An Outrageous Idea

Eight years.

What would it take to create an entirely new local public services organisation? Switch off the old one, build and turn on a new one, inside eight years.

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What would it take to keep (and bring back) the most creative and passionate people? Fully integrate communities and businesses in the design and delivery of public services, to the point where it’s impossible to draw a line between public and private.

What would it take to eliminate the financial burden? Switch from a constricting mindset to one of abundance. A place where dreams are sought, shared and realised.

What would it take to work in a culture of trust, mediation and celebration? Make “us and them”, grievances, whistleblowing and confrontation a thing of the past.

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ConnectingBrighton: what next?

This week we will reconvene to review the first ConnectingBrighton event and talk about what happens next. To help form a view of the future, I thought it would be useful (for me) to look back at how it emerged.ConnectBTN_scibe

Midway through 2014, the local council launched a publicity campaign spelling out the upcoming challenges of population change and massively shrinking council budgets. It seemed to me that there was no master plan to address it and so I wondered what could be done.

That September, I pitched the idea to a group of local businesses and investors of an event to talk about these issues and connect different sectors and communities. The reaction was good so I started looking at potential venues and asked around for help.

In October, I met Prof Zef Hemel at a “Future Cities” event in London and heard him talking about city identities and community involvement in planning. I was really pleased that Zef agreed to come over and speak at our event.

Towards the end of January, I met with Jenni and we started talking about connecting different sectors, “Happy Cities” and new ways of community working.

In February, I met with Brighton Digital Festival Manager, Jesse Black Mooney. We talked about Amsterdam’s interpretation of a “smart city” and how something similar might work in Brighton.

Soon after Jenni joined Ethos VO,  in March, I floated the idea on our internal network of holding an event at the Brighton Digital Festival. Jenni suggested doing one about what it means to be a smart city and what a smart Brighton could be. We came up with a “statement of purpose” and got to work.

Looking back, I wonder whether presenting the event as part of the Digital Festival and linking it to the “smart cities” debate was helpful or confusing (maybe it was both!). My sense is that our intention was always to look beyond digital technology and reclaim the notion of a “smart city” as one that is first and foremost human.

So what next?

In my view, ConnectingBrighton is essentially a story that can help to bring people and organisations together, to improve life in Brighton & Hove. It could happen in many different ways: at a big event, in a small group, one-to-one, online, through art.. For me, ConnectingBrighton could be the story that gives those connections meaning. I think there is a need for a narrative, and dreams, that are bigger than politics, religion, business, technology, and so on. One that allows people to see beyond sector boundaries and helps to bind the community. I think that technology can play a significant role to amplify the story and strengthen connections but we need to focus above all on the quality of our relationships.

There are countless ways to build the story but I agree with Jenni that there needs to be more support for it to grow. Perhaps one way is to join up with the next city bid project, for example, the current Urban Living call.

Paradoxically, I also feel that it needs to be owned by both everyone and no one. It needs leaders to help support and facilitate the conversations and story building but I don’t think it can be associated too strongly with one or other person or organisation. Otherwise it runs the risk of becoming another segment. It needs to be really easy for anyone and everyone to jump in and take it to the next level.

The image included shows an illustration by Monika Bansal of the ConnectingBrighton event on 25th September 2015. Photo by Clive Andrews. Video created by David Scurr

Super Smart Brighton

The message from Brighton & Hove City Council’s Corporate Plan 2015-2019 is pretty clear: big change is round the corner whether we like it or not.

Against a backdrop of massively shrinking council budgets (about 40% smaller) we need to address some major challenges. For example:

  • Life expectancy is up to nine years less in the most deprived communities
  • 1 in 5 children live in poverty (1 in 2 in the most deprived areas)
  • Almost 3/4 of households cannot afford housing without a subsidy
  • Major investment is needed to maintain and develop our infrastructure, not least on the seafront
  • Congestion and air quality trends in the city centre are unsustainable
  • Social care costs associated with a growing and aging population will balloon
  • Volumes of waste per household are high and recycling rates are low
  • Many community safety measures may become unaffordable

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Faced with these complex issues we will need to be smart. One response could be to try and control the situation, by gripping more tightly with a much stronger, central leadership from the council. An alternative view, which is suggested in parts of the Council’s Plan, is to embrace a more emergent, responsive and decentralised leadership. I think that the latter approach is more natural to Brighton.

