Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Hadron Colliders

If the actions of those participating in the recent riots could be helpfully explained away as” just” mindless vandalism why is there such complexity in the debate surrounding why they did it, where they did and when? The word mindless has a specific meaning; it is utterly without thought. And this is where I struggle. I think this was a riot was a very different animal. And there was most definitely thought involved – it was calculated, strategic and very specific. The anatomy of this riot differs on many levels to your Poll Tax Riots of the 90’s, the anti-globalisation riots of the 00’s and the student protests of the recent 10’s.

This was young people on a mass scale quickly sensing an opportunity to seize control of a situation of confusion and anger with the authorities, appropriating it, networking with terrifying efficiency and mobilising for a collective and very violent vent.

The speed and ferocity with which they achieved this; its continuation and geographic reach, speaks of more than deprivation and “old local pain”. Yes many of these places are and have suffered economic decline. Yes these places have a history of social and economic tension; struggling to remain resilient after the battering ram of unemployment, transience and physical underinvestment keeps on coming.

But what this is really about, for me, is a chronic sense of a generation under siege from society, media, consumerism, government and themselves on a daily basis for what has felt like decades. From a society that considers young people to be fair game for a kicking. Now that siege is against us. Mental health problems amongst young people are higher than ever. Victims of violence are more likely to be young people. Youth unemployment is at its highest levels for decades. Student debt is rising. Portrayals in the media range from lazy, hoody, violent and feral, stupid and disengaged. What impact is this having on individual and collect self-esteem. Where do we think this anger comes from?

As a sister and a friend and employer of young people I consistently find that what matters to their development and success is a sense of identity, self-confidence and self-esteem. Without these come fear, detatchment, lack of empathy for human feeling, alienation and isolation.

I’m not for a second condoning what this group of young people have been doing over the last few days with seemingly high levels of delight, satisfaction and frenzy. This was not about urban social protest in its traditional sense; it was rampant acquisitive crime. Why would so many kids be motivated to do this on such a mass scale? Mindless vandalism or because they’ve been taught that having “stuff” is key to morale and a sense of self-worth and if I can’t have it I’m going to fake it or take it with little disregard to impact or consequence?

But I also don’t condone the growing sense of detachment, cynicism and materialism that has pervaded our lives and our places - that have themselves become detatched, alienating, isolating and lacking in any empathy for fellow human feeling. Just looking at some of the development that has “regenerated” our towns and cities over the last few years and how prevailing social conditions get frozen in architecture and you’ll see how chilly and uninspiring they can be.

It always amazes me how, what so often gets relegated as the “fluffy stuff” – i.e., consideration of social regeneration and community development – quickly becomes very spiky when it’s absent or got wrong; and how it soon becomes the explanation for everything in those circumstances. Either it’s important or it’s not? Either make an effort to take it seriously and effectively build in the need for community services and support or don’t wonder when communities that are under pressure and under-confident explode?

There was quite clearly a spectrum of reasons people got involved ranging from ego, boredom, peer pressure, anger, sheer bloody-mindedness, greed, territoriality, hatred and for a sense of thrill. They were unlikely to be abject hunger or a threat to liberty or security. These people wanted trainers and tellies and to give you the finger in the most visceral way possible – burning YOUR and THEIR city.

Yes, these our OUR cities. The places we hand control over to councils, government, private sector interests as we get through our lives over-worked, stressed, sat in front of our tvs or in our communities; the places that we go to when we’re not out working or buying stuff. When things like this happen – suddenly it’s like the city is an extension of your very body, and you feel they’ve actually set fire or trashed you, and you want that city back?

Why is this attachment to place, city, street, community, each other so hard to come by these days that we need to loot several neighbourhoods and set up a city-wide twitter campaign to reclaim the street with a broom? We have been having our own riot, it just happens on a low-level daily grind – these kids stuck into the social equivalent of a Hadron Collider; fuelled by opportunity, social media, and an incredibly strong network; in a vacuum of responsibility and activity; and boom they kicked off.

