Monday, March 30, 2009

The places inbetween

Chain Reaction discussion feedback for Stronger Communities, Stronger Economy

"People are starting to say 'I need something'"
"I'd like to affect some kind of change"
"Maybe we need to introduce flexibility into systems"

A small group gathered at Staffordshire University in response to the open invitation by the Council on Social Action. We were not there to represent any organisation or community but we could draw on links to many different communities and experience in other places. Our group's work included education, enterprise, health and the arts and we all live or work in the midst of communities highlighted as having high levels of multiple deprivation in 2007.

Stoke-on-Trent has been hit hard by the recession with jobs in all sectors being affected. People with insecure housing or high levels of debt are vulnerable and there are unhealthy lifestyle factors related in different ways to a sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunity, as well as a legacy of a harmful environment. Having said that, many of us feel part of a "very exciting atmosphere". The desire to collaborate, connect and share is increasing. Divisions remain where there is lack of information or misinformation. "It isn't people's fault that they have skewed information". Where people have information, they have more understanding of each other. Although there are negative perceptions of other communities (from different ethnic groups to the jobless/well paid), conversation often uncovers empathy and sympathy and where people have a clearly communicated request to help with something, they do not hesitate. One of the benefits of connection is "hope". Perhaps those who have hope, as much as those who have money, can afford to be generous in drawing people they know who have lost both into new connections and opportunities.

The pottery industry had a major presence in our discussion, as indeed it retains a place in the local economy despite some perceptions. We discussed striking examples of innovation at Ainsley, Wade and Moorcroft, which are repositioning their place in the market in different ways. Once rivals, potteries are cooperating rather than lose out to outsourced companies. Most other successful potteries are cottage or studio-size and we noted that Staffs University are reviving many of the skills and developing very commercial, high-end work. They are working on a mentoring programme and employ people from the potteries, but recruitment can be challenging because of the bitterness left by large-scale redundancy rounds in potteries as recently as at Wedgwood. This damage, stemming from redundancies as well as a culture that often didn't value workers, needs to be recognised - "A lot of the creativity was knocked out of people". People and businesses are becoming creative out of necessity and media coverage has helped to raise the profile of the positive contribution creative industries can make on a place.

We avoided much of the 'official' language of community engagement. In some cases this was deliberate, a sign that some of it lacks credibility. However, many of our ideas overlapped with those in the CoSA propositions and the conversations we could see online. Our discussion also focussed on Common Space, which we defined as being where communities overlapped and something new could emerge through the energy of people supporting one another. Two of our group even had a word for it - spoinging - the places inbetween, the magic, the fairy dust. Examples of where this happens is in a pub, the Old Corner Cupboard in Shelton, which has been able to attract many different ages and races from its locality, and a community house in Blurton started by three women that had an impact on lowering street crime. We strongly believed that there is a great deal of knowledge, skills and value here - "people here are resourceful and have the answers". We believed in our ability to influence at any level, particularly through the consumer choices we make and thought that where people make decisions that are not obviously beneficial to the local economy (eg buying goods whose production has been outsourced), this may be due to a feeling of "gratitude that anyone at all opened here".

Interestingly, there was very little reference to inward regeneration investment, except to define successful places where an investment centre has had a positive effect on surrounding communities (given as Manchester as opposed to than Canary Wharf). Rather, we had much discussion on the value of things where money does not change hands: the negative value of empty, degrading buildings, wasted space and energy as opposed to the positive value that can be brought by people occupying those spaces: security, labour for refurbishment etc. People having the opportunity to trade in a shared, cooperative space shares the risk and is more likely to bring in customers. These could become centres for goods, food and services, trading cooperatively rather than competitively, creating teams where large opportunities for work come and diversifying their income streams in line with their best skills.

More than investment, we called for flexibility. Trading points and the streets are important points of overlap between communities and therefore major opportunities to stimulate connectivity and prosperity. Freedom to gather and perform makes places more festive (Durham was given as an example). Generating positive value within a building should be recognised for its value. The absentee landlord makes little positive value to a town, but could perhaps be persuaded if there was a clear, measurable value and they could be a positive connection to a richer area. Towns should have a 'sinking fund' to facilitate flexibility in times of crisis. Evidence was reported that the empty property rate relief abolition has had a positive impact in this respect as landlords cut rent or negotiate deals with people in local communities in order to fill their properties. This has been assisted in Burslem by the Bizfizz coach, who has been able to create links between people moving towards trade and property agents. It may not be the case in areas where no such personal links can be brokered.

