds to decide how to balance the two.

Campaigning for something is one thing. Standing for election & being cross-examined by the public is quite another.

I stood as Puffles at the Cambridge City Council elections in 2014. And the dragon beat UKIP -> 89 votes to 0. They didn’t stand so lost be default. It’ll be different in 2015 as both The Greens and UKIP in Cambridge will be contesting most if not all of the wards at the local elections in Cambridge, which are happening on the same day as the general election. It’s one thing being a paper candidate, but quite another putting yourself out in public to face scrutiny & cross-examination.

Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party's stall in our neighbourhood
Puffles gatecrashing Cambridge Labour Party’s stall in our neighbourhood

The glamorous side of ‘charity campaigning’ is when you get invited to posh receptions and visits to Parliament. You get the kudos of being the informed, passionate expert – but don’t necessarily have to worry about other issues far removed from your areas of passion or expertise because that’s not in the job description. (That’s not to criticise – this is to compare it to standing for election). When you’re standing for election – as I found out – you’re expected to have an opinion on everything. Should that opinion be found to be uninformed, a potential firestorm awaits. Whether it’s someone fact-checking in real time to an opponent creating a straw man to knock down (taking you down in the process), you find yourself in a situation where you’re expected to be knowledgable & informed where few others are.

But how many of us get to be in that position of being that reasonably well-paid full time campaigner where we’re attending all of these ‘Whitehall-and-Parliament-facing’ events? One of the criticisms of such charities and campaign groups made by Big Issue founder John Bird was that too many highly paid executives of such charities and groups had no experience of being dependent on the work of the charities they ran. (See here).

“Aren’t campaigning charities & groups popular because they are successful at achieving policy change?”

To an extent yes. At the same time it reveals a relative failure of political party members to secure policy changes & impose them on their party leaders. The stereotype is that Conservative grassroots is more politically right wing than its leadership, and Labour’s grassroots more leftwing than its leadership. However, if a party has ambitions for government, it’s got to reach out beyond that core vote. Hence having to make compromises there. Furthermore, given outsourcing & privatisation of the past 30 years – along with globalisation too, the power that parties in government used to have no longer exists. Take house building. The state is entirely dependent on the private sector to build homes. So if achieving policy change isn’t going to come from political leaders that ignore their members, what’s the alternative?

Hence why some have set up organisations

The well-trodden path is this:

  1. set up an organisation
  2. hire some offices in Westminster within easy reach of the institutions you want to influence
  3. find out who works where – ie map the people inside the institutions
  4. organise an event at somewhere nice
  5. invite people from the institutions you want to influence to said event
  6. be very nice to invitees at said event
  7. organise informal coffee/meetings
  8. become an independent stakeholder on a policy group

…and then you are inside the system. Repeat, only this time with the media. Friends in politics, friends in the media…this in part is how corporate lobbyists work. Charities and campaign groups picked up on this and have copied such tactics. Whether this will remain successful in years to come in social media world (& in the context of growing wealth inequalities) remains to be seen. Not least with nominally public events inside ‘the bubble’ now accessible to a much wider audience – whether through eventbrite/meetup or through people live-tweeting on a hashtag.

A big advantage of party backing

It’s all too easy to forget this, but other than having fellow party members campaigning for you, you also have the benefit of someone else with similar values to you having done the research. When it comes to manifesto time, it’s reasonable to expect that the policy experts in your party have done the research to withstand detailed scrutiny.

The route to Parliament – via campaigning charities.

A number of social justice charities, campaign groups and think tanks are fairly well known as being on the path that politicians tread during their rise up the political ladder. Lisa Nandy MP at Centrepoint (homelessness), Dr Stella Creasy at the Scout Association, Jack Straw’s son Will (who is standing for Parliament at this election) at the IPPR Think Tank are a few examples from Labour. This inevitably raises criticisms from party political opponents that this sort of activity is a subsidy. They think that charities should be restricted to providing relief to those in need rather than campaigning on the issues that create that need in the first place. Recall the quotation:

“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”

It’s not as simple as saying “You’re all cowards for not standing for election!”

As has been raised by a number of people, the barrage of hatred that women in particular have to put up with for even expressing an opinion is more than enough to put too many good people off from politics altogether. It’s only fortunate that more people feel confident enough to call such behaviour out – most recently a national newspaper super-imposing the head of Scotland’s first minister (Nicola Sturgeon) onto a bikini-clad model recreating an image from a pop video of a couple of years ago. Some might say ‘grow a thicker skin’, but if such behaviour is putting off talented people from engaging in politics & policy – to the detriment of our democracy, how can that be in the public interest?

Barriers to standing for election

That’s before you’ve considered the sacrifices you have to make with campaigning. At the Women of the World – Cambridge festival at the weekend I discussed this with a number of women, including one – Anna Smith, who is standing in the neighbouring Romsey ward in Cambridge. Campaigning becomes a full time job in the run up to an election. But how many people can afford to take the time off work to campaign? How many have sympathetic employers who will allow this?

Should we have a maternity/paternity leave style system for people who stand for election?

I don’t know how this might work in detail, but the principle is that the state would pay a set rate for people standing for election for the time when nominations close to when the results are announced. (Normally about six weeks). Additionally, Parliament could legislate for employers to give staff additional paid time off (or banks to provide mortgage holidays) for those standing for elections. It’s about removing some of the barriers to people standing for election.

Stopping on rollerskates

Summary

Week 2 of training with the brilliant Romsey Rollerbillies

If you scroll to the last five seconds of the video below, you’ll see an expert’s example of how to stop on rollerskates in style

I signed up for the Rollerbillies’ Fresh Meat program having filmed them last year (see above). Having gotten into the filming swing of things, I’m now experimenting with a variety of non-conventional camera shots – in particular where me & the camcorder are moving. But I don’t think I’ll be getting anywhere near the standards of this clip below.

Joining a club run by and made up of mainly women members

[For those of you interested in sport & feminism, the paper Sport, Gender and Power : The rise of roller derby may be of interest.]