I sympathise with their utter frustration with what feels like a wobbling mask for society that is close to the edge but keeping calm and carrying on because that’s what we do. But really; we are all being pushed to the edge and or places, faces and kids are saying it all.

I sincerely hope that as a result of this, serious questions will be asked about how we support communities raise individual and collective levels of confidence and self-esteem to withstand social and economic change, remain resilience and be able to grow our young people properly instead of leaving them to do it themselves. I also hope that we recognise that our places have not just been a backdrop to this but have been the one thing that has brought us together through a sense of attachment and ownership.

Friday, 15 April 2011

loving your work tidy street

Tidy Street in Brighton is wearing its energy use on its sleeve by recording their daily energy usage and telling the world about it in a giant infographic painted on the street outside. Local street artist Snub is providing the graphical know how and over March and April 2011 they will not only be able to see their own electricity use but how they measure up against households across the uk.

The project is part of Change, a collaboration between Goldsmiths, Nottingham Uni, Sussex Uni and the Open University - check it out here - http://www.changeproject.info and follow the progress of Tidy Street at ww.tidystreet.org

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Community Permission: Seeing the community as client

Communities are all too often bystanders in the regeneration and development process despite being profoundly affected by the changes that the process can bring. The planning process can also be a mystery, shrouded in tiny fonts, aggressive institutional-speak, over-the-top bureaucracy, the safety blanket of policy and a funfair of forms. Instead of being receivers of development, local people should be agents of change, helping to define and steer the shape their own neighbourhoods take?

The Localism agenda provides an unprecedented opportunity to place communities at the heart of the local decision-making process by creating important new roles and responsibilities for them. The community is now a client and needs to be satisfied that development is meeting their needs. But they also need to manage the responsibility and burden of being a permission-giver. Following from this, developers now need a mandate from a community to develop in their area. They need to obtain “community permission”.

If communities are expected to run services, take on assets and give permission for development then they need a new set of behaviours, skills and competencies that are currently not there in abundance and often have to be brought or bought in. This is all very well but communities often lack the confidence to articulate their needs effectively and play with the people that don’t normally play with them – i.e., developers. So, we need to gear up communities to become savvy clients and representative permission-givers and we need to do this fast.

Developers and communities often have uncomfortable experiences of going through the planning process and gaining permission can be painful for both sides. We need to change the relationship between developers and communities from the adversarial to being much more collaborative. Developers also need to be up-skilled in communicating better with local people. Obtaining community permission needs to be considered as important and startegic to the success of a development proposal as obtaining planning permission or getting environmental consents. The costs of gaining community permission therefore need to be built into the development model from the start just as gaining expert advice on planning, enviornmental matters and design is.

Community as Client is not a new thing – we have a long tradition of community regeneration in the UK, but it is about how the exception becomes the rule. The government is pushing for all of this but there is a worrying lack of clarity and funding for practical pathways for communities to have some control. The granularity of where things work well, and why, is being lost in the noise of the debate over what we should be doing at a national level – cue Big Society.

How can best practice on the ground punch through to inform government thinking and change behaviours in the development industry? This is important if communities are really going to see the benefits of Localism as the Bill implies and critically determine it away from being just an exercise in dismantling the planning system at the local level.

The Localism Bill demands a set of roles and responsibilities that communities do not have in abundance. Some key questions arise from all of this, namely:
- Who will these community permission-givers be?
- What roles, skills, and support do communities need in order to become clients?
- What structures do communities require to confer permission and participate in the process instead of just rubber stamping it at the end?
- What form will permission given by the community take?
- How will developers obtain community permission effectively?

Community as client starts with making best use of the resources that already exist at a local level. Valuing what is already there and reactivating it to suit new needs and realities. It is about seeing local people as the experts on their own places; they know what works, doesn’t work and what change they want. They are a wealth of untapped resource in terms of the places, knowledge, experience, skills and networks that are built up over time. Allowing people to stamp their identity on a place gives them more than the role of caretaker at the end of the process, but the role of designer, catalyst for change, community champion. This is something developers can benefit from to inform their development and ultimately make them more attractive and palatable to local people.

