Trying to prioritise in the constraints of not great mental health

Summary

Wanting to do everything, but not being able to.

The past few weeks have been incredibly intense from a personal perspective. Yet had I had sound mental & physical health, all of this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. A decade ago I was managing the equivalent of all of this hours-wise on top of a full-time job.

‘Someone has to film it because ****democracy****’

I’ve uploaded at least 10 videos in the past week from a number of different events – events that would not otherwise have been recorded or scrutinised at people’s leisure. (See videos here). I don’t ‘have to’ do this. I don’t get paid to do this. I do it because something inside of me tells me this is an important function of our (local) democracy that’s not being fulfilled. This isn’t just about organised debates between candidates at elections (noting this article), but about some of the important public policy debates that take place in Cambridge too.

On the future of Cambridge – there’s lots happening, but how do we bring the conversations together?

There were over 100 people at a Q&A session with Cambridge general election candidates and with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP. (See my video playlist here). There were also over 100 people (a noticeably different audience) at a Cambridge Science Festival event on the connections & flows of future cities – see my video playlist here. Then finally there were 200 people at the Cambridge Carbon Footprint/Transition Cambridge debate on Friday. See my video playlist here.

The analytics tell me that over the past seven days, people have watched over eight hours of my video footage. So…there’s clearly a demand for what I’m filming – even though this doesn’t pay the bills!

Filming, editing and uploading is exhausting. But so too is travelling to and from venues

Only by taking tranquilliser medication at a frequency I’ve not had to since my 2012 crisis did I manage to stave off another breakdown this weekend. Something eventually had to give – and in both cases it was skating this and last weekend. A school governors’ strategy workshop followed a sleepless night. (Eclipse to blame?!) It was only a parental lift to/from Anglia Ruskin that got me to the Friday night debate. The funniest part of the evening was one of the student volunteers being told by the host of the evening, Dr Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU that the big cuddly creature I was carrying with me was not a llama or a kangeroo, but Puffles the Dragon Fairy.

When the dragon gets an invitation…

In 2014 it was recording a music video. In 2015 it was recording an EP

But such was Saturday’s brainfog that I could not haul myself out of bed in time for the morning recordings with Dowsing Sound Collective at Jesus College Chapel. But I managed to make it through for two of the three tracks we recorded – using some state-of-the-art kit courtesy of ARU’s music department.

The view from the back - Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective
The view from the back – Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective. Can you spot the floating grey head?

I wanted to join everyone for post-recording drinks. But I couldn’t. And not for the first time. This has been the first year I’ve really begun to notice that I cannot do things I want to do because…of my disability. While I’ve described on ‘official forms’ in years gone by as my mental health issues being a disability, 2015 is the first year where I’ve really ‘felt the disability in my heart.’ Even more so because it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it.

Trying to articulate this in a way that someone in better health could understand

Imagine that instead of 40 hours per week, you only had 14. Go over that limit and you’ll have even fewer hours the following day or week. Or ‘Spoon theory’ as articulated by Christina Miserandino here. In the case of ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ the week before last, and all of the events last week, I’ll need to recharge batteries for most of this week. Not least because I want to be in a state where I can enjoy Dowsing’s London gig at the Union Chapel.

Losing spoons at the Cambridge environment debate on Friday

The ‘Spoon theory’ link – and the idea of losing spoons (or energy/capacity) along the way also hit on Friday night after the hustings but before Saturday’s recording. The only point of fact I recall the chair, Dr Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin, challenging any of the panellists on was on who came up with the policy of all new-build homes from 2016 having to be zero carbon. The Conservative candidate for Cambridge claimed it was the Coalition, Dr Jones said it wasn’t.

For those who don’t know, I used to be a policy adviser on sustainable new homes in DCLG’s climate change & sustainable buildings division in 2007-08. In what were 10 of the most intense months of my life living & working in one of the most pressured political & policy environments I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t let that point rest. See the Storify here. (In this case I’m stating that Ms Fernando was misinformed, not lying. No frontline campaigning politician is going to know the policy detail unless they were reasonably well-read in that field).

