A stimulating start to CityCamp London

I spent the weekend at CityCamp London, a three day unconference aimed at making London a better place. Brilliantly organised by Futuregov, this was the latest in the worldwide series of City Camps since the movement was started by Kevin Curry earlier this year.

The first day was billed as “Stimulate”, and the speakers certainly met that brief. Leo Boland, Chief Executive of the GLA, began by exploring the concept of ‘the good city’, drawing on the work of geographer Ash Amin. Amin describes the city as a machine, and technology as the life support system of the city. It changes how we look at the city. It helps inform our ideas of past and present, and changes how we appear in the world.

He was followed up by John Tolva’s mind-bendingly brilliant talk on Unmaking Urban Mistakes, looking at system design and the networked city. You can (and, in my view, should) read the whole talk here.  I took away a lot of lessons from this session, particularly on unintended consequences of systems and how we can learn from system failure.

Central to Tolva’s thesis is the role of data. An involved community equipped with data is better able to ask the hard questions. To my mind this applies to any community – whether in a city, an organisation, or a geographically dispersed interest group. Data-centred consultation allows people to interact and debate around a common set of facts.

Next up, Matt Jones from Berg on ‘Vertigo: standing on top of the 21st century in one of the world’s biggest cities’. Vertigo, in this context, is not fear of heights but fear of scale; the sheer scale of the city and the complexity of its systems frightens us. He proposed the concept of a ‘macroscope’, something which will allow us to see the aggregated whole as well as the detail. Technology allows us to see the detail as well as the whole system; he gave the example of Here and There, a horizonless map which shows the whole plan but where the perspective changes as you approach.

What Jones is advocating here is pragmatism.  So for instance he talked about Clay Shirky’s essay on situated software, which suggests we make software good enough for its own context if you want to make it happen. Make software for *your* street, not *the* street, and it stands half a chance of getting off the ground.

We also need to solve vertigo problem if we want to engage people with the issues. Here Jones borrowed the concept of synecdoche from the world of literature.  Synecdoche means making the part represent the whole; we need to make big, terrifying data digestible by real people if we want them to engage with it. By making it human scale, we take away the vertigo that disengages.

Later we moved on to an interview-type session with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor talking to Cllr Steve Reed from Lambeth Council, Caroline Pidgeon from the London Assembly and an opposition councillor from Harrow Council. This was probably the low point of the day, and not just because of the parallel debate about Twitterfall which was taking place on the twitter back channel at the same time.

The conversation seemed to get stuck on the idea that councillors have so many more ways to get in touch with people than they used to – e.g. email, text, Twitter, Facebook. That’s true, but what they were really saying is that there are so many more ways for councillors to talk TO people. At one point we were even on the topic of why email is better than letters – which, given it was a room full of 200 geeks few of whom have sent a letter in the last decade, was simply bizarre. The panel admitted politicians are now putting up barriers to deal with the deluge of communication. To my mind this is a move in exactly the wrong direction; what we need is to move to open platforms and actually have two-way conversations.

Consultation surveys and email do not equal web 2.0, however much councillors like to think it does. In the Q&A following I asked what we can do to improve the understanding of IT amongst those leading local authorities – both elected representatives and leading officers. Bad websites cost councils in the UK £11m per month in abandoned transactions and unnecessary phone/in person-contact. In my experience one of the main reasons council websites are bad is that those procuring them don’t understand online and don’t know what they need to do to make web work. It was disappointing that the panel didn’t really answer the question.

To close up we had three lightning-fast talks from Anne McCrossan, Nesta’s Philip Colligan then Nathalie McDermott, who I could listen to all day. These events can often end in navel-gazing as we lazily assume others think and do things just like us. Talking about her work with disengaged groups, such as men in prison and the gypsy traveller community, was an essential reminder that for many groups there are significant barriers to adoption, access and engagement which have to be overcome.

Sydney’s CivicTec gave us an international perspective on using technology to meet social need. This highlighted some cracking projects, such as a project to connect refugees across borders.

Finally, we heard from Lambeth’s Youth Mayor and the borough’s Member of the UK Youth Parliament. Taking a campaigns-based approach and setting aside a budget, this is a refreshing example of proper youth consultation rather than the box-ticking exercises so many local authorities are guilty of. Other councils take note.

All in all, a highly stimulating afternoon, and an excellent point to kick off the collaborative discussions the following day. If I were to sum up what I learned, it’s probably that literacy plus agency equals active, engaged communities. The role of technologists and communicators is to make this simple – to identify needs, to consult with communities and users and develop solutions to social problems that are tailored to their contexts.

I’m aiming for two more blog posts in the next couple of days, one on the “Collaborate” day (specifically, the sessions I went to), and another with my thoughts on the event as a whole and some esoteric stuff on our relationship with place which I’ve been thinking about since. But I figure if I don’t publish this first post now I never will. So here it is.

CityCamp all over the internets:

One thought on “A stimulating start to CityCamp London

  1. Pingback: Happy City Campers – and Local by Social « Policy and Performance

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