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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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Changing London – a blog that might do just that

There are now so many blogs and other opportunities to publish and comment it’s difficult to think that another one more might make a difference to big policy issues, unless backed by a substantial organisation and other resources.

However, I have a hunch that Changing London, started a few months ago by David Robinson and Will Horwitz, might just do that. They say:

We have set up this site to showcase, debate and develop bold, ambitious ideas from you: London’s citizens and friends. You can submit your idea right now, or get in touch with us, via the form on the right.

We are also planning some street activities and some community consultations to widen engagement.

After 6 months we will pull together the best ideas and use them to inform and influence the debate about the mayoralty and ultimately, to help lift the ambitions of the next mayor.

This is not a political blog about the personalities, Westminster rumours or the latest twists in the selection saga. It’s a blog about the big ideas that could shape our city for decades to come. We hope politicians will pick them up and if they don’t we will try to persuade them.

The site isn’t flashy, commenting is a bit limited so far, but there is an impressive range of high quality content, and a strong sense of integrity about the intention and style of operation, that I think will give it influence. That’s not least because of David’s impressive work in East London with Community Links over several decades, his connections at national level, and his colleague Will’s diligence in researching, curating and promoting material. Will’s posts about other cities have been inspirational too. There’s credibility there.

Tomorrow evening, January 30, there’s an open meeting at Toynbee Hall to discuss two themes that have emerged from contributions so far: The best place on earth grow up; The world’s friendliest city, plus a discussion of next steps:

We plan to run the blog until Easter and to lead or to support other crowd sourcing activity throughout this period both off line and on. During this phase we will also begin to draw together some of the principal threads in the conversation. Each of these themes, probably eventually about 8 to 10, will be shaped into a topic for discussion at an open meeting. The combined product will finally be published as a book at the start of the party conference season on October 1st 2014.

Apart from an interest in the themes, I’m fascinated by how the process will turn out. Some 35 years ago, after working as planning reporter on the Evening Standard, I co-authored  a book on London for Thames Television. It was called “London The Heartless City” because in those days there was a lot of concern about people leaving, and London’s economic decline. We’ve got problems today, but that isn’t one of them.

Back then it wasn’t possible to crowdsource ideas, so unless you did a lot of interviews, the temptation was to rely on official sources rather than the views of Londoners. I think Changing London will have more impact because people may feel it is theirs, and they can make a difference. I hope there’s a good turn out tomorrow. I’ll certainly be there.

BBC collaboration helps network London hyperlocals

Today very big media (the BBC) met very small media (London hyperlocal bloggers and online community managers) and found they had something to work on together. It might be the start of something significant for local communities.

Their shared interest was that the London TV analogue signal will be switched off next month, starting on April 4. For most people it will be a simple matter of retuning their digital sets if they are using Freeview – but there are still many who will need equipment like a set-top box.

The get-together, in the BBC Council Chamber, was organised by Hugh Flouch of Networked Neighbourhoods

About 1.4 million people could be eligible for the BBC help scheme, which can include installation, advice, and follow-up support for 12 months. However, despite all the publicity, there may be some people who suddenly find their TV isn’t working any more.

Local web sites, like Harringay Online, run by Hugh and other local volunteers, have good connections in their neighbourhoods, as Networked Neighbourhoods research shows – and not just online. They are likely to know who’s who in local networks, and be able to get the word out in various ways.

We heard details of BBC plans from Liam McKay, Switchover Help Scheme Manager for London, and also from presenter Maggie Philbin, who has been spreading the word at events around the country. Then we got into huddles to come up with some ideas of our own, on how bloggers and BBC could work together. As well as local site managers, we had Matt Brown, editor of The Londonist, whose site has enormous reach throughout the capital. It all sounded very promising.

The bigger idea, as Hugh explains in the interview, is that BBC and hyperlocal sites both have a public interest role, and could work together more to deliver on that. BBC can’t always get to the grassroots … and while local sites definitely are grassroots, they need more nourishment to keep going.

The possibility of collaboration with the BBC, and other big agencies, could make it worthwhile for the bloggers and site managers to develop a network that could offer more more fine-grain communication locally. A London network isn’t a new idea, as Hugh explained, but this time something might be possible, particularly if the BBC could help out – perhaps by listing local sites at BBC London. There has to be something in the collaboration for both sides. Samantha Latouche explains more about the help scheme.

Maggie Philbin lives in Chiswick, and when she isn’t out evangelising the switchover help service, drops in to her local site to see what’s happening locally.

I go on to my local website chiswickw4.com at least once a day, and if I’m working from home it is slightly more, because there is something slightly addictive about checking out what’s going on. I know it doesn’t matter whether you have lost your cat or there has been some horrendous tragedy, I know the web site will cover it, and the forum will cover it. They are a really powerful source of local news and the place that you turn to.

“Sitting around this table today was this absolutely golden resource across London, of the people who know their areas. No matter how hard you try as a big organistion like the BBC you cannot know your areas as well as the people in this room. Tapping into this knowledge is really useful for the BBC – and I hope it can be reciprocal, and can go both ways.

I don’t think the London bloggers could have hoped for a strong endorsement – and if this interview is useful for a local site, you can get the embed code here. I would just be glad of a link back.