Local government in Cambridge had definitely been informed about this policy by 2007. How do I know this? Because it I was the one who told them about it. Here are the slides from my talk at Newnham College attended by developers too. ***It’s got my name on them***

“Hang on – I thought you were only going to be the cameraman in this election campaign?”

That’s my intention, but where there is an issue of fact on a policy area I worked in, & where candidates continue to argue an incorrect point, I reserve the right to step in. On this occasion, it was a shame about the timing given the state of my health.

There are lots of debates between four of the five candidates between now & election day – helpfully collated by Cambridge Conservatives. See their calendar here – scroll down. I’ll try and get to the larger ones that cover a range of issues too.

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Natalie Bennett struggles in the media again – a problem of style or substance – or both?

Summary

Thoughts on Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett’s recent interviews, and a recent piece by Liberal Democrats’ president Baroness Sal Brinton on a visit to Cambridge recently.

The detail via The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman (who in the grand scheme of things I rate quite highly as a journalist/political commentator even though she operates in a different part of the political matrix) is here. Social media has also noticed that this wasn’t the first interview she’s struggled with – the BBC’s Andrew Neil making mincemeat of the citizen’s income policy.

Some damage to their brand and the standing of the party has been done. But is it the end of their campaign and prospects? Unlikely. One of the reasons for this is that in the minds of the electorate that is aware of them, The Greens are the opposite ‘brand wise’ of UKIP. Given the lack of mainstream media coverage until of late, it’s unlikely that Bennett’s past media appearances were a major reason for people joining the party – unlike Farage’s extended & ongoing media coverage in the face of seemingly increasingly bland & anonymous politicians from the mainstream parties. As Natalie Bennett was only elected party leader a couple of years ago – succeeding Caroline Lucas MP who had served her constitutional maximum 2 terms, (See p7 here) Bennett won the leadership election succeeding Lucas who until then had been their highest profile politician as both leader and only MP.

Are the problems one of media style or policy substance? Or was it just another bad day?

There’s a mix of all. Could Natalie Bennett (given how ill she was with a cold – as you can hear in her voice) have said: “I am ill – Caroline Lucas/Jenny Jones will be available for interview instead”. I’m surprised more ministers and politicians choose to plough on than take time to recover and put a substitute spokesperson in their place.

On both style and substance, The Greens have not had to face intense policy scrutiny from the mainstream media and their political opponents. Just before their recent problems, I posted this blogpost. Since then, they have faced scrutiny over social media posts – here in Cambridge with candidate Dr Rupert Read, followed by the challenges over policy from Andrew Neil and on Newsnight just now from Evan Davis over style & on how media-savvy they are. (He was interviewing Baroness Jones, the only Green Party peer in the House of Lords – who also was elected to the London Assembly).

You can’t solve a policy problem with media training and you can’t solve a style problem by overhauling your policies 

If I were on the inside track with The Greens, I’d be investing not just in some short-term intensive media training from someone who really knows their stuff, but also in some longer term mentoring. (Ideally also from someone who has been through something similar or worse & bears the scars from the experience!) In particular, how to prepare for media interviews – both in the run up & on the day. This blogpost by Janet Murray covers the essentials if you are appearing in the media for any political party. (Or organisation for that matter).

How much policy detail should a political party know at this stage?

Former Labour Party special adviser Damian McBride is spot on here. He posted that post shortly after Ed Miliband and Ed Balls got into a bit of bother over their proposed mansion tax. No political party in the UK has the resources to give the level of policy detail being asked on some of the policies. That’s why we have a civil service in this country to do the detailed policy work for whoever gets elected. Take for example Labour’s flagship minimum wage policy. It was in their 1997 manifesto, and lots of people understandably asked: “What will the new minimum wage be?” To which their response was to set out a process for how the wage level would be set (so as not to frighten off the business lobby whose vote Blair courted heavily). Even when the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was passed into law, the new minimum wage was not on the face of the legislation. It simply gave powers to the Secretary of State to set the minimum wage subject to the due processes set out in the legislation.