To understand the local culture, you might get a clue from the physical layout of the city. There are many iconic buildings and spaces: the Pavillion, the Piers, Hove Lawns, the Lanes, New Road, Madeira Drive and our parks. The i360 will be another. But when someone asks “where is the centre of the city?” it’s not easy to pinpoint. Many towns have a central square where people naturally gravitate: to celebrate, to demonstrate or to begin an initial exploration. In Brighton, it could be any one of a number of locations, although unlike other cities the chances are you won’t find a town hall or cathedral there. The council actually has three town halls (Brighton, Hove and Portslade) although none of them houses the corporate leadership team (who are mainly based at Kings House in Hove). Almost half the city’s residents have no declared religion, which is around twice as many as the national average, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there is no obvious central church or cathedral.

One of the things that “Smart Cities” aim to do is identify spare capacity and match it to need. For that to work, people need to connect and share. To my mind, it’s more than just a technical challenge. I think it’s more one of trust and a desire to help: to think and act as a community. I believe it’s a desire that springs from understanding the wider picture and from strong, personal relationships; that springs naturally from a sense of identity and association. In a recent poll, Brighton came top amongst UK cities where residents are proud to live (91% positive), so it seems that we have a great foundation.

How does a city connect when there is no centre? Perhaps Brighton is a “starfish city“, one that positively thrives without a central control. In a networked era, decentralisation is becoming easier. The Brighton Digital Festival (BDF) organisation is a great example of a structureless, voluntary, open network. Last year I attended a coordination group meeting with the BDF. It was diverse, messy, passionate and brilliantly successful. This year I hope that we can hold an event at the Festival to focus upon what more Brighton can do to become an even smarter and more responsive city.

I’m inspired by some of the language used in the Council’s Corporate Plan, which seems to invite this sort of change:

“We must aim much higher than trying to remain the same. With a decreasing budget, we are open that the council will shrink in size, employing fewer people over the coming years. The relationship between the council, partners, providers and citizens needs to adapt.

The emphasis is on us, the council, releasing more of the control that we have traditionally held, collaborating increasingly with partners and enabling citizens to be active and do more for themselves.

We have the opportunity and the potential to help realise the shared partnership vision of a connected city.”

[Thanks to Jenni Lloyd for the conversations that sparked this post and for coming up with the idea of bringing the Smart Cities debate to the BDF. Thanks to Jesse Black for the title!]

Watching your heart beat

In preparation for running the marathon I bought a heart monitor. It’s a useful aid to pitch your training at the right intensity. I wore it to sleep one night to try and get a good read on my resting heart rate. I had expected to see a gradual drop and steady low rate. But when I downloaded the data I was surprised to see this:

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This much I don’t know

For the past few years I’ve been asking my colleagues what they think about my work in a twice yearly anonymous survey. Overall it’s been ok and in fact, it has proven to be my most valuable development tool. But the one area where I have consistently received a low score (25-30%) is knowledge.

At first I was pretty cross about it. After all, I’ve been working in this sector for 18 years etc etc.. Surely they’ve got it wrong! (I thought).

But the truth is that they are absolutely right. If I had to cover for most of the roles in my team I would underperform because I simply don’t have the depth of knowledge in all areas. I think that’s ok though. So long as that expertise exists within the team, and is accessible, we should be alright.

It’s a well established cliché that no one person knows more than everyone. Pretty obvious really, although I wonder whether people really believe it about their own specialised subject. Most of us are happy asking for advice about areas where we do not consider ourselves expert, but how about the ones where we do? This is where I think there is often a missed opportunity for both learning and connecting. Sharing your expertise and experience is revolutionary. A huge step forward in adding value compared to keeping it hidden or restricted. Helping others that ask for assistance? Even better. You could say that these two approaches fit the category of “providing”. In this relationship the people we are connecting with remain, in the main, recipients. There are parallels between this type relationship and the teacher / pupil or manager / subordinate type dynamic. Learning is predominantly one-way and if there is a connection it’s likely to be slightly reverential.

Moving to a different level, the power of asking “what do you think?” is enormous. In one stroke you have conceded that you don’t know it all and levelled the playing field. The dynamic is transformed into a conversation between equals which has the added benefits of creating the opportunity to learn and grow; and opening up the possibility of building a friendship.