We recognised our own responsibility to reach out to those people we feel suspicious of. While we wanted to see well-paid regeneration executives coming into our communities and speaking to local people every day, we all knew this was difficult without somebody who could welcome them and help to make them feel comfortable. A town like Burslem looks very different when you just 'land' there, rather than when someone is willing to show you round and highlight what makes them passionate about it. We share a love of Stoke-on-Trent and its diverse communities and thought that the name 'Stoke-on-Trent: City of Six Towns' could make explaining our distinctivement much easier and work in harmony with celebrations of our identity as part of smaller and larger geographical communities. Actions we committed to included helping to develop some shared 'brands' that could convey love for the city; working on an alert system to connect visitors to welcoming people and 'flashmarkets' for people to trade whenever tourists visit or there is a warm day; finding ways of creating band spaces or busking spots.

Would our regeneration strategy be taking a different course if communities were in control? In many cases, they would be the same - there are many overlapping ideas. In other cases, decisions would have been made differently, for example clearance would have been quickly followed by more suitable housing or spaces that the community needed rather than being an early stage in very slow masterplanning processes. The best way for a developer or officer to find out what would be effective or profitable in a place, we felt, would be to ask the community. This is not with reference to a piece of paper, official board or survey, but by searching conversations where people are genuinely open about the outcome. Our culture has relatively low levels of written literacy, but the communities we know are curious and articulate, with a thirst for information and debate. The much-reported friendliness of Stoke people is genuine and goes alongside a frank honesty that forces comfortable professionals to hone their ideas more carefully. Strategies have virtually no meaning in the consultation phase. This is not unique to a community like ours, participation in consultation processes is low at the best universities. Come and talk to us about your ideas. The use of well-written strategies that synthesise ideas and experience is as a tool: to steer the work of those working on its delivery, to articulate a clear routemap with which others can collaborate and to hold those delivering it to account.

In a reshaping economy, the government has much to learn from communities like those in Stoke-on-Trent. We have retained traditional cultures, industries and ways of living. Many people have lower costs of living and more time for creative thinking than in other cities. Our talents are under-used, self-esteem can be low and so a volunteer talent bank that included a focus on confidence-building could be very successful here. We have strong social networks that are becoming increasingly interconnected through technology. As people contemplate a return to human values and to flexible, shifting careers instead of a 'job for life', they will find much experience in our city and we are ready to share.

Present: Mark Brereton, Carolyn Powell, Clare-Marie White, Lou Reynolds, Lisa Wilding, Chris Litherland, Carl Plant participated online

Our discussion in Stoke was helpfully informed by the starting point in the Coffee Lounge in Birmingham with Michael Grimes and Claire from Frankley, where we discussd overlapping communities and the added value to workers created by social networks (offline as well as online).

Further content:
More points, but more concise, on the Twitter stream:
Blog post by Carl Plant:
Ideas for SexUpStoke:

Friday, March 13, 2009

Chain Reaction conversations

What if anybody who wanted to participate, could?

The tools to enable people to collaborate more easily have been around and freely available for many years, but it's interesting to see how significant the jump in usage has been in the UK. It's not their existence that matters, it's the sense that people have that they are invited to be involved which prompts them to have a look at the tools, interact and share them. When the use of those tools reaches a tipping point, the people using them become unstoppable. If you're an optimist like me, this is a good thing.

The Council of Social Action, whose Chain Reaction conference took place in November and was ace, is now inviting people to become involved in a chain of conversations linked to the development of a new report. Agreed, "Stronger Communities, Stronger Economy" will make many of your eyes roll, but don't throw sticks at me yet.

The idea is to have a purposeful conversation, without too much organisation, that anybody can join in with. Meetings will have around 20 people each and then be linked by a variety of electronic means, with the opportunity to send feedback to the council. If demand for places goes way above 20 people, then people can organise their own meetings.

The meetings also link in with the We20 initiative as they take place shortly before the G20 Summit in London, when world leaders from the most powerful countries will be gathering to discuss stimulating our economy in various imaginative and strangely worded ways. The effects of these meetings are far-reaching and people in places like Stoke are often on the sharp end. Can thousands of ideas in hundreds of global conversations make a difference to the views of a few (mostly) men in suits? Some ways of feeding in to this should be announced over the next few weeks, doubtless involving all sorts of websites with funny names and friendly graphics.

More importantly perhaps than the chance to ask governments to send more money our way, the meetings are a chance to create change in our own communities. The key question at the end of these meetings will be "What will you do next?"

I was asked yesterday whether this is a new organisation to get bogged down in, by someone with that look of someone who has had too many emails from me (I am trying to give them up).

It isn't. It's just a meeting, a good chance to get a group of people from different backgrounds together at a signficant time for our societies. You can register for the Stoke or London meetings (other cities are in the pipeline, I just think they haven't got round to adding them yet - but you're very welcome to come to Stoke of course!) or find information about holding your own here.