I’m really grateful for being given the chance to learn how to skate with them. The only lessons I’ve been able to find for skating have been in London. Not living in a single place for long enough – and thus not settling meant I never took up the option while I was living there in the late 2000s. Despite turning up in week 1 with the wrong kit – blades rather than skates, a cycle helmet rather than a more substantial crash helmet, and leisure pads rather than rollerderby pads, the welcome I got put me at ease. Quite something for someone with an anxiety disorder!

Safety first – and in more ways than one

The focus on safety was at the heart of everything they taught. A ‘tick-box’ culture this was not. What struck me was how similar their focus on health and safety was to the teacher training I did at Cambridge Regional College in late 2011. Straight from the textbook and communicated very well. I knew I was in good hands.

Furthermore, Shona the lead instructor on the first week and Rachel in the second reinforced the concept of the hall being a ‘safe space’ – and in two ways.

A safe space to make mistakes

The first was that it was safe to make mistakes, get things wrong, fall over and take time to learn things. For me this was like the opposite of school and church as a child. Do badly in an exam at school and all hell breaks loose with family and family friends. Make a mistake in life and you have to go to church and confess your sins and feel guilt and shame. Here was the opposite. What I also noticed was how some of the more experienced skaters read my body-language on skates like a book: I was incredibly tense – fearing the pain I might suffer if I fell over and having everyone pointing & laughing at me. The only time I saw people laughing at someone falling over was when one of the very experienced skaters did so.

A safe space for everyone – irrespective of your size or shape

The week I started skating with the Rollerbillies seemed to coincide with the #ThisGirlCan campaign to get more women into sport. I picked this up from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (who I met in Parliament a couple of years ago) tweeting about it.

I knew I was throwing myself into this while being very out of shape. What I didn’t realise until the end of the second week was just how much of a workout I had got. Having bought some new upgraded pads, I was astonished to find how soaked in sweat my wrist pads were. We were on our wheels for a good couple of hours. The exercise you get isn’t so much a sprint or a distance run, but more related to the pressure your muscles are put under – or so it felt. Being in ‘derby stance’ where you are effectively standing in a squatting position while skating around the track is something that requires an incredible amount of stamina – something that I’ve seldom had!

Just as with my days dancing in the 2000s, people of all shapes and sizes demonstrated incredible skill, talent, stamina and co-ordination. For all the body-shaming in the media, here were a large group of people in my home town comprehensively busting those negative messages.

At the same time given the nature of the activity & the level I’m at, I’m in listening & concentrating mode. Break that concentration & you fall over. Hard. I’m in listening mode because the people giving me advice have all been where I have been skating-wise. Their advice without exception has been constructive, friendly, reassuring & encouraging. With all of us newbies they have taken several of us slower learners aside for 1-2-1 short sessions to work on specific pieces of technique. For people who might be low on confidence and/or have an anxious disposition, the impact this approach has is huge.

Quite a commitment just to get a few seconds of dynamic film footage?

It sounds like it, doesn’t it? But remember back in 2012 I blogged how I wanted to learn how to stop on rollerblades? (With a view to skating regularly – somewhere). My mindset as in that linked blogpost is that I’m past my physical peak. (I’m in my mid-30s now). Therefore if I want to avoid middle-aged and elderly years full of regrets about not doing more physical activities, it really is now or never. That I can combine it with filming is even better. Even if I’m not able to capture the sort of footage I have in mind, I’ve still learnt a new skill, met some nice new people and improved my fitness.

Personal styles of learning – alone or in a group? One off or repeated over time?

An alternative style of learning to this could be looking online at some digital videos and going out somewhere to try things out myself. Another might be a one-day crash course. The former I find procrastination a huge barrier. With the latter I find I need to have been a practitioner and know the basics before going along somewhere to break through a glass ceiling. I found this out when I was a Freedom of Information Officer in the civil service during my early/mid 20s. The Act had been in force for just under a year and we had got a few things wrong – as you inevitably do with interpreting a new piece of legislation. Having booked myself into a seminar that I thought would have dozens of people with a senior barrister (I think it was Sue Cullen) on FoI & data protection – the latter of which I couldn’t get my head round on its application. In the end, only four of us turned up. Thus we had a whole day with a senior barrister to go through all of the issues at work we had with the two pieces of legislation. Following that session, I re-wrote the guidance on FoI & data protection for our office to make it fit for purpose.

In a nutshell, learning in a group over time is what works for me. Not just with skating but with music too. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the experienced skaters, Meg, at our first Sunday music rehearsal for the Dowsing Sound Collective this year – having joined us a couple of weeks prior. Which reminds me, we have a musical year that looks like it’ll be just as exciting as 2014. And if you’re in London, get yourselves down to the Union Chapel on 28 March. The London collectives are up and running…

 

Greater Cambridge Assembly meets for the first time…

Summary

…but do the people of Cambridge know it even exists, let alone know how to influence it?

Here’s a pano-pic I took at the start of the meeting

CambridgeAssembly

…having made my way via bus from Cambridge to Cambourne, a very new ‘newtown’ built in the last few years to help accommodate a growing county population. Here’s the WikiP entry, & here’s their parish council’s website.

Cambourne’s been much-maligned as an example of how not to build a newtown – a few of which this Guardian article touches on. In the grand scheme of things, the faults are with the planners and politicians, not the people that have chosen to move there to make the best of it. The big problem for me as a sometime visitor to the local council is poor public transport. Given the planned expansion and the scale of the place, for me there should have been some planning for rail – ideally as part of the East-West Rail plans.

“So…who’s on the Assembly?”

Here’s the list. I also picked up that people could ask public questions – but didn’t spot the bit about giving notice. That said, having seen the first couple of hours of the inaugural assembly, I’ve now got ***lots*** of follow-up questions for the assembly (as well as to the executive that the assembly scrutinises). Anyway, here’s what asking a question to the assembly looks like, courtesy of Jim Chisholm of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, & Dr Julian Huppert MP.

“How did you find the meeting?”

Not exactly earth-shaking. To be fair, the setup we have is the result of successive failure by Whitehall to give Cambridge the local government structure it needs to deal with the problems it has. This assembly is the next best thing to a much needed unitary authority (in my opinion). Instead, we have three different councils with three different sets of political control (Cambridge (@CamCitCo) = Labour, South Cambridgeshire (@SouthCambs) = Conservative, Cambridgeshire County (@CambsCC) = No overall control) combined with representation from what Whitehall would call ‘key stakeholders’. Now that the assembly is up and running, @SouthCambs need to update the assembly web pages (see here) so everyone knows who is on the assembly, who they represent & why.

