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

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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!]