The Future of Your City…?

All the debate about the kind of city we want to be and how we get there is, on one hand, just a lot of hot air, but on the other hand is a series of conversations where people develop and test ideas and possibilities. Meaningful action starts with a conversation – not a plan. Or a vision.

However it really is a tiny minority who are interested in ‘co-designing our city’. The vast majority of us are just trying to get through our own lives, the best way we know how. And while the professional place shapers and planners will continue to do their darndest (more retail opportunities on the way), and try to ‘engage us’ along the way, it is the decisions and actions of the vast majority who have a much more personal interest in Leeds life that will really shape the future of the city.

The development of a city can be supported in 2 broad ways, which are not mutually exclusive.

Firstly we can shape the city to make it attractive to certain groups and types of people. We can build a compelling cultural offer and a good commercial base to attract the wealth creators. This is deficit based development. We do things to attract people who have skills and know how that we do not.  Or we turn ourselves into a theme park and rely on wealth being created elsewhere but spent in ‘our’ economy.

Secondly we can shape the city to make it more attractive and supportive for people that are already here. We can base the development of the city on the development of its people and communities. It is an approach to development that honours who we are, where we have come from, how we can change in order to shape our lives and, as a corollary, the city in pursuit of progress.  It values education and the emergence of identity rather than its imposition.

I have been arguing for many years that in Leeds, as in most UK cities we favour the former approach excessively over the latter. It is placemaking orthodoxy. It involves big ticket ribbon cutting projects, international exchange trips, hob-nobbing with money men and women and the trappings that come with it. It ticks the boxes for the politicians and allows ‘investors’ to have a sporting chance to make a good return. At its best it makes things better for everyone. But it also widens the gaps between the rich and poor.

The second approach involves sitting and listening to people talk about their hopes and fears for the future and slowly building their power to create change. Starting from where they are at, working with what they have got. Forging relationships, shaping projects. No glamour, little money and progress that is organic, potentially transformational and sustainable but that seldom offers the opportunities to cut a big ribbon. At least not quickly.  This is the work of the community coach.

But I hope that the future of Leeds features more of this kind of development – We are all Jim, Cultural Conversations, Progress School, Leeds Salon, Bettakultcha all shaping the present and the future – starting from where we are, working with what we have got.

NB: This piece started of as a comment to a piece by Leeds Salon Organiser Paul Thomas over on the Culture Vulture blog

A Future with Heart…?

Yesterday I went to the official opening of HEART – Headingley Enterprise and Arts Centre, an old Primary School, in a vibrant Leeds suburb which has been converted to a high standard by the Headingley Development Trust to provide:

  • 13 meeting rooms of various shapes and sizes
  • Exhibition space which local artists can use to hang their work
  • The Pulse Enterprise Space – shared workspace available on a membership basis
  • A Cafe, run by an independent operator, with 45 indoor covers and outside, off street, seating for 30 more

With, what seems to the untrained eye, excellent green credentials (solar panels, photovoltaic cells, grey water collection etc) the HEART Centre is a great new facility.  And with an eye to keeping costs down, using teams of volunteers wherever possible to run the building (very ‘big society’) and keeping debt as low as possible, the centre, with a lot of hard work, may just pay its way commercially and fulfil its vision – to create a vibrant and welcoming space for a wide range of people to meet, mix, work and play.

Similar in look and feel to both Hillside and Shine, I think there are several reasons why HEART has a chance of succeeding in the pursuit of its vision.

Firstly it is situated in a relatively prosperous part of the city, there are plenty of bright, young, and not so young things, with Mac Books, notebooks and iPads running small businesses who will almost immediately recognise the value of the Pulse Enterprise Space and find the £25 per month entry point both affordable and cost-effective.

It enjoys a wonderful location, with excellent footfall, and provides great spaces which fit well with the expectations and aspirations of many local people.

It really has been a carefully researched labour of love – the culmination of a 5 year project, led by local people, to keep the school in community use.