The thing is, it could have – and perhaps should have been something much more substantive and, dare I say it ‘exciting’. Part of the problem I think is with communications – something I touched on when I scrutinised the shadow city deal board in November 2014. (See my write-up here). In a nutshell, the papers for the 12 January meeting (see here) should have been the basis for some really exciting community activities to get people’s input into the proposed transport schemes.

“How many schemes were there?”

There were lots on the list and at various stages of planning. Yet all too often I find myself wondering where the ideas for transport schemes – especially the more expensive ones – come from. Given how transport infrastructure affects our daily lives, shouldn’t people have more of a chance to find out about how the system works & how to influence it? (Or at least be encouraged to?)

Sparking people’s imagination

I think there’s a huge opportunity with the general election coming up to get people involved. Lots of parties, activists & organisations are working to get people interested in the election, so why not do something that keeps people in touch once the votes have been counted? We found out today in Cambridge that one of the political parties is going to accuse the others of not being nearly radical enough on transport issues in Cambridge.

Given the number of local public debates there will be in Cambridge, it’ll be interesting to see what the exchanges are like – and what specifics the candidates are prepared to commit to in their local party manifestos.

The wider question on ‘how we communicate with each other as a city’ still needs addressing

The set up of the assembly in part acknowledges that we don’t communicate, let alone work together as a city. For a start the lack of diversity in the room was in striking contrast to the diversity of people that make up Cambridge. For example, the experiences of young people in local further or higher education (ie those that live at home & commute daily rather than those that leave home to go to university) is likely to be very different to those representing the business interests when it comes to cars vs cycles & busses. But they still face the same problem of congestion in Cambridge. But how are the views of young people being collected and systematically fed into the decision-making processes?

As far as media was concerned, Jon Vale of the Cambridge News was there for the meeting as well as myself filming various bits of it. I also counted just over a dozen people in the public seats at various points – though it wasn’t clear who was representing/reporting for someone else and who was there as an interested citizen. Given the amount of money being spent as part of the deal, my take is there needs to be more publicity and civic education about not just the city deal, but about our civic and democratic institutions generally. But that can’t be addressed without looking at how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. Because let’s face it, everyone’s got something to sell or a message to share. But does everyone want to listen? How do you make it easier for people to filter the things they don’t want to hear but be kept informed about the things they want to know about?

It’s not all doom & gloom though!

This is a 15 year process. There is still scope for people to influence the decisions the assembly takes. The most interesting bit for me is that we now have a very public forum to scrutinise Cambridge University – as they have a seat on the assembly.

Friday 16 Jan – debate on Cambridge Railsee here for details  – four of the five prospective parliamentary candidates will be taking part.

Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues

Summary

Some thoughts following a year of going to lots of venues in and around Cambridge

Being a self-styled ‘community cameraman’ means I get to go out and about filming in lots of community venues. This year I’ve been to places in my home town that I had never been to before – such as the Corpus Playroom. These have often been venues that I have heard of but never got round to going to. This week it was the CB2 Basement – which is exactly as described. You can get about 30 people inside theatre style. Suitable for short performances and sketch shows, or for singer-songwriters starting out. Here’s a sketch from Paul & Izzy’s funky panto on 18 December 2014

“Is there lots of bad news for Cambridge on this front?”

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

But…the problem isn’t one that can be solved by the venue owners or operators themselves. It’s something that goes far beyond a level that institutions currently consider. It also requires a level of co-ordination & co-operation at undreamt of levels.

“OK – list the problems”

  • Transport accessibility to venues
  • Knowledge of existence of venues & their availability
  • Affordability of venues to people & groups that want to use them
  • An anecdotal but as yet unquantified excess demand over supply

…to name but a few.

Transport

Let’s take two very separate case studies: Cambridge United Football Club and the West Road Concert Hall.

Cambridge United

Car traffic on match day is always huge, making it difficult to run a decent Citi-3 bus service because Newmarket Road gets clogged up very quickly. Just as we did during my season-ticket-holding days, the roads of the local industrial estate and residential roads become places where fans try to find any space reasonably close to the stadium to park. During the 1991-92 season, there were games I attended where Cambridge would get double the attendances they get today – in the days when United had Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge up front. Had United got promoted that season, they’d have been in the Premier League for 1992-93. As it was, they lost to Leicester City, who subsequently lost to Blackburn Rovers & the rest is history. My point is that even with a high-flying team, Cambridge United will struggle to get more than 7,000 into the stadium for a match simply because the local transport infrastructure is not up to scratch. Why the local councils have not been able to agree transport improvements or an alternative venue is beyond me.

West Road Concert Hall

With Cambridge University’s main concert hall, as a child we used to go to the classical music concerts here. I remember them being excruciatingly ‘Keeping up appearances’-style events – ones where I felt embarrassed to be there. They didn’t have popcorn during the intervals – they had apples instead! Big shiny red ones! These were the days when my understanding of ‘cool’ was all things Stevenage – where they had a multilplex cinema, a bowling alley, an ice rink and most importantly, a McDonalds. Cambridgeshire remained stubbornly free of the last until 1992/93!

Just as it was then, it’s notoriously difficult to find a parking space nearby. The only bus route that serves the hall is the Uni4 bus service – aimed at students rather than residents. For those students living/studying close by, rocking up to a concert is relatively easy. If you are a resident in Cambridge suburbs, going to a concert requires military precision planning. Again, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the musicians or composers are, you’ll struggle to get people from outside classical music circles going along.

Where are our venues?

I discussed this here – part of the problem is we don’t have all of the information we need in an easy-to-access-and-analyse format. There are many hidden venues in Cambridge’s community silos – such as Save our Space through to under-used school and church halls. My existing challenge to the city is: How can we make the process of searching for suitable venues much less frustrating and time-consuming?

‘We can’t find suitable venues – they are all booked up/they are too expensive!’