The point being that for the citizen’s income policy, Natalie Bennett did not need to go anywhere near giving away any numbers or ballpark figures. The policy itself is far too complex with too many factors & variables in it for such a small organisation to come up with a robust policy on it. What she should have said – in particular to Andrew Neil is to have argued the principle of the policy on its merit and said that the detailed policy analysis would come from the civil service assuming the Greens (or another party supporting the policy) got elected. Remember Natalie Bennett has gone on record saying what matters – in particular environment-wise, is that their policies are adopted, rather than getting ministerial seats.

Managing expectations

As I’ve mentioned before, The Greens have a significant number of published policies – click here. Ever since the Green Surge the mainstream media has been pouring over these in detail. Because there is so much there, it’s ever so easy to get caught out by an interviewer saying: “Your website says…”. No party leader is going to know that level of policy detail. This is where Bennett might have gotten away with: “Our policy spokesperson who knows far more about the detail you’re asking for, is [click here for the list of spokespeople]…I can put you in touch with them because you’re asking me about a level of policy detail that you wouldn’t expect from any other party leader.” This is a media cultural problem of wanting to go to the party leader for any and every question under the sun, rather than going to the party policy specialist.

“Isn’t the risk with ‘media style training’ that you turn ordinary political activists into political media clones so derided by so many people?”

Yes – and it’s a significant risk. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into a political drone pre-programmed by party HQ incapable of independent thought. Whether it’s the ‘straw man’ question (“You’ve said that you want to increase green taxes on businesses to help deal with climate change, why is it that you want to put lots of hard working small business owners out of a job, with the knock-on impact on their hard-working families and…won’t someone think of the children??!?!?!”) or any other trap (there are a few here), you can see why simply repeating the ‘line to take’ becomes easy to fall back on. Funnily enough, the only person I’ve ever heard openly ‘rejecting the premise of a question’ (see last point here) posed by an interviewer on mainstream TV is Laurie Penny.

Being your own media

I’m still surprised more politicians and parties don’t do far more on this. In The Green Party’s case, one of the things they could do is create some short digital videos setting out detailed and informed responses to all of the questions put to them in the difficult media interviews of recent days. Not ‘soundbite responses’ but ones that demonstrate just how complex and difficult public policy is to develop and deliver – and how trying to reduce these to soundbites or even short political exchanges does no one any favours. Let’s take another example – but from a different political party: The Liberal Democrats.

If the Greens are taking heat now, that’s nothing compared to the 5 year roasting the Liberal Democrats have taken for choosing to go into the Coalition

Given the huge number of controversial decisions Liberal Democrat MPs, peers & ministers have taken, they have often found themselves on the back foot. At times it’s as if the mood from some sections has been: “We expect these sorts of policies from the Tories, but not from you!”

The structural & existential challenge the Liberal Democrats have is that proportional representation is in their political DNA – understandably so. Look at the difference in seats vs total votes in the 1983 & 1987 elections from their predecessor Liberal/SDP alliance (1983 here, and 1987 here). Imagine if the House of Lords took the general election results & allocated seats to members of an elected upper chamber via proportional representation & gave that chamber far stronger powers to vote down and/or delay/change legislation. History could have been very different.

How do the Liberal Democrats defend the decision to go into the Coalition given the 4+ years we’ve had since?

Lib Dem President Sal Brinton, now in the House of Lords but a former county councillor here in Cambridge gave it a go on a visit to Cambridge recently. I filmed it. It’s almost 20 minutes long but is worth a listen irrespective of your political affiliation.

The point of the above being: ‘Yes, there are difficult questions to answer, so here are my answers in my own words in my own time.’ The risk with this is that if you don’t answer those difficult questions, you run the risk of any positive content being ignored as people focus on what you refuse to answer.

Food for thought?

 

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…

 

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!!!

 

Filming a theatrical performance – a big step up

Summary

Some thoughts on filming a theatrical stage performance

First of all a big ***Thank you*** to Alex and Laura, the co-producers of CUADC’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge.