But perhaps most importantly I think it stands a chance of success because it is the flagship project of an established Development Trust led by local people who generally live in, and share insights into, the community that they exist to serve.  The Trust has developed over several years and those involved have already more than cut their teeth on a number of other projects including the Headingley Farmers Market, a Housing Project, a Community Orchard and even a Pig and Fowl Coop.  So the building is in the hands of a well established group of people committed to Headingley who have shared experiences over a number of years that have developed a real competence in their work.

Some Challenges to Be Met

Doing what pays – rather than doing what is wanted.  On my tour of the centre I was told about a significant demand from local people to have somewhere to practice their art, painting, drawing and so on – a community studio of some type.    However the centre was unable to respond to this demand because it is not commercially viable.  Local people want to develop their passion and skill and come together communally but this desire, at the moment at least cannot be catered for.  Perhaps in future surpluses from commercial activities could be used to cross subsidise such a resource?

We have to understand that financial viability follows on from the development of real craft.  It is not its pre-cursor.  If we could build a community of artists doing outstanding work then the revenues might start to flow.  Building skills and relationships lies at the heart of effective community development.  If we simply provide a home for those who are already economically viable perhaps we are missing a trick?

Displacement – There is a danger that money that gets pulled into the HEART Centre may be money that is pulled away from other local businesses and community groups offering similar services.   Of course competition is a good thing, as long as the playing fields are kept level between the private sector and community groups.  But if community groups are able to leverage volunteers, grants and subsidises not available to the private sector to compete with them then the results will not always be what we might hope.

Further Driving Inequality in the City? – Headingley, although not without the problems that come from a high population density including lots of students and ‘young professionals’, is not a deprived area.  Indeed it is the only part of the ‘Leeds Rim’ not to be amongst the most deprived wards in the country.   So we have a ‘successful community’ learning how to make itself more successful.  Which is to be applauded.

But can we do more to ensure that gaps between the rich and the poor do not further open up in the city?  How do we work successfully in more deprived areas to ensure that they too share in successful economic and social development.  I am not sure that similar buildings in more deprived parts of the city will have the same chance of really making a difference.

Keeping the Doors Open and On Mission

Buildings, especially ones that are open long hours, cost a lot of money.  Centre managers, caretakers, security, insurances, rates, utility bills and servicing debts all add to the overheads.  It is easy for the imperative to generate income to over-ride the social mission of such spaces.  Bills have to be paid.  But sometimes the desire to pay the bills takes the building away from what it was intended to be.  So, instead of being a place for the local community more of it is made available to affluent outsiders.

Hopeful…

But I am hopeful for HEART.  I think it has an excellent chance of doing great work in Headingley.  The host development trust seems well run.  It is embedded in the local community.  It will be hard work, and I suspect not without real scares along the way.  But I have a suspicion that HEART and the Headingley Development Trust will be a part of the Leeds infrastructure for some time to come.  It may be hard to make the managed workspace/meeting room combination work in more deprived areas of the city – but with a bit of tweaking it may be just right for Headingley.

A Future with HEART?

Yesterday I went to the official opening of HEART – Headingley Enterprise and Arts Centre, an old Primary School, in a vibrant Leeds suburb which has been converted to a high standard by the Headingley Development Trust to provide:

  • 13 meeting rooms of various shapes and sizes
  • Exhibition space which local artists can use to hang their work
  • The Pulse Enterprise Space – shared workspace available on a membership basis
  • A Cafe, run by an independent operator, with 45 indoor covers and outside, off street, seating for 30 more

With, what seems to the untrained eye, excellent green credentials (solar panels, photovoltaic cells, grey water collection etc) the HEART Centre is a great new facility.  And with an eye to keeping costs down, using teams of volunteers wherever possible to run the building (very ‘big society’) and keeping debt as low as possible, the centre, with a lot of hard work, may just pay its way commercially and fulfil its vision – to create a vibrant and welcoming space for a wide range of people to meet, mix, work and play.

Similar in look and feel to both Hillside and Shine, I think there are several reasons why HEART has a chance of succeeding in the pursuit of its vision.

Firstly it is situated in a relatively prosperous part of the city, there are plenty of bright, young, and not so young things, with Mac Books, notebooks and iPads running small businesses who will almost immediately recognise the value of the Pulse Enterprise Space and find the £25 per month entry point both affordable and cost-effective.