I’ve heard these points made too many times for us not to do something about it. What we don’t have is hard data on the number of enquiries made that do not lead to confirmed bookings – and the reasons why. From anecdotes from people across the city I believe there is huge untapped demand for community venues. See the second half of the video below.

But without a more solid evidence base it’s difficult to make the case for greater investment in new or expanded existing ones.

CornExchFromStage

The above was my view from the stage of the Cambridge Corn Exchange – before people filled it for the Dowsing Sound Collective Christmas Cocktail that sold out. What you’re looking at in this picture is 1,000 soon-to-be-filled seats. This was the first time I had seen the Corn Exchange from the stage. My first impression was that it was smaller than I had anticipated. The transport infrastructure around the trio of Cambridge venues – The Guildhall halls, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Corn Exchange isn’t great for pedestrians. The reason being they are strangled by the car routes into and out of the main city centre car park. (Will we get a metro?)

Even students are finding it hard to find venues – their colleges putting corporate interests first

This was one of the complaints by the recently-founded Whose University? campaign. With continued funding pressures, and with the international brand Cambridge has, you can see why conferencing is big business. But how do you balance the demands of conferencing with the needs of students?

If we want to find out what sort of venues Cambridge needs, and then go about building them, where do we start?

My first reaction to looking at the Corn Exchange was that Cambridge needed a venue with double the capacity. The Corn Exchange itself needs a big refurb backstage too – as do many of the other venues I have been to. If anything, the architecture backstage in the older venues feels a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ – splendid at the front where the customers are, but a maze of warrens at the back. Not good if you’ve got over 100 singers or large props on stage! Hopefully with the new Cambridge Live Trust they’ll be able to get some investment into the building.

‘Get me the data, get me the proposals from the community groups’

This for me is where we’re at now. Hopefully the coming together of the Cambridge arts’ communities can be the catalyst that drives the change. Gathering the evidence base is an essential part of that process.

A united arts and culture offer for the people of Cambridge

Summary

In the face of austerity, the Cambridge Arts Network is bringing together the diverse & somewhat fragmented arts and culture scenes in Cambridge to try and unite us all in the face of a very uncertain future

The Cambridge Arts Network (convened by Cambridge City Council) had their annual conference at Cambridge University’s ‘CRASSH’ building today. I went along with a series of indirect multiple interests & connections, even though I don’t consider myself an ‘arty-painty’ sort of person that my Mum knows. But then perhaps it’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily have to be good at making something to appreciate it, or to communicate it. A useful comparison can be made between people who are great football players but who never succeed as managers – and vice-versa.

One of the strands that emerged from the Be the change – Cambridge Conversation Cafe was the vision for a single arts and culture offer for Cambridge. Driven by Jane Wilson of Cambridge City Council, she and her team have brought along a large number of people (there were nearly 100 of us today) and organisations to a point where we’re in striking distance of something quite significant.

Bringing the schools on board

Rachel Snape, the headteacher of the Spinney Primary School led a workshop on getting young people engaged – in particular through schools. At the same time, she also highlighted again and again (with good reason) the power of local networking. Good reason because Cambridge is full of stubborn silos that for whatever reason are difficult to break. Longer term readers of this blog will be aware of some of the battles I’ve fought on this over the years. One of the ideas that has evolved in our discussion spaces (whether through BTCC or other forums) is that of bringing the schools together with arts and culture providers in Cambridge in the post-exams summers of each year to ensure teachers and heads are aware of what is on offer ***prior to planning their annual schemes of work*** for the following academic year. It was at this workshop that we got the go-ahead to make the first event of this type happen.

We’re still struggling with this digital thing

The Sidgwick site seems to have been designed as a mobile ‘not spot’ – and I have no clue why. All it does is inconvenience those of us that are not members of Cambridge University. The only person consistently live-tweeting through the event was me through Puffles. The other couple or so that posted were there as co-organisers (mainly Anne Bailey and Alessandra Caggiano, both of whom are part of the core BTCC group too – small world). Yet out of the dozens of people that were there it was left to Puffles to keep open a link to the outside world – thus enabling a few people unable to attend to submit questions to the room. We’re still yet to get to the stage of UKGovCamp’s buzzing social media presence. Cambridge tweeple – next ticket releases are on 11 & 18 December at 1pm ***sharp*** – & they will go like hotcakes on a cold day. Come along & experience it!

We need to talk about community reporting

A few people have raised the issue of me filming putting them & others of from asking questions at events or even from turning up at all. At the same time, I filmed various parts of today’s event because several people unable to attend had asked me to. How do you balance the two? Responding with “The world is going digital: deal with it!” aggressive response isn’t really my style anymore. It may have its time and place in a limited situations, but not this one.

The reason is that the conversations are becoming much more nuanced – and more interesting. It’s also one that brings out the skill of editing digital video footage. Filming in the grand scheme of things is relatively straight forward. Selecting the best five minutes of footage from five hours of film is a hard-earned skill. Selecting a decent sound track and then getting the footage – visuals & audio to synchronise with the music is another skill. Creating a product that is both informative, inspiring and purposeful is another. But that level of editing & production is incredibly time-consuming. Most of what I do – film, download, adjust volume, upload & publicise…well that’s relatively straight forward. Producing a five-minute medley with a separate sound-track takes a great deal longer. But people don’t see that editing process or the thought that goes into it.

“I thought you said you weren’t an artist!”

This sort of links to breaking the cultural inertia in Cambridge. There are generations of parents & grandparents in Cambridge brought up to believe that Cambridge University & its events are not for people like them. That’s because until the 2000s, that was the message that came from the institution & its member colleges & institutes. (During my teens, Cambridge admin staff and academics said it to my face or down the phone on more than one occasion, so you can understand why Cambridge University needs to take ownership of bad decisions & bad behaviour of its members in the past, & make that extra effort today).

That’s not to say there aren’t people inside Cambridge University already working their socks off. There are – I’ve met & worked with lots of them. The problem is changing the culture of an institution – and at the same time changing how that institution’s culture is perceived by the communities around it. If you do one without the other, it’ll fail. This is why for me at a personal level, influencing the institutions were the more interesting discussion points during the day. What is it about their cultures, systems & processes that isn’t currently working for the people of our city? What needs to change? Who can make that change, and how?

“Take me to your leader!”