Facilitating the development of a mandate and galvanizing local people and developers to work together requires a type of glue that can help build the social bonds and positive behaviours to keep everyone working as a team. The outcomes will be better achieved if the community client is engaged as part of the project team from the very start. We work with the community client and the developer to create a shared charter setting out the key outcomes and outputs being sought from the development by the community and developer. It is our job to steer the project according to this charter.

We help developers understand the range of existing resources and capability in the community (including assets, unemployed and retired people, volunteers, arts and social enterprises, youth organizations and the third sector) and mobilise them to be part of the development project. This helps build the vital bridging capital between people and groups choosing to cooperate and support each other, which is needed to build community strength and confidence. The confidence, capacity and competency built in the community through the development process can be used to fuel other projects such as community asset transfer, social enterprises and volunteering.

Mend has developed a process and set of procedures to help communities take on the role of the client and to help developers gain community permission. We are pro-development in the sense of seeing the development process as an opportunity to improve a local area, not replace it. So the way we see community permission working is a bit like marriage guidance counseling; reconciling different and competing agendas or personalities and identifying common ground and affinity.

Fundamentally if we want better development we have got to be prepared to be a good client; and if we want community permission we have got to be prepared to respect the community as the client.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Scenius & TechCity: A new form of place-making?

"TechCity" is the official brand name given to David Cameron’s vision for a hub in east London which could rival Silicon Valley for attracting high profile technology firms and spawning the next technological innovations. The concept builds on the existing hive of tech creativity and innovation based in Shoreditch and the plans are to extend this to link up with Olympic legacy assets and spaces in Stratford. This corridor could stimulate the growth in jobs and enterprise that is necessary to diversify the UK and London economy away from a reliance on financial and business services which were shaken by the global credit crisis.

As a vision, it adds neatly to the collection of other “visions” that have been announced for east London over the years including those that claim to the area being a beacon of clean energy and creative industries, etc. etc. This has contributed to a confused identity and lack of focus for what should steer the future of this area. Cue TechCity......What is needed then, is the substance behind what TechCity means to the existing business ecology of East London and Shoreditch and an appreciation of what these businesses need in order to thrive.

Elizabeth Varley is CEO of TechHub, a business that provides space and services for tech start ups. She has listened to her clients and confirms that “what businesses themselves say they want is access to affordable space and good broadband and technology support but more importantly, opportunities to network and share ideas and good coffee!” Is this possible in a conventional science park? See www.techhub.com

The "Silicon Roundabout" in Shoreditch has been busy bubbling away for a few years only for civil servants to gallantly announce its arrival. The choice of location is no accident. Old Street's scruffy charm and relative cheapness of space has been a significant factor in its success in attracting young tech creatives. This has led to an organic growth of networks and spaces for people to share and cross-fertilise ideas. Just in time for a big government scouring pad to come along and sanitise those very charms in the name of making it more corporate friendly?

Creatives are well known for pioneering new futures for city parts rendered downtrodden, forgotten and made redundant by the prevailing market preferences that shifted away from it. Their energy, ideas and networks breathe new life into a place, helping to reinvent it by reactivating old strengths and bringing much needed injections of people and money.

A critical mass builds up before it catches the eye of mainstream prevailing market preferences again, but not before the place has ascribed itself a new raison d’etre. The return of the market brings with it a levelling and sanitising urge to bring the area back into its fold. But the transition can often push out the very people, ideas and energy that brought it back to life. No matter, as the area is self-sustaining again and the pioneers move on to the next place that is ripe for reinvention.

This cycle is already being seen in and around the Silicon Roundabout and poses a challenge for the capacity of the area to continue providing a vital and fertile incubation ground for micro-start ups. Big corporate brands are eyeing Shoreditch as an alternative to the media mainstay of Soho and a few are already on their way over.