It enjoys a wonderful location, with excellent footfall, and provides great spaces which fit well with the expectations and aspirations of many local people.

It really has been a carefully researched labour of love – the culmination of a 5 year project, led by local people, to keep the school in community use.

But perhaps most importantly I think it stands a chance of success because it is the flagship project of an established Development Trust led by local people who generally live in, and share insights into, the community that they exist to serve.  The Trust has developed over several years and those involved have already more than cut their teeth on a number of other projects including the Headingley Farmers Market, a Housing Project, a Community Orchard and even a Pig and Fowl Coop.  So the building is in the hands of a well established group of people committed to Headingley who have shared experiences over a number of years that have developed a real competence in their work.

Some Challenges to Be Met

Doing what pays – rather than doing what is wanted.  On my tour of the centre I was told about a significant demand from local people to have somewhere to practice their art, painting, drawing and so on – a community studio of some type.    However the centre was unable to respond to this demand because it is not commercially viable.  Local people want to develop their passion and skill and come together communally but this desire, at the moment at least cannot be catered for.  Perhaps in future surpluses from commercial activities could be used to cross subsidise such a resource?

We have to understand that financial viability follows on from the development of real craft.  It is not its pre-cursor.  If we could build a community of artists doing outstanding work then the revenues might start to flow.  Building skills and relationships lies at the heart of effective community development.  If we simply provide a home for those who are already economically viable perhaps we are missing a trick?

Displacement – There is a danger that money that gets pulled into the HEART Centre may be money that is pulled away from other local businesses and community groups offering similar services.   Of course competition is a good thing, as long as the playing fields are kept level between the private sector and community groups.  But if community groups are able to leverage volunteers, grants and subsidises not available to the private sector to compete with them then the results will not always be what we might hope.

Further Driving Inequality in the City? – Headingley, although not without the problems that come from a high population density including lots of students and ‘young professionals’, is not a deprived area.  Indeed it is the only part of the ‘Leeds Rim’ not to be amongst the most deprived wards in the country.   So we have a ‘successful community’ learning how to make itself more successful.  Which is to be applauded.

But can we do more to ensure that gaps between the rich and the poor do not further open up in the city?  How do we work successfully in more deprived areas to ensure that they too share in successful economic and social development.  I am not sure that similar buildings in more deprived parts of the city will have the same chance of really making a difference.

Keeping the Doors Open and On Mission

Buildings, especially ones that are open long hours, cost a lot of money.  Centre managers, caretakers, security, insurances, rates, utility bills and servicing debts all add to the overheads.  It is easy for the imperative to generate income to over-ride the social mission of such spaces.  Bills have to be paid.  But sometimes the desire to pay the bills takes the building away from what it was intended to be.  So, instead of being a place for the local community more of it is made available to affluent outsiders.

Hopeful…

But I am hopeful for HEART.  I think it has an excellent chance of doing great work in Headingley.  The host development trust seems well run.  It is embedded in the local community.  It will be hard work, and I suspect not without real scares along the way.  But I have a suspicion that HEART and the Headingley Development Trust will be a part of the Leeds infrastructure for some time to come.  It may be hard to make the managed workspace/meeting room combination work in more deprived areas of the city – but with a bit of tweaking it may be just right for Headingley.

What kind of Innovation Capital do we want to be?

The Innovation Capital Programme is at the core of the new Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).  (I am still struggling personally with the identification of a city region of 3m people being  conflated with local, but we live in strange times.)

We are not talking ‘capital’ in the sense of money, but capital in the sense of a ‘leading centre’.  These are not only strange, but also cash strapped times.  And LEPs are shaping up to be nothing if not politically pragmatic institutions.

The ‘vision’ of the Innovation Capital Programme is:

A dynamic place, globally competitive and renowned for business, enterprise and innovation…An Innovation Capital

It is variously described as a roadmap, an agenda, an action plan.  The language perhaps is telling.  A chosen few, The Anointed showing the rest of us the path to the future.