I don’t know how many people are aware of the Cambridge Art and Culture Leaders Group – I’ve heard positive things, (eg ‘good to see them finally coming together with a united purpose’) to areas of concern (eg ‘how are you accountable to the people of the city for the decisions you take?’). With broad partnerships (count the member institutions here) you inevitably have the problem of co-ordination. Combine that with the fragmented state of local government still reeling from austerity (and there’s even more to come – £20billion by 2020 according to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP) and you begin to realise that the context of this single art & culture offer is not one where there are lots of grants to be had. Not from local government anyway.

This explains why I believe the single art and culture offer for Cambridge cannot be seen as a standalone project or objective. Its success depends on things like a sound restructure of local government. (You can’t have huge cuts to an institutions budget and hit it with a communications revolution & then expect it to have the same structures, systems & processes).

One of the challenges that people expressed frustration over was institutional leadership. With the current structure of institutions in Cambridge, no one institution has the competency to provide that leadership. By that I mean legal, financial and influencing. Cambridge City Council has planning & development control, with some community & leisure funding. Cambridgeshire County Council has control of transport & education. Cambridge University & its member colleges have lots of money, own lots of land and has a significant influence over what happens in our city. What would it look like if Cambridge University behaved in a manner where it believed itself to be responsible for and accountable to all of the people that make up the city of Cambridge rather than just its members?

So…what’s stopping all of this then?

Again, one of my big bugbears is the culture within administrative departments of institutions. Having worked in or for a few of them over the years – even outside the civil service, sentiments from the Whose University? campaign set up recently by Cambridge students is one I empathise with. In whose interests are our institutions acting in? Because if students are feeling that Cambridge University is not acting in their interests, combine that with the town-gown divide, we have a real challenge. It might be that the solution involves a level of transparency and accountability that makes Cambridge University and its colleges feel, in the short term at least, very uncomfortable.

One of my basic campaigning points for Cambridge – one that was a major part of my election manifesto in May 2014’s Cambridge City Council elections – was making basic digital skills and data analysis skills mandatory competencies for all newly advertised management posts in the public sector in Cambridge. (See here). You can imagine how that went down in some quarters. You never know – I could bring the dragon back for the 2015 Cambridge City Council elections and try it again.

It’s not just digital though, is it?

Not at all – and a number of other solutions were raised. Some very familiar ones. A single city-wide events portal that is user-friendly and is acknowledged as the single port of call – such as http://events.onthewight.com/ on the Isle of Wight, came up. Another one was information overload – particularly with schools. How does the Cambridge arts & culture community ensure schools are not bombarded with marketing materials to the extent that the latter simply shut up shop?

The same is true but from a different perspective for potential donors and sponsors. How do we make it dead easy for people & organisations that have very limited time to make quick decisions on who to support? The same goes for employers wanting to engage with schools and provide things like workshops & work experience. At workshops with the Cambridgeshire/Peterborough Local Economic Partnership employers have regularly spoken of their frustration at not being able to get past the school receptionists at state schools, while private schools have trained outreach officers that make the job of organising work experience from the employers’ perspective a doddle.

“This all looks incredibly complicated – I just came along because I agreed with the aims & wanted to help out!”

Let me introduce you to the delights of local government finance policy! Then again. Actually, one of the biggest barriers I noticed was on information (in terms of data sets & evidence bases), and communications.

Information – qualitative & quantitative

Again, I put this in Puffles’ manifesto back in May, calling for us to do a mapping exercise for the city to give us a baseline from which to work with. On community venues for example, I wanted to know the following:

  • How many venues there are
  • The distribution of those venues across the city
  • Accessibility – especially by public transport to the venue but also wheelchair access inside the venue
  • Who owns/runs those venues
  • The capacity & facilities available at those venues
  • When they are available
  • Cost of hiring
  • % of the total available days they are booked
  • Quick-wins investment-wise – what new facilities would venue owners like to add, at what cost and what additional income would they bring in?
  • Audience segmentation – who are the users? Who is conspicuous by their presence/absence?

On the numbers side, it might be things like:

  • How many community engagement officers (FTE and number) have we got in Cambridge irrespective of the institution that they work for?
  • Total spending on community outreach across the city, irrespective of institutions (note we’d need to be careful on definitions)
  • Distances travelled by users to get to venues
  • Can we get some data on our audiences – generic data that can influence & inform decision-making?

Communications

Me and Richard Taylor gatecrashed the November meeting of the Cambridge City Deal Shadow Board at The Guildhall. Hashtag #GuildhallGroupies. Hence being able to influence their discussions on communications just by being there. With camcorders. And smartphones. All the more surprising that their official record of that meeting doesn’t include a record of the public questions I put to them.

…even though we have it on video! #Facepalm

Actually, the wider issue is with their communications strategy (which is here). As a city, we need to come to a collective agreement about how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. What’s the point in saying you’ll use social media if people cannot access it? What’s the point of using print publications if they are struggling to shift copies? The word ‘feedback’ is only mentioned once in the entire document. Mother Nature gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth in those proportions for a reason. How does that feedback get analysed & influence decision-making?

So…lots of food for thought at an event where…I got a sense that we’re really getting somewhere with a very important part of city life. So ***well done*** everyone who organised & participated.

Now…after all that, have a panto song!!!

 

Cambridge Hub turning ideas into actions

Summary

Taking a ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ problem to Cambridge student activists…and watching them run with it

Some of you may be aware of the Volunteer Cambridge event that the Cambridge Hub is organising for Cambridge City Council on 28 February 2015 at The Guildhall. In previous blogposts I cited this as an example of an idea I had which is now coming to fruition. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that the Hub was organising an open space gathering for Cambridge’s many environmental groups and campaigns. Almost a year ago to the day, I posted this blogpost. Despite a persistent cold, I went along.

I’d say there was a 60-40 split of students-town activists, starting off with a couple of ice-breakers before going into open-space pitching.

HubGreenSpace

The above is a pano-photo I took during one of the ice-breakers.