The density, granularity and messiness of Shoreditch is key to its success in generating successful ideas through creative collaboration. They are allowed to mingle and merge until a spark catches and it grows into something really good – a phenomenon Stephen Johnson credits Brian Eno for coining as “Scenius” in his recent article in the Financial Times about information spillover leading towards lightning in a bottle. See http://tinyurl.com/6kus2p9

According to Kevin Kelly (2010) “The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. A place that is open, but not too open. A buffer that is tolerant of outlaws. And some flash of excitement to kick off the virtuous circle. You just can’t order this.”

We need to ensure that the existing quality of scenius in Shoreditch is enhanced and not compromised by the TechCity initiative so that it continues to generate and grow good ideas. This means providing an environment that is conducive to idea and information spillover – for both micro and established businesses. So what do scenius places have in common? They are more than just what happens when space and idea collide. Density, sharing and collaboration is king; neatly organised, windowless sheds shoved on an out-of- town not-fit-for-purpose-built business-park is definitely not king. So is Kelly right - is it nigh on impossible to manufacture or plan scenius because is largely people and idea driven?

Well yes and no. People-driven it might be but these people are attracted to certain places; shared spaces and environments that in turn attract other like-minded people and help them share facilities, tastes and activities. It builds through an accretion of experience and success building on top of each other, attracting and sticking to a place. Place is where these attributes collide and I agree about the serendipity of that collision to a certain extent but doesn’t old skool hard stuff like, rents, transport economics and proximity to a supply and customer network also matter to the development of a shared place?

What emerges for me is that the serendipity factor is actually the seeming magical cauldron of hard spatial economics alerting pioneers to a space where people can share and co-create ideas and sparks that in turn attracts a critical mass of scenius “actors” in the form of entrepreneurs, creatives and facilitators and investors. There is a scenius process. (i.e., cheap rents and opportunity permitting sharing of a specific network in a fringe place) that might seem hidden to the naked eye but like any place-making phenomenon it is often only visible after it has taken plight and possibly moved on.

Is the answer then not to try and manufacture scenius places, but accelerate the process of sharing by scenius actors in these scenius places; support and connect the people and ideas bit and leave the spatial economics bit alone? This is a radical approach to regeneration which has seemed addicted to building stuff and not paying enough attention to the stuff that goes on inside? Time to do that.

The planning profession has a massive opportunity to participate in this if we recognise that we are not just about planning buildings but the magic cauldron that helps grow scenius places and lets successful ideas take off. This is what will help us out of a recession, this will help unlock the rich seam of innovation, experience and ideas of our communities and this will help us move on from a coda of place-making being just about kit. Shoreditch is teaching us that space is far from being a static container for activity but a key factor in generating and attracting creativity.

I’m excited about what happens next here. If we can start to articulate the answers to these question and explore what the implications are for the existing scenius spaces in Shoreditch we can provide a strong mechanism for retaining the small and micro businesses in the area that are vital for keeping it so pioneering.

This does not preclude room and opportunities for more established brands and companies from coming in and adding to the richness. It should be possible for large and small companies to co-exist and potentially share resources, support and ideas for mutual benefit? But the needs of micro-businesses community must be met if the area is to continue to thrive in the way it has.

Mend is interested in engaging with the existing business community in Shoreditch to understand the local business ecology and what barriers/opportunities they face in order to remain there? What they think is the reason for Shoreditch being a scenius place? How can the public sector support them more effectively? How can we use TechCity to grow smart scenius communities?

We are interested in hearing from and working with anyone who would like to share ideas so get in touch if you want a chat....with good coffee!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Mend is on air!

Last Tuesday Mend officially hit the airwaves as we recorded our very first Mend London Blog Show on Shoreditch Radio! Shoreditch Radio is a community radio station based in Hackney and is the latest in a long tradition of community radio in London. We have yet to hear the final edit but I am already bracing myself for being transported to my 16-year old grunge loving self when I hear my own voice back....! How do proper broadcasters ever get used to that?