The language of the Innovation Capital Programme reflects its goals and its constituents:

  • Driving growth
  • Faster growing business base
  • Centres of excellence to support growth sectors
  • Driven by the needs of business

No questions about the role of business in our communities.

No discussion about the merits of economic growth.

The faster the better. It is an unalloyed good. No question.

The engagement strategy focuses on businesses, local authorities, universities and ‘partner organisations that make our economy work’.  The cynic could reduce this to a conversation between those who believe in the Gospel of Consumption on how best to lead the congregation to economic redemption.  It is, to say the least, an ‘orthodox church’.

But what would happen if we framed the problem differently?

If instead of asking ‘how can we help businesses to drive the wealth creation that is required for our region to thrive’ we started to ask about how we engage 3 million people in the region in pursuit of their own well-being.

  • What if we opened up the challenge of ‘social progress’ to anyone who wanted to play?
  • What if talked about the role of innovation in terms broader than purely ‘economic’?
  • What if we believed that universities, local authorities and businesses were not the sole experts on the role of enterprise in our communities?

I suspect we would commission some very different activity, from some of the unusual suspects, and we may just get some different results.

Otherwise I suspect it will simply be more of the same.

If we talk about innovation it shouldn’t be about the mediocrity of having a bigger home or a faster car, but about building a wickedly better world.

Employment and Skills in the Alternative LEP

  • How do we develop a workforce that is Fit for the Future?
  • How do we tackle the problems of ‘worklessness’?

Important questions that we have sought solutions to for most of my working life.

Broadly speaking we have two possible approaches.  We can  set up a committee of the great and the good, employers, politicians and civil servants and we can task them with collating evidence on labour markets, forecasting the future and identifying practical and affordable opportunities to intervene in the systems of education and worklessness that will make sure we develop the workforce that we need, when we need it.  This centralised approach puts power and resources in the hands of an Employment and Skills Board and sets them an impossible task.  It is the Soviet approach to planning tractor production.  It didn’t work for them.  And it hasn’t worked for us.

This approach results in a relatively small number of experiments (pilots) that are later rolled out.  It relies on a committee to accurately ‘read’ the future – to spot opportunities for job creation and then to exert an influence on the ‘production system’ quickly enough to make a positive difference.  This is usually done by setting targets, shifting resources and waiting to see how things unfold.  Strategies are typically set for perhaps half a decade and ‘refreshed’ annually – single-handedly tackling the worklessness agenda by employing a small army of civil servant and academics to collect data and produce reports.

Such boards end up being an ‘interesting’ balance between the voice of the private sector and democratic accountability.  In fact they usually become a stylized ‘war zones’ from which the private sector often retreats beaten into submission by public sector working practices.  Certainly the voice of the small business sector is rarely effectively heard.

Board strategies usually find a few ‘keys’ (NVQs, Diplomas, accredited in-house training, apprenticeships) to a few kingdoms (construction, health and beauty, tourism, call centres, and anything prefixed with ‘creative’, ‘digital’, ‘bio’, ‘high tech’ or ‘high growth’).  Aspirations and strengths of people are subordinated to the Board’s ideas about future skills needs and ‘opportunities’.  Conformity is valued over originality.  Learning ‘off piste’ becomes tricky.

Alternatively we could radically de-centralise and localise the process of thinking and planning about ‘fitness for the future’.  Instead of relying on an Employer Skills Boards to ‘make things right’ we could lay down a challenge to people to develop the skills and passions that they need to secure an economically viable future for themselves, to find what, for them, is ‘good work‘.  To  find their own contribution.   We could develop enterprising people supported in enterprising communities.  This would need schools and colleges to focus on the learner and their vision for their future rather than on the curriculum or qualification structures.

Such a decentralised, enterprising approach might:

  • enable many more informed brains to be brought to bear on the problem of fitness for the future – academics, industrialists and civil servants do not have a great track record in ‘workforce development’
  • enable people to explore ways of doing what they can do best – and not sub-optimising to conform with the ‘few keys to the few kingdoms’ identified by ‘The Board’
  • encourage the local community to support people in acquiring the skills, experience and work opportunities that they need to flourish economically and socially
  • support people to find learning experiences that help them to become the person that they want to be – rather than to conform with the ideal established by a fallible and distant Board
  • significantly increase the volume of learning experiments in the labour market and enable word of mouth to make sure that we develop a dynamic, flexible, responsive and self-reliant workforce

Perhaps these are not alternatives.  Perhaps we need to develop both strategic and responsive approaches to employment, skills and worklessness in the 21st century.