The sessions pitched ranged from hyper-local (encouraging students to get involved in growing on community allotments) to the mega-global (campaign preparations for the Paris 2015 Climate Talks). The session I pitched was on mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism. One of the challenges we face for Be the change – Cambridge is getting young people involved in a way that interests them and also has them influencing the decisions made by the city’s institutions. One of the pieces of advice I’ve had from community youth workers was to work with people closer to their age range to to bridge the age and credibility gaps. I’m in my 30s now – when I was in my mid-teens the current generation of mid-teens were not even born. Mine was the large generation of ‘the ignorant’ – ie one where we didn’t have the internet and thus all this information at our fingertips. Thus I will have my blind spots – or my ‘unknown unknowns’.

Mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism

My approach as a facilitator was one where I asked questions about the problem – focusing on specifics and how participants might go about dealing with them. Quite rightly, we had a steer of not making the sessions about pet projects or existing schemes – hence not mentioning BTCC until invited to by the organisers. My premise being that this was their space, not mine, and that those interested in taking forward the ideas we came up with also needed to take ownership of it – with me and others in support.

‘What does success look like to you?’

This was one of the first things I put to our breakout group. While I have a vision for what success looks like, I wanted to find out based on their experiences what it would look like. Hence these notes.

HubGreenSpaceSlide1

The most interesting part of the discussion for me was about the safe space to make mistakes and to learn by doing. It’s easy for someone like me to say: “Oh well we tried that a few years ago and it didn’t work” in response to someone’s idea. Such a comment reduces the influence and control that young people have on their projects. Hence far better to either let them get on with it or say: “Have you thought about the risks with your approach? What could go wrong and how could you prevent this?” Rather than defining the solution for them, allow them to figure it out themselves – because that way they might come up with something you’re completely unaware of.

Strong support and confidence in young activists

Within that same context came the above – the back up young activists want or need from older people. In particular making clear that things might not go to plan, things might fail and that this is OK. This is especially the case when time and money is involved. In terms of learning basic transferrable skills, the top three I came up with included:

  • Working as a team to achieve a greater goal
  • Communicating in different contexts
  • Managing a budget

In terms of visible changes, diversity within existing city campaign groups is one of the most important ones for me. I’ve been to gatherings of too many community groups that are not fully reflective of the communities that they are within. In many of the cases that I have seen, young people are conspicuous by their absence. From the Cambridge Cycling Campaign to the Cambridgeshire Local History Group, I have often been one of the youngest people there, and often the only non-White person there. When you consider the number of young cyclists, or the number of young people doing local history projects, you can see the opportunities our city is missing out on.

“So…who’s going to do what then?”

HubGreenSpaceSlide2

Apologies for the stupendously blurred picture above. The Cambridge Hub have the originals.

In terms of actions, the two most important were:

  • Mapping the community – finding out what is already happening
  • Planning your approach for each institution or group – in particular being crystal clear about what you want from them and what your offer to them is

The two big risks the students identified were:

  • Sustainability and continuity with the annual turnover of students & young people on both sides
  • Groups and institutions being deluged with lots of ideas, and being overwhelmed to the extent that nothing happens because they don’t know how to respond

On the first one, the students came up with suggestions on having permanent teacher contacts with each school, and ‘desk instructions’ for newly-elected reps – such as school council reps on what they need to do as soon as they take on their responsibilities

On the second one, they suggested the Cambridge Hub could come up with criteria that projects/proposals could be assessed against, ensuring that a limited number of developed proposals can be put to outside organisations rather than an uncoordinated wave of requests/invitations to get involved.

Everyone’s camera shy!

I wanted to film some short interview clips about the event, but everyone was camera-shy, despite encouragement from organisers. This is coming up as an issue time and again. People seem to be very nervous about being filmed in an interview. It’s got me thinking about whether as a city we need to do something about very basic interview training, to whether I need to overhaul both my own image and how I go about my work. For example setting up myself as my own media network to make it sound more professional? I’m thinking along the lines of Novara Media.

Next steps?

It sounds like this is something that students are interested in running with, so I’ll be keeping in touch to see what comes out of this after the Winterval break.😛 #PCCorrectMassiv

It also sounds like Cambridge Hub will be running a similar open space gathering in early 2015. If interested, they are on Facebook here, and on Twitter at @CambridgeHub.

Scrutinising the Greater Cambridge City Deal

Summary

Making sure the people of Cambridgeshire get the chance to scrutinise the looming changes to local government in our county

It was almost by accident I found out about the meeting – via Twitter

Despite another bad night’s sleep the night before, I dragged myself into town for another piece of community activism to scrutinise the early plans for delivering the Cambridge City Deal signed off in a wave of local publicity by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in June 2014 – see here.

A handful of us turned up – including local council meeting regulars Richard Taylor and Martin from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. The sight of two of us filming the meeting took one or two in the room by surprise. At the same time, the lack of a mainstream media correspondent took me by surprise, so I occupied the ‘Press Desk’ being the first person in the room. (Hey, my vimeo account has been described by one politician as ‘local TV!’)

Get in there early to maximise your influence

Which is what Richard, Martin and I basically did. In one sense we’ve put the future board ‘on notice’ that there will be a handful of us scrutinising in detail what they are coming up with – and not from a corporate/big business perspective. Not only that, the nature of that scrutiny is likely to be very different to the static responses you get from traditional consultations. Ie meetings will be filmed and comments discussed online for all to see in a continuous process, rather than the ‘discrete’ traditional consultation periods that limit when people outside policy circles can influence things. Improving public consultations has been bouncing around as an issue in public policy circles for quite some time – here’s Saul Cozens from UK GovCamp 2012. Keep an eye out for the next batches of ticket releases for UKGovCamp 2015 – see here to join many of the brightest minds in digital public services in January 2015.

Trying to synchronise ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ with the City Deal processes

That’s the challenge that the Be the change – Cambridge community faces. One of the big issues that emerged from our Conversation Cafe event was on improving local government – see here. With the local councils now actively exploring alternative governance arrangements (in particular following the debate and vote from Cambridgeshire County Council in October 2014 – see here), and the City Deal processes now being made public, now is the time for as many interested local people to have their say. Part of that involves helping people find the parts of these massive changes that they want to spend most of their time scrutinising.