The above is a teaser-medley I put together, as most of my weekly allowance of file space was used up for a Transition Cambridge event with Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert. Videos of Julian’s speech, and the feedback presentations are here. I also recorded the audio of the Q&A session Julian hosted – avoiding filming so as not to put off people from asking questions. Click here for the audio – which I recorded on an old smartphone that I’ve kept old of, attaching it to a standard lapel mic clipped onto Julian’s shirt. Note to self, adjust the mic volume before recording!

Going beyond ‘setup and record’

This is the next step for me – going beyond being the static cameraman. Many of my previous recordings have involved little more than setting up the camera and letting the hardware do the work. With a theatrical performance, you cannot do that. If you capture the whole stage, you don’t get any detail of the actors’ face expressions. A lot of the nuance and communication is lost. You run the risk of ‘stick figures moving to audio’ with that approach.

The optical zoom on my camera was powerful enough to zoom in close enough for a decent head-and-shoulders shot. The problem with that is you have to be aware of what the rest of the case is doing outside of your view-finder. When you have multiple characters in dialogue, this is a huge challenge. Even more so if the characters are spread across the stage – as they often are in plays. It takes a huge amount of practice to learn what level of zoom corresponds with what levels of camera movement. The slightest touch of the camera when zoomed in on a distant performer will knock the performer out of shot.

Comparing actors moving across a stage with a single pianist in one place

The above is one of my favourite performances by one of my favourite young musicians, Grace Sarah – filmed at The Junction in Cambridge just after she had completed her GCSEs. This was filmed from the same distance on my old camcorder that only had a digital zoom. In the grand scheme of things, that 2010-era consumer model camcorder did a reasonable job. But it struggled with other performers that evening. It would have had no chance with a theatre performance. The movement and changing light patterns would have been too much for it. Ditto with trying to pick up the music from a relatively large theatre band. Interestingly, there were a number of occasions when even my upgraded camcorder really struggled with trying to auto-focus in on some of the actors – particularly when the light contrasts were large, eg with spotlights.

Improving on the audio

In the grand scheme of things, audio counts for at least 50% of your videos. People can tolerate slightly shaky visuals. Screw up the audio and they switch off – as I found out with a very early digital video project a couple of years ago.

Take this performance below by the Cambridge-based octet Makossa.

You can hear the bass, but you can’t feel it – if that makes sense. The same is the case with this performance by Fred’s House from earlier this summer at a pack Alex Pub. (Dowsing Sound Collective friends may recognise Paul on the drums). Again, you can hear but not feel some of the various musical instruments.

As a single operator, I’m faced with the constant challenge of the trying to find a decent place to film from as well as a decent place to get audio from. In the case of the Fred’s House performance, there was neither as the garden was jam packed. In both these cases, the amps were linked up to a professional standard sound mixer. In the case of Makossa, there wasn’t anyone operating the sound mixer during the performance. In an ideal world you’d have someone who knew reasonably well what they were doing & were passionate about it on the sound mixer, with your camcorder plugged in. (I don’t have the kit to plug into such kit, hence relying on an external mic – which I suppose makes me ‘look the part’!)

Rehearsing

On theatre performances where you have people moving across the stage, & multiple voices appearing in different places, I can see how rehearsing can make a huge difference. Furthermore, I can see how having a ‘camera script’ of who to focus on and when, being really useful too. The better clips – in particular the face expressions that I filmed from the ADC Theatre earlier were down to luck with anticipation and bloody hard concentration. The last time I concentrated so hard on a screen for an extended period of time was during second reading of a bill going through Parliament that me and my team were supporting ministers for. That was a good seven hours concentrating on every single word uttered by every MP.

In 2015 I’d like to try out filming another show – not a serious play but a light-hearted one, with rehearsal & preparation time. Hard work, but I imagine damn good fun!

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.

“The minister will see you now, Puffles”

Summary

Equalities minister Jo Swinson MP comes to Cambridge – waking up the city’s resident dragon fairy in the process. This plus some thoughts on how to make community reporting help pay my bills!

Jo Swinson MP with Puffles at Kings College, Cambridge
Jo Swinson MP with Puffles at Kings College, Cambridge

Told you!