One thing I am sure of… establishing yet another Employment and  Skills Board (this time for the Leeds City Region) is unlikely to give us a major step forward.

 

Big Society: Doing it for ourselves; not for them

One of the mantras of Big Society is that we all need to find time to do more, to give more, to help others more.

Now we can moan about this being poorly timed, or a fig leaf for cuts or whatever.  But this misses the real point.

Which is that, in my book, it completely misunderstands the nature of community, why we need it and how it helps.  It seems to go against the grain of human nature and millenia of evolutionary biology.  Because for most of us, most of the time what motivates us to act is our own self interest.  How we make things better for ourselves and our loved ones.

Most communities don’t develop as expressions of human kindness and generosity.  They don’t build around some desire to ‘place make’. Or around shared public statements of values, intent and belief.  Congregations maybe.  And cults.   But not real, diverse, vibrant communities.  There are plenty of ‘place making consultancies’ that tell us otherwise, and politicians who really value compliance over powerful communities.  But real communities (as opposed to planners confections) develop as a social response to a multiplicity of self-interests being negotiated.

Real communities develop because they help their members to live the kind of lives that they want to lead.  They are a human evolutionary response to attaining a competitive edge. To help us survive and then with good fortune, thrive. Community helps members to explore their potential and develop their lives as they would wish.

So the starting point for the process of community building is not finding more time to help others (laudable though this is) or philanthropy or some demonstration of social responsibility.  It is a thorough understanding of self interest; of the kind of life you wish to lead and the potential that you wish to develop.  As this becomes clear so to will those with whom you have to make common cause, with whom you have to co-operate and perhaps compete.

And as you start to understand that your self interest can only be met in relationship with others, and they understand the same then the development of vibrant and real community, as opposed to some Orwellian fiction that ‘shapes character to that chosen by the electorate’.

Which is why I advocate, as the starting point for community development, not community organisers, but community coaches, who help people to clarify their own self interest and to build their power.  Which they nearly always do by building their networks and relationships.  And once we have a critical mass of people pursuing their self interest with power and compassion through constructive engagement and association, lo and behold, we have a community with oomph, with enterprise.  We have ‘Big Society’.

Simples.

Access to Coaching – An Alternative LEP Idea

First of all we should reject the temptation to be entirely strategic.

Don’t try to analyse the economy like it is a game of monopoly where you can understand the roll of the dice, seeing and preparing for an uncertain future.  Don’t pretend that people and their aspirations count for nothing as you ponder the balance between investing in ports, ring-roads, runways or fibre.

Instead learn to compliment strategic development with a responsive approach.  One that engages residents in their hopes and aspirations for a better life and gives them the power and the responsibility to pursue them.  Put your faith and confidence in people.  Provide them with hope, leadership and support.

Dare to be relevant to people and not just ‘the business community’.

A city region of around 3m people like Leeds would require a network of around 75 coaches to provide access to person centred coaching support for everyone that really wanted it.

  • It would engage about 45 000 people in the process of providing direct hands on assistance to their peers.
  • It would provide direct assistance to about 16500 beneficiaries a year, the vast majority of whom would make significant progress in their personal journeys as a result of benefiting from a coaching rather than a coercive approach.
  • I would anticipate at least 750 sustainable business starts from this cohort every year.  I would envisage business survival rates around the 90% rate after 3 years.
  • It would make a very real difference to the perceptions of some 20 000 people a year about the extent to which they feel that they ‘belong to’ and ‘feel supported’ in their community.
  • In addition to traditional ‘enterprise’ outputs I would expect substantial impacts on health and well-being as well as increases in volunteering, cultural productivity, mental health, fitness and so forth.
  • It would help to integrate the dual priorities of economy and community rather than treating them as separate and often incompatible determinants.
  • Within 3-7 years I would expect it to have made a sustained and measurable difference to the enterprise culture in the city region.