Every fortnight we will be interviewing local residents, businesses, politicians and organisations on the important issues and topics affecting people in Hackney. Our first show features Euan Mills discussing the process and progress of establishing one of the first Neighbourhood Plans in London for Chatsworth Road. Check out their website here to get involved: www.chatsworthroade5.co.uk

Emily Webber from Hackney's very own hyperlocal site Yeah!Hackney also joined us to talk about how the site came about and the reasons it has taken off so much...it is now a major local virtual landmark and is the authority on all things happening in Hackney. The content comes from the local people using it - so nice and eclectic, up to the minute and extremely friendly. Go see: www.yeahhackney.com/

We also briefly talk about the vagaries of government claiming things that are already doing very nicely for themselves thank you....namely the tech hub recently dubbed the "Silicon Roundabout" in Shoreditch which has been busy bubbling away for a few years only for civil servants to gallantly announce its arrival! How to kill something sexy.....For many, Old Street's scruffy charm is the key to its success in attracting young tech creatives and the last thing they need is a big government scouring pad to come along and make it nice and corporate friendly....or do they? Cameron is keen to brand the area and its extention out to Stratford as "TechCity" but is this yet another example of chucking stuff in East London to keep it busy or is there a genuine cluster emerging here?

Check out the show here: www.shoreditchradio.co.uk/show/mend-london/

Get involved, tell us what you think or want us to talk about next, suggest some tunes or invite yourself in as a guest.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Recession: The Album

Tough times, inordinate struggle and challenging situations provide a much more potent creative muse than times of relative calm and ease. Struggle and pressure brings out the best of us creatively. Many an artistic movement has been borne of rebellion and oppression.

Plato said "if anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet....without the Muse's madness, he will fail and his verses will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds." So it seems if you want to write damn good lyrics you need a bit of madness and despair? How about a recession for bringing about a bit of that?

I've been thinking about how some of the best music has been written about a recession or times of economic decline - The Boss, The Clash, Led Zep. Introducing........ "Recession: The Album" !!

Maybe The Guardian will chuck out a free CD with the Saturday Papers?!

I've made a start but as we are so early on in these times of austerity most of the tracks are from the 70's and 80's with a smattering from the 90's and 2000's. The 90's seethe with grunge, a rejection of the vanity and diva-ish-ness of stadium cock-rock. Not to mention the angry and rebellious rave scene that stuck two-fingers up to Thatcher's social conservatism. But rave lyrics are few and far between and grunge's tales of struggles in love and life could make Byron look whimsical.

Rock and rap seem to be the most fertile ground, both being intimately connected to the street and city life. There's also the country music and blues that came out of the The Great Depression of 1930's US that captured the replacement of rural poverty for urban poverty as people tragically and mistakenly thought they would find work in the city. New genres such as grime seem ripe for a new crop of young people/NEET fodder about life struggling on the UK streets.

In short, here is the list so far but I know I've barely scratched the surface. I need your help to grow it and bring new angles on how music has shaped the historical, folk and social record of economic upheaval. So, my Muses of Madness, feed me your songs of so we can learn from the masters and build our own catalogue for the heavy-lifting generation.......

In no particular order:
1. Kaiser Chiefs - I Predict A Riot
2. Manic Street Preachers - Slash and Burn
3. Simply Red - Money's Too Tight To Mention
4. UB40 - One in Ten
5. The Clash - Career Opportunities/White Riot/Guns of Brixton
6. The Specials - Ghost Town
7. Bruce Springsteen - Johnny 99
8. Ray Charles - Hard Times
9. Jane's Addiction - Being Caught Stealing
10. B.B. King - Recession Blues

11. Goldie - Inner City Life
12. The Source - You've Got The Love
13. Pink Floyd - Money
14. Steely Dan - Black Friday
15. The Kinks -Gallon of Gas