To survive and make sense of the world, most people absorb less than 5% of what we can sense. And our senses are only capable of picking up a fraction of what’s there. So our blind spots are far greater than our range of visibility. Perhaps the more eyes and views we can get on the problem the better.

Fractures (Small Acts of Generosity / Small Acts of Mutiny)

“The world as we know it is built on a story. To be a change agent is, first, to disrupt the existing Story of the World, and second, to tell a new Story of the World so that those entering the space between stories have a place to go.”  Charles Eisenstein 

If the purpose of change agents is to facilitate transition from one story to another, I like the idea of initiating the process with Small Acts of Generosity & Small Acts of Mutiny. imageExperiences which create schisms. Fractures. Fissures in the dominant story. Chinks of light. Apertures into a new story. Invitations to a different way of being. They are the moments of clarity, glimpsed on the way down. They are the practical actions creating experiences which don’t quite fit. The ‘irrational’ cameos that seemingly make no sense.

Small Acts are on the one hand giving; on the other, refusing. Unexpected generosity; uncomfortable mutiny. This is not revolution. These are just Small Acts. Gentle nudges. Harmless, yet potentially transformational. A slow puncture in life as we know it. The seeds of a new way. The rôle of change agents is to sprinkle these seeds and nurture them.

10% Days (#10pcday) are an attempt at a two-in-one Small Act of both Generosity and Mutiny. It is a baby step on the path towards a potentially big shift. What if everyone took a 10% day? What if 10% became 20%, or 30%? What if “gift work” experiments on 10% days became the norm everyday?

Small Acts are not theoretical. They are practical. The only talking is about what you are doing and how it went. Small Acts are not desktop punditry or soap box rhetoric. They are evidence of full and active commitment.

Working Out Loud (#WOL) is potentially another two-in-one Small Act. It is a generous commitment to share and to help, beyond what is required in your job description. It is also a declination. A refusal to constrain yourself to the established mode of operating. This is my favourite example of full commitment Working Out Loud by serial experimenter and Small Acts grand master, Jonathan Anthony: Working Out Loud Under The Stairs.

Small Acts are about doing what feels right, not what is expected. They are about doing what is important, not what is urgent. They are about stepping out of the shadows and being bold.

Anyone can commit to a Small Act. They don’t require upheaval or high risk. They don’t require a project team. They are simple ways that anyone can get on with it, right now.

What do you do to initiate change?

Change Agents DIY

In the 90’s, everyone wanted to be a DJ. I shared a room with one at University and, inevitably, became one too. When I moved to London the running joke was: “You’re never more than 6ft away from a DJ

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These days, the same might be said of “future of work” experts. More and more people are getting involved. But there’s something about the monetisation of this area which feels a little awkward to me.

Perhaps this is the reason why…

One of the changes foreseen in ‘the future of work’ by The Responsive Organisation is a shift from extrinsic rewards to intrinsic motivation. That sentiment was evident when so many people gave up their Saturday last week to attend the London event, unpaid. Gifting your spare time, ideas and energy to the community is, after all, how networks outperform closed systems. That works great when we’re all in it together. But in a market environment where others are seen as competitors and competitive advantage is perceived to be vested in ideas, identity, time and resources, does the spirit of sharing and helping others in the network break down? How can we remove some of those obstacles and promote the Gift Economy principles which underpin working as a community?

One avenue could be committing to give away our spare capacity. In the legal profession, barristers and solicitors regularly give up their time to represent others and provide training, and the same thing happens in many other areas of work. I wonder whether there would be appetite for “change agents” to offer their full commitment, for a part of their time, on a voluntary or pro bono basis, to help organisations do it themselves?

Back in the day, there wasn’t really much money to be made out of DJing, other than for the ‘elite’. But that wasn’t the point. It was a passion. What became obvious though, was that DJing isn’t that mysterious. Like many things, belief and commitment will take you a long way. I remember hearing stories about a guy who passed himself off as one of the high paid superstars and got booked to do gigs up and down the country. The irony being that he was, by all accounts, pretty good and the people who heard him weren’t at all disappointed. With a bit of guts, I thought, anyone could do it themselves.

To support the shifts happening in work, I’m committing 10% of my time, as a gift. I’m not a superstar, but I do have a passion for change. If you would like me to come to where you are to discuss organisational development, let me know.

#caDIY