And it would cost about £3.75 million a year.

The price of a very rich wo/man’s house.

NB this piece was prompted by reading ‘The Economic Opportunities and Challenges for the emerging Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in Yorkshire and Humber – Briefing Paper‘.

As far as it goes this is an ok piece of work. Unremittingly strategic, focussing on communications, infrastructure development and targeting support at key industries – all tried, tested and, at best, partially successful ideas for economic development.  One of the challenges it identified is to develop sufficient ‘low skill jobs’ for our low skill economies.   It talks about the structures required to ensure integration of LEP structures across the region.  One can almost hear the creaking of bureaucracy…

 

Ethical Business and Progress?

If owner managers were as adept at ethical decision-making as they are at financial and commercial decision making, might small business become a more powerful force for progress?

The role of Small Business in the Big Society?

The idea of the big society is being rolled out as a progressive way forward to improve society, embodying notions such as volunteering and working with and for the community. Irrespective of the role that we as citizens take on within this concept, what is the role of business?

The relationship between business and society has been debated for decades. At one end of the spectrum it is believed that business should concentrate on making profits and leave responsibility for society to others. At the other end it is believed that business has a duty of care to society and must do all it can to improve it.

The notion of corporate social responsibility has emerged as a banner under which (mainly larger) businesses articulate their relationship with communities and the environment. However, it is a notion that seems to have been hijacked by public relations departments as a tool to manage risk and reputation and to create and maintain competitive advantage.

If business does have the potential to make a major contribution to society and the environment, then we suggest that it is the smaller companies that hold the key. These are the unsung heroes who make contributions without one eye on the content of their website or the next CSR report. Small firms account for 99% of business numbers globally and account for half of global GDP. Ninety percent of working adults work in small to medium sized enterprises. The ethics of smaller firms are different. They often encapsulate the concepts of family, stewardship, community, connectedness and trust that their larger counterparts often lack.

A small step that we can take is to highlight as many cases as we can where small firms have endeavoured to make a difference to their community and/or to the environment in which they work. This will help to illustrate the true meaning of social responsibility and possibly provide inspiration, hope and guidance to others. It may show that the big society is already happening, that it should no longer go unnoticed, and that smaller firms should receive the recognition for the contribution they already make and could make in the future.

If you know of a business that fits the bill as an unsung hero, please let us know. We would like to talk to them as part of a study aimed at trying to learn lessons from the SME sector as to how business can play a more active role in creating a better society.

Please contact me, Paul Abbott at p.m.abbott@leedsmet.ac.uk or 07802 775608 if you have any suggestions or comments related to this endeavour.

 

Some More Provocations on Enterprise

  • Poverty is not about scarcity – it is not that there is not enough – but that it is not shared
  • The challenge is to give more people the power that they need to play a positive and powerful role in markets; This means accessible and relevant processes to develop individual capabilities and power
  • Development is a measure of the extent to which individuals have the capabilities to live the life that they choose.  It has little to do with standard economic measures such as GDP.
  • Helping people to recognise choices and increase the breadth of choices available to them should be a key objective of development.
  • Developing the capability and power of individuals provides a key to both development and freedom
  • Development must be relevant to lives, contexts, and aspirations
  • Development is about more than the alleviation of problems – stamping out anti social behaviour, teenage pregnancies, poor housing and so on.
  • It is about helping people to become effective architects in shaping their own lives
  • We need practices that value individual identity; avoid lumping people into “communities” they may not want to be part of, and promote a person’s freedom to make her own choices.  Promoting identification with ‘community’ risks segregation and violence between communities
  • Society must take a serious interest in the overall capabilities that someone has to lead the sort of life they want to lead, and organise itself to support the development and practice of those capabilities
  • We should primarily develop an emphasis on individuals as members of the human race rather than as members of ethnic groups, religions or other ‘communities’.  Humanity matters.
  • We need to make the delivery of public education, more equitable, more efficient and more accessible

If we took this stuff seriously what kind of enterprise development activities would a LEP commission?