She also had this message for young women interested in politics:

Additional videos

  • You can see my interview with Jo in this clip
  • You can see the full Q & A session she had with Cambridge students in this clip.

Some of the footage I recorded was also featured on Cambridge 105

“This interviewing of politicians – it’s becoming a regular thing for you now, isn’t it?”

Yes – but…

“Yes-but-what?”

I’m not doing Paxman-style interviews. Given the projects I am supporting or working on, what I produce on film has to be in some way supporting their objectives. Getting more people involved in local democracy is one of my big objectives. Therefore getting politicians to talk passionately about what motivates them and what got them interested/involved is going to be far more beneficial than an adversarial one.

“Isn’t that you not doing your job?”

I’m not paid for it, so in part that doesn’t apply. Furthermore, most of the people I interview are not the people responsible for the policies I am interested in picking apart. What’s the point on having an argument in front of camera with someone who is not responsible for making the decision? Again, that’s something that comes from my experience in public policy inside the civil service. When you are unpicking a policy and want to throw questions at a policy area, have a laser-like focus on the decision makers. They are the ones you want to hold accountable.

“Don’t you want to ask lots of awkward questions and leave the politicians skewered?”

There’s a time and a place – such as here. But at a local level, what happens after you’ve left a politician skewered? They are the ones still in power. You might have got a good headline or a splendid Twitter reaction, but then what? You still have to live with each other. That’s not to say ‘Don’t ask awkward questions’ – quite the opposite. It means in my case to have an approach that influences their decisions.

“Such as?”

For quite a few years I have been calling on local parties to improve how they use social and digital media to communicate with people. Starting at the top time-wise in 2011, my actions were as follows:

  1. Start encouraging local politicians through social media
  2. Start encouraging through informal face-to-face meetups
  3. Start attending public meetings to get the issue on public record
  4. Start being more ‘assertive’ on the back of little progress
  5. Start being angry/frustrated at lack of progress – realising that I’d gone and locked myself into a commitment that would be hard to withdraw from – such as here.
  6. Find yourself called out on that issue (here) and realise you have to follow through with it (here)
  7. Beat UKIP at the ballot box as a result (here)
  8. Realise that none of the above has worked so start setting the example by demonstrating what can be done -> as summarised in this video for an ultimately unsuccessful job interview for Parliament. (I wanted to demonstrate what could be produced in a couple of hours on digital video – with warts & all!)

Being a ‘community cameraman’ does not pay the bills – yet I’m fulfilling a ‘socially useful function’.

I dare say the same goes for Richard Taylor with his archive of videos here. Our approaches may be slightly different, but we’re both producing film footage and a visual public record. It’s also one we’re told anecdotally helps improve the behaviour of some members at such meetings. Basically you don’t want to be caught on camera behaving like a jumped-up buffoon.

I’m in the situation now where some of the interviews I am recording are now being broadcast on established media – e.g. radio. I’m also learning more about producing digital film clips – beyond the ‘shoot, download and upload’ model. Here’s the result of my second paid micro-commission for the Campaign for Better Transport’s (CBT) ‘Roads to Nowhere’ campaign.

The above is timely for environmentalists given the recent announcements on road building – see the Department for Transport’s announcement here, and  see here for CBT’s response.

“How should I fund my community reporting and filming?”

Because at the moment, trying to do everything ‘for free’ is unsustainable. I can’t afford to do it all for nothing. How do I maintain independence and transparency? This is something the pioneering vlogger Rosianna Halse in the text below this clip mentions. Essentially there are three specific areas of funding that I want to explore for 2015:

  • Funding day-to-day meetings, events and workshops for which there is or cannot be any budget for – e.g. council meetings
  • Funding new equipment – for example I’d like to get a standalone backlight, a wheeled platform for my tripod to film a moving object & moving the camera to keep up with it – similar to this clip I made
  • Funding for learning new skills – there are a number of short courses and workshops I’d love to go on, but simply cannot afford
  • Funding to pay for under/unemployed and/or young people to work with me on some future projects – as with my original digital video guides.