This is important because hardly anyone who is not involved in the process as part of their day job will have the time, knowledge of issues, knowledge of processes and the passion to commit to scrutinising the whole lot. Therefore – and as we discussed later that evening – it makes more sense to allow people to focus on their areas of interest – ideally through existing local groups such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign on transport, or perhaps the Cambridge Area Partnership on schools. The point here being that we’re not re-inventing the wheel or trying to create a new organisation. Rather, we’re saying to community groups that we can work with them by bringing various parts of the processes to the attention of their members & supporters.

The papers – these need publicising far and wide

They are embedded in the individual meetings listed here. The ones that matter I’ve pulled out for your attention, in particular:

Now, in the grand scheme of things I don’t see the lack of publicity of the above as some sort of secret conspiracy to hide things. Papers for meetings are hardly the sort of things people get excited about – unless you are a policy wonk like me.

The thing is, there are some ***really significant*** items in the papers that are easily missed to the untrained eye. In particular the shared service around strategic planning, the last item in the status updates table. That’s why seemingly innocuous papers need scrutinising by people external to delivery. It’s good program management to have that level of challenge built into your structures.

My chance to ask some questions

Richard Taylor filmed these – it’s always awkward trying to ask questions and film at the same time. See his footage here.

Transport and rail

We know significantly improved rail infrastructure can take some of the housing pressure off Cambridge, while at the same time providing a boost to surrounding towns that are currently disconnected – such as Wisbech and Haverhill. I also mentioned the East Anglian Rail Prospectus – see here.

Education – supporting governors

I’m a school governor at a local primary school in South Cambridge. Two of our secondary schools on this side of town were rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement. Governing bodies across the city are facing greater pressure as the Dept for Education increases the responsibilities of governing boards, requiring them to have professional skills that in years gone by they were not required to have. Hence asking what the City Deal would do on the skills agenda to deal with this – something that would have an indirect positive impact of making schools more aware of what the wider community (in particular the business community) can offer in terms of in-kind support. The point here is that employers need to be aware of the school planning cycles, and of the pressures they face. Better to support schools that way at a local level than remain as passive recipients of school leavers, only to complain that they don’t have the right skills sets.

Project management

This is a big one for me – not least because although it’s not nearly my strongest still, I’ve seen good project and programme management in action. The documents I’d like to see published include:

  • Project initiation document for the City Deal
  • Risk assessment – what are the things that might lead to the City Deal’s failure and how are those things being managed?
  • Stakeholder analysis – who has what interest and what influence, and how are these people & organisations being involved? How are disinterested people who might be affected significantly being invited to take part?
  • Timelines – what’s expected to happen and when?
  • Budget – who has got what resources?

Some of the discussions from our Be the change – Cambridge event at the Cambridge Brewhouse on 18 November 2014

Things are moving at quite a pace on our side as a result. We had 20 people joining us for this event, which meant we could explore a number of things in detail in small groups while later on were able to have a round-up conversation at the end that involved everyone together. I filmed the feedback sessions. For the purposes of this blog (because at the time of typing it’s 1:30am and I want to go to bed!) here’s the first two groups feeding back.

There’s still a long way to go. If ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ interests you, and you want to make a positive difference to our city (defined by the people who make it, rather than administrative or geographical boundaries), you can get involved via:

Listeners to Cambridge 105 Radio may also catch some of the interviews I recorded following the City Deal meeting.

Widening and yet consolidating the debate on the future of Cambridge

Summary

There’s lots of stuff going on about the future of Cambridge, but how do we connect them all together, avoid duplication and ensure we get as many people involved as possible?

Lots of us took part in the event: ‘Could Cambridge become a smart city?’ in the 2013 Cambridge Festival of Ideas. My thoughts following the event are here. How far have we come since then? The preamble for this year’s event is as follows:

So, for 2014, we’re back for round 2 and this time, Collusion’s live experiment challenges artists, technologists, academics and citizens to work together to find creative solutions to some of Cambridge’s ‘wicked’ problems, aka, problems that are difficult or impossible to solve, e.g. transport, environmental issues, community cohesion.

The first thing that struck me was: “****Eeek!**** They’ve missed out the politicians!”

Fortunately, local government happen to be on board as two of the colluders. Politicians matter, because if we take this model of a smart city, we find one of the key components of a smart city is smart governance. You can aim for smart people, smart environment, smart mobility, smart living and a smart economy, but if you don’t have your governance structures sorted then the rest come crashing down.

“Why so?”

Rule of law. You can’t have a smart economy unless you have the essentials of contract law to underpin it. You can’t have sound laws unless you have sound law-making processes that carry the confidence of the people. With that you need some sort of political framework. Politics might be as welcome to most communities as the bubonic plague given recent headlines, but you need to have some process to define the rules or conventions that shape how people interact with each other. Why is it that cars stop at traffic lights?

‘Let’s get creative and transform how we engage with the city. ‘

This is the title of a new project that Rachel Drury and friends are running as part of the Maker Challenge – see here. This is at the same time as my project Be the change – Cambridge, along with Cambridgeshire County Council’s exploration of alternative governance models announced in mid-October. Then you have Cambridge Ahead who have done some in-depth research, identifying housing, transport and education as the three big issues for businesses in Cambridge. Then there is Cambridge Past, Present and Future’s 2030 vision report. On top of that, we have the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s 2016 vision for Cambridge. I’ve not even mentioned Cambridge City Council’s budget consultation – see here – it closes on 31 October. Given that the consultation is the first of the new Labour administration that took office last May, they have every right to turn around and say they are the ones with the political mandate for the city.

My take? We have to bring these currently disparate projects and processes together. In the grand scheme of things, I quite like the idea of the Maker Challenge. The bit that is missing is the public administration/political interface. Will the results feed into local government decision-making, or even the general election campaigns?

“Isn’t bringing all of this together what ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ is all about?”

It is – and we are having our first wider post-conversation cafe gathering in Mid-November – details in the next day or so.

We’ve also got to remember the general election of 2015 as well. Political parties have already started campaigning for it. Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna for Labour have all been in Cambridge in the past couple of weeks. The Lib Dems have been leafletting in Coleridge ward, introducing their new active candidate for the ward (Simon Cooper), and the Conservatives have been hitting Queen Edith’s ward en masse for the first time in years. (There were eight of them a few days ago – numbers unheard of by all but the longest-resident of citizens). My take is that we cannot have a city-wide conversation separate to the electoral and political processes.

