Joining up ideas for a smarter democratic London

Summary: inventing some fictitious Londoners and telling the stories of how technology could help them engage with their city could both help create Smart London and enliven the next Mayoral election. A virtual panel of real Londoners could offer a running commentary on the campaign. Celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and its role in establishing our democratic rights, could add some historical perspective. Here’s how I got to those ideas, started to join them up …. and how they might move forward.

Several events and chance connections over the past week have given me ideas around how Londoners might engage more fully in shaping the future of our city, and the election of the next Mayor. I’m pitching these now because there’s an event this evening that might help bring them together.

This post is also an experiment in whether the socialreporter role of joining up ideas and encounters to some purpose may have a useful effect … so please bear with me on the twists and turns.

The first event last week was the workshop I helped run about how older people can use phones, computers or tablets to engage more fully … or become digitally included, in the jargon.

The second event was a discussion about the next stage of the Changing London project, with a mix of online activity and events leading to a book of ideas for Mayoral candidates in 2016.

The third event was a discussion about how to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the 1215 Magna Carta, and use that to rekindle people’s interest in the democratic rights that it helped establish.

The common thread, for me, was the tension between living in a world increasingly dominated by global forces … of technology, corporate power, climate change … lessening interest in traditional democratic institutions … yet increasing power in the personal communication devices we have.

So how can individuals use this technology to do more to shape the political context, and improve their lives?

I think that even the most enthusiastic advocates for the power of social media, and potential of online democratic engagement (and I’m one) would have to concede that the Internet isn’t proving a simple fix.

The workshop with older people confirmed one tech size doesn’t fit all, and making use of the power in our pockets, bags or laps – at whatever age – is challenging. We have to personalise our devices, and organisations seeking to support or engage have to work that way too.

From discussions after the workshop the idea surfacing most strongly was the need to help organisations in the field learn how to use iPads and other tablets, and connect through apps. That’s as well, of course, as through current computer-based systems,  face-to-face and in other ways.

Without higher levels of capacity among organisations there will be a big disconnect between office-related digital literacies and the personal ones we need to develop.

The Changing London event was a chance to both explore key themes – developing a friendlier London, and one good for to children to grow up in – and how to develop more ideas online and through events.

I made the point that we were getting, through the excellent Changing London blog, lots of specific ideas that could be coalesced into the sort of big ideas that Mayors like to promote. But what was missing was the personalisation. What would a particular policy or programme mean to different Londoners? If we could personalise the relevance we could expect people to engage more fully.

At this point I remembered a chat, after the workshop, with staff running the Greater London Authority Talk London site that offers Londoners the opportunity to engage with researchers and policy makers. They suggested looking at the tech-led Smart London initiative which affirms that “A Smarter London must reflect London’s needs and character, both its residents and its businesses”.

Indeed … but how to make the connection? Fortunately I was skimming the latest always-informative NESTA newsletter that included an article by its chief executive Geoff Mulgan on Smart Cities … and at the bottom of that was a reference to work they had supported on Future Londoners. This involved creating some imaginary characters to explore the possibilities of urban life in the future.

Some of the Future Londoner profiles

That was just the sort of thing we did in the workshop with older people: invent some characters and then work through their needs and interests to apps and devices that would help. Our bigger vision, as I wrote yesterday, is developing a Living Lab for that sort of exploration.

At this point I happened to exchange emails with a friend who asked if I was going to the Involve 10th anniversary event this evening … where Geoff Mulgan would be speaking. I had dropped a comment on Geoff’s blog post, but a chat over a drink would be more effective, and Involve are specialists in citizen engagement who might be interested in these ideas.

I’m particularly impressed by their NHS Citizen project, which is about creating discovery-gathering-assembly spaces, online and off, to connect service users, providers and Board members. It’s being developed by some of the best people in the field: The Democratic Society, Public-i and Tavistock Institute as well as Involve. It’s just the sort of whole-system approach that’s needed more widely.

My ideas crystalised a little more through the meeting about Magna Carta, reconvened yesterday with Hoz Shafiei and Steve Moore, who I know through Lobbi (earlier post here). I wondered whether the celebrations might include ways to encourage people – young or old – to explore what democracy has meant through the ages, and how best to exercise our rights now.

As you can see from the tweet, Hoz and Steve are setting up a new charity – the Great Charter Foundation – with some inspiring ideas focussed around events and awards during next year’s 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta. Maybe we could recreate some characters at different time over the past 800 years, tell their stories, and compare with those of citizens today. We’ll hear more about the Foundation very soon, I believe. **

Fictitious character are fine to help us think about different people’s needs, and how their skills and circumstances affect the opportunities they have. But how could we bring real Londoner’s into the discussions in a way that might liven things up?

At this point an email pinged in from Mark Magnante, who is developing the Miituu app and web system video that enables people to record their views in text audio or video via their own devices (webcams and Android/iOS tablets and smartphones). The results of the visual questionnaire can be displayed in lots of ways, including as an impressive video wall. Mark was updating me on their latest developments and wondered if I had some ideas on how these might relate to any of my projects.

National Voices members use Miituu to say what patient leadership means to them on a video wall

First thought – perhaps we could create an online panel to both generate ideas and provide feedback on whatever Mayoral candidate were promoting? Maybe it could be continuous sounding board during the campaign rather than the equivalent of a one-off focus group.

The video wall is just one method that might be used, among many.

In order to take things forward we might run a workshop, a bit like the one last week, to co-design a whole-system process of engagement.

We could start by filling out the characters of fictitious Londoners – today and in tomorrow’s Smarter London – and then choosing from a pack of ideas the activities, policies and programmes that might meet their needs and interests.

We could look at the dependencies between ideas – if you choose this, what about that – and who would need to be involved to take things forward.

We could explore how different communication methods could help develop the social-political ecosystem needed to engage citizens, organisations and agencies in making a better London.

The Changing London blog and book would certainly be in there, and ways to use the Magna Carta celebrations. But I’m sure we could come up with dozens of ways to encourage mainstream and citizen-led media to join in.

A first step would be to do some mapping of the communication hot spots and connectors in London. Maybe we could end up with a London Citizen equivalent of NHS Citizen. Involve and their partners would be the people to talk to on that.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, back in 1977/8 I co-authored a book about the future of London for Thames Television, associated with a conference – London Looks Forward. We got it out just before the GLC elections of 1978, with a suggested manifesto drawn from our researches. While it was well-received, I doubt if it made much difference.

These days we have the means by which Londoners can help develop their own manifestos …. ideas for the Mayor, suggestions and requests to other agencies and organisations, and the means to explore through personal technology what they can do to improve their own lives.

I don’t really know how these ideas might join up – but it matter at this stage? I particularly liked one blog post from David Robinson on the Changing London site, where he likened the creative emergence and coalescing of ideas to Trusting to the rumble – tipping up a big wooden box of children’s building blocks, old cotton reels, random wooden offcuts and all sorts of odds and ends, and then seeing what you can make. These days the Internet is that digital box of pieces. Please throw in a few more to this small selection. I’ll let you know if any of the organisations I’ve mentioned are doing their own joining up.

Update: Here’s an audio interview I did with Geoff Mulgan, NESTA CEO, and Simon Burall, director of Involve, at the 10th anniversary event, and Simon’s post about his vision for the future.

** Update 2: More now here on the Great Charter Foundation

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