Do I go down the route of crowd funding? Do I look for a kind benevolent and affluent benefactor? Do I need to sharpen my ‘offer’ to established broadcasters/publishers so that I’m able to charge a commission on what they use?

“I’m passionate about this, I like doing this, there’s a clear public interest in this activity being done, and a clear ‘social-good gap in the market’…but I cannot make a living from it”

Although the above may be my situation, there is a public policy issue here. How can we hold taxpayer funded organisations to account if there is no one independent of them to report what is going on? I’ve seen this issue first hand, being the only independent reporter at the count for the recent Queen Edith’s ward by-election in Cambridge. (See here). I also produced a series of digital videos from the only hustings of that campaign (see here) which accompanied Chris Rand’s excellent guide to the by-election – something he didn’t get paid for either. There was no mainstream media presence there – as it is, local journalists have their work cut out in the face of never-ending cuts.

“But the market for local print journalism is collapsing anyway – especially if you can get it online for free!”

At a city-wide level, this is the debate I’d like to start: How should we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions? Where do you draw the line between interested activists reporting in their own time, vs where it is in the public interest that a knowledgeable independent reporter is attending and reporting on a specific institution or event? For example court cases and council meetings? Are there things that institutions can do to make it easier for journalists (ie the trained ones schooled in things like libel law!) to carry out their work? For example co-ordinating future meetings/events so there are as few clashes as possible?

“If you’re good enough, people will pay you. If you’re not getting paid, it’s because your work isn’t good enough!”

To a point, true. Personally I’d like to see a thriving local media scene – one where paid journalists can make a living and where things are not needlessly sensationalised. I’ve lost count of the number of minor disagreements at meetings have resulted in “Row over [insert issue] headlines.

Most, if not all of the professional journalists I’ve met are thoroughly decent people. [Declaration of interest: Puffles is followed by lots of journos – a few who appear regularly on TV & radio at a local and national level!] Yes, I have issues with the editors, producers and the commissioners, but that’s because they are the ones that decide what gets broadcast/printed. The journalists on the whole do not. I found this out the hard way back in May when 20 minutes of interviews with Chris Havergal, then of the Cambridge News & now of the Times Higher Education Supplement (a well-earned step up) resulted in a single sentence in the paper the following day. No one ran the with the headline: “Magic dragon Puffles thumps Nigel at the ballot box”. 

The problem I face is that I am covering issues that have a public interest in terms of maintaining transparency & accountability of institutions (as part of a thriving local democracy) but one where ‘the interest of the general public’ is not strong enough to charge for that output to make ends meet? Note the wider public policy discussion in this piece from Parliament following the Culture Committee’s report into the future of local and regional media.

And so for 2015…?

For a start there are the general and local elections. A couple of candidates & parties have already approached me about this. The principle I’m pondering over is filming set piece things for free – such as the speech of a visiting high profile politician, but charging a small fee for medley pieces similar to this, or for specific party election broadcast pitches.

Elections aside, I believe there is a bigger conversation to be had about how we the people of Cambridge communicate with each other & institutions. Part of that discussion is the interaction between the established media and community reporters/bloggers in niche areas. For example Phil Rodgers deserves a much higher profile for his data analysis on elections. Every ward needs the equivalent of what Chris Rand produces here. The same goes for the wealth of historical knowledge that Mike Petty MBE has amassed – see his talks on South Cambridge’s experience of the First World War in these videos I filmed. There are many more I could mention.

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.

 

Staring failure in the face, and avoiding its slap

Summary

Learning by doing with Be the change – Cambridge

In my previous blogpost, I ended with the following:

Are you prepared to run the risk of failure in order to reach your potential?

With just under a fortnight to go, and with a big marketing push this week for next week Saturday, I am staring that risk in the face. And it is a frightening place to be. But an exciting one too.

The risk was not selling enough tickets or registering enough people for the free places for the large community action event originally planned. That risk materialised. Hence we’re going ahead with a smaller event – a ‘conversation cafe’ from 1pm with numbers around 50 as the first of a series of events, rather than a single 200+ big gathering as a starter. (See the announcement here).