The above reflects the initial success of the conversation cafe event from September – see videos and the write-up here. We’ve been slightly slow off the mark in the response and follow-up because, if I’m honest I’ve become a little overwhelmed by the scale of the growing challenge. It’s one thing to organise an event, but quite another when it starts evolving into a series of actions and activities that involve co-ordinating some very large local institutions! Managing this will be one of the issues we discuss at the November gathering.

‘How could art and technology help to tackle some of Cambridge’s difficult to resolve problems?’

I can hear the cynics already, sarcastically coming out with things like:

“I am a conceptual artist who specialises in contemporary pottery made out of environmentally friendly renewable and recyclable sources…and I am going to solve Cambridge’s traffic problems…by making a jam jar!”

Or…

“I am a mobile phone programmer and I am going to make an app that is going to deal with long term political apathy and low voter turnout just by pressing a button!”

No – it’s not like the above-two at all. I had a chat with local musician Melody Causton about sourcing material from archives. This stemmed from her recent song ‘The Devil Fears Him’ about Jack the Ripper.

Our discussion covered her going to some of the recently-released archives from Bow Street Magistrates Court, to her heading to the county archives as a source of lyrical inspiration. This has been done before – for the Tour de France in Cambridge.

The above was sung by the Dowsing Sound Collective (with me in the backing vocals somewhere!) This was a case of using music to engage people in a city event. The piano and bass arrangement by Andrea Cockerton in my view are awesome. I remember when we sang the chorus for the first time. Something chimed. It really was quite moving. Art and music can be used to get people involved. The challenge is how.

Now, while I’m not inviting anyone to write a song about the technicalities of local government finance in Cambridge, the concept of ‘sketchnoting’ brings art to writing up meetings. One of Cambridge’s finest, Michele Ide-Smith demonstrated this earlier this year at UKGovCamp 2014. See her slides here.

“It’s all very well saying ‘art and tech can solve our problems’ but who is going to pay for it?”

Exactly.

And we know the financial situation is absolutely dire for local government – see here. If your art or tech solution is based around getting a grant from local government, it’s already dead in the water -> unless it involves a greater saving elsewhere in the organisation and/or leveraging in greater amounts through sponsorship or benefactors’ donations. (There is the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation that has a list of local grant funding organisations).

On the art side, things worth exploring are those that inspire, mobilise and influence behaviour. On the tech side, using technology to provide information under tight time constraints to help people come to decisions (as opposed to making the decision for them) is another. Think live bus times (“What time should I leave to go to the bus stop?”) vs the sat nav (“I drove onto the guided busway/cycle bridge because the sat nav told me to!”). There’s also the cyclescape tool.

Another thing worth looking at is using art and tech in the planning system. How can we use both to get developers to engage with local residents at design stage so that people are not needlessly irritated by needless oversights? Here’s a high-profile example of when things go wrong. The view of the building from Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road are depressing to say the least – hence the party-political controversy.

 

We did it!

Summary

*****Thank you***** to everyone that took part in our conversation cafe! Over fifty people kick-started Be the change – Cambridge. Now the really hard work starts.

See http://bethechangecambridge.org.uk/?p=283 for an early write up with videos. See Lucinda Price’s excellent photographs of the day at http://lucindapricephotography.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/be-the-change-cambridge/

It still hasn’t quite sunk in that we were able to get that many people at such short notice together to crunch through issues and ideas on making Cambridge greater than the sum of its parts. (Remember our definition of Cambridge is its people – including those that commute in to work/study and/or visit regularly).

Civic leaders listen and engage

Even now I have to pinch myself to think how we managed to assemble a gathering that overall included participation from:

  • The prospective parliamentary candidates from the three main parties represented on Cambridge City Council
  • Representation from local, national and European levels of government
  • A visit from the Mayor of Cambridge
Vicky Ford MEP (Con), Julian Huppert MP (Lib Dem) & Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab) discussing some of the issues with participants.
Vicky Ford MEP (Con),  Cllr Lewis Herbert (Lab) & Dr Julian Huppert MP discussing some of the issues raised by participants.

My personal thanks to Vicky Ford MEP, Dr Julian Huppert MP, Cllr Lewis Herbert, Daniel Zeichner and Chamali Fernando. Thank you to newly elected Cambridge City Councillors, Cllrs Dave Baigent and Tim Moore too.

What was really nice to see was how party politics was put to one side by elected representatives and activists taking part. Everyone focused on collective problem-solving, bringing different perspectives to shared problems.

Learning to let go

As an organiser of a large event, it’s always tempting to stamp your mark on things – showcasing your ideas rather than taking a step back. The big test for me was letting go of it all, and allowing things to proceed at their own pace. Although the only mini-crisis of the day took me out of the room for part of the ‘throw everything onto post-it-notes session’, I’m glad to say I had no input in what people came up with that they wanted to discuss. My view is that I had my say during the local elections. Now was everyone else’s turn.

As David Cleevely and Anne Bailey, our co-chairs for the day said, it turned out to be quite fortunate having a smaller event before a larger one. For a start, we identified many of the teething problems associated with organising and running events. This was the first event of this type where I was a co-organiser & responsible for much of the ground work. Previously as a volunteer for other events, I simply signed up and waited to be told what to do on the day. It’s very different when you’re giving the orders to when you are willingly taking them.

I cannot multi-task

In my case, I tried to do too much on the day. Organising, speaking, live-tweeting and filming – not a good combination. At the larger event we have planned for early 2015, my focus will be on organising. I won’t need to say much – hopefully. We had a critical mass of people live-tweeting – Ceri Jones running our @BethechangeCam twitter account, along with Richard Taylor and Kate Atkin providing regular updates. Also, forgetting to pause and restart during the main presentations meant my laptop crashed and burned the stupendously large file that had some of the most important digital video footage on!

So…what next?

35 people and counting have already joined our Meetup group (see http://www.meetup.com/Be-the-change-Cambridge/). We’re going to have a wash-up session in the next week or so and follow this up with ideas and actions that emerged from the conversation cafe event. Watch this space.