I failed – and school/academia doesn’t teach you how to deal with failure

On the face of it, I promised X and haven’t been able to deliver X. In a school/education system context, think of it as ‘predicted vs actual grades’. You didn’t get your predicted grades so you failed to get into your chosen university. But who is there to help you pick up the pieces? As far as the system is concerned, they’ve washed their hands of you. There’s no obligation for them to help you after that. A very frightening place for any teenager having been institutionalised by the system to suddenly finding yourself on your own.

In my case though, the whole ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project isn’t like an exam. It’s much more fluid and flexible than that. Everything that I and those working with me are doing with this are things that the current system would struggle to model. Why? Because we’re doing things that have not been done before. All things digital and social media are creating such pressures on the existing system that teachers can easily find themselves with less knowledge on a specific area than the young people they are teaching.

Adapting to changing circumstances and new information

One principle I adopted several years ago was that I change my opinions when the evidence in front of me changes, or when I go through a new life experience. In the early stages of putting the Be the change – Cambridge project together in mid-2014, there were a significant number of unknowns. These including people’s appetite for what we wanted to achieve, people’s desire to get involved, interest from institutions and the general feasibility of it all. In an exam, you’re tested in things you’re supposed to know or have been taught. In this case, we didn’t have various things at the start.

In terms of changing circumstances this included a growing number of event clashes. The increasing number of events that have been organised and publicised since we settled on our date is astonishing. In terms of new information, this has also included people and organisations saying they would love to get involved, but cannot do the 13th of September because of a pre-existing event.

Cambridge needs a city-wide events co-ordinating unit – ideally run & funded by the local authorities and our universities

I am putting that in the biggest letters I can find to make this point. Furthermore, people and institutions planning/organising events should have in their processes contacting the co-ordinators before finalising dates. Amongst other things it could reduce event clashes where organisers are reaching out to the same audiences.

There are a growing number of events that are now being repeated annually – which I think is splendid! In particular credit to those that have forced the hand of Cambridge University to make it more accessible to the public. During my teens I still have the voice of ‘We don’t normally hire out our facilities if you are not a member’ from one of the colleges when enquiring about an event I wanted to organise. That was as recent as the late 1990s. They’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go.

Me learning more skills – ***lots more*** skills

In my case, it’s with digital video:

  • Being in front of the camera
  • Filming behind the camera
  • Editing

Here’s another batch of voxpop clips about Be the change – Cambridge

In a nutshell, new camcorder and external microphone are a lot better at handling poor light and background noise than smartphone and older camcorder. Furthermore, I’m also using Premiere Pro for editing footage rather than iMovie, the former being far more versatile but also far more complex. It’s not a case of download, cut & paste, tweak sound, export & upload. At the same time, the increase in video & audio quality along with the change of file type has significantly increased the size of files I’m now working with – my poor laptop groaning under the strain!

With the Be the change – Cambridge website, I have taken the plunge going beyond the basics of ‘type and post’ as with this blog. As David said to me, do & learn little and often rather than in big chunks. It means the road travelled is a little big bumpy, but the alternative is a smooth ride before crashing into a steel barrier and getting hurt. At least with a bumpy road you can go back over it relatively easily to smooth things out. Hit the steel barrier and you’re not going anywhere for a long time. This was me with digital video. I was blogging away quite nicely, even though I noticed fewer people engaging or even viewing my blogposts. The steel wall was my fear about getting into digital video. It was only when I did the evening class that I got over it.

So, who’s coming to our conversation cafe on Saturday 13th?

1pm at the Ashcroft Business School, ARU on East Road in Cambridge. See details here. The politicians have reconfirmed, for which I am grateful for. We’ve got over 50 of us confirmed on what will be a chance for many actively interested parties to meet for the first time. We’ll also be looking at who can contribute what for the big gathering in very early 2015 as well as the essentials of how to run what is an evolving project that is generating an increasing amount of interest from a growing number of people and organisations. ‘Stakeholder management’ in this context has a very very different feel to what I was experienced in the public sector. But again, this is learning by doing.