An imaginary open letter: To those who would ‘engage’ us…

To those who would 'engage' us... We are already engaged. We may not be engaged with you, or in what you think we should be engaged with, but none the less we ARE engaged. The things that we are engaged with offer us what we are looking for, perhaps consciously, perhaps not. Our chosen 'engagements' give us some combination of love, power and money. There is a fourth thing that some of us get from our preferred engagement, and that is freedom from pain. Freedom from the pain of hope denied. Freedom from the pain of optimism dashed. Freedom from the humiliation of yet another 'failure'. This pursuit of freedom from pain is what you label 'apathy'. We may choose to engage with you, and your agendas, if you offer us what we want. Unless we see possibilities for this our engagement with you is likely to be short lived and will change nothing. It might be enough for you to tick the box called 'community engagement', but little more.  Love and fun might attract us for a while, but it is making us powerful that keeps us engaged. Many of us who you find 'hard to reach' or 'difficult to engage' have 'been engaged' with people like you before. We have been sold false hope and have suffered the pain of having that … [Read more...]

Some Barriers to Engagement

What are the things that make 'engaging' harder than it need be?  Here is my personal starter for 10... Cost Location/Access Methods and practices that are culturally biassed Corporatism (I have become increasingly disengaged with the Olympics as it more becomes just a platform for Coca Cola, McDonalds and co.) Obfuscation ( the hiding of intended meaning) Procedural issues - closed meetings, delayed agendas, delayed minutes Fear - will I look a fool? Fear - will I make enemies? It will be a waste of time - engage or not - it makes no odds Emphasis on events over process (we consult or hold a focus group rather than engage in a dialogue over time) Language - use of jargon Language that is highly gendered or stereotyped Culture - lack of capacity to bring people in, to help them learn Any more...? Interested in how we can dismantle some of these barriers? … [Read more...]

Making Progress Through Austerity

There can be little doubt that these are relatively tough times in the UK, and the minds of many are focussed on how best to make progress when it feels like everything is being cut. But most of those who are thinking about it are the professionals, who control budgets for the delivery of services or front-line service providers trying to figure out how to stop things getting dangerous as they are stretched further and further.  The assumption is that the job remains to be done, that they are the ones to do it, and they need to figure what they are going to do to make the best adjustments that they can. But supposing they took a different tack?  Suppose they invited citizens in to explore the challenges that they face and how they might be met, how ordinary citizens might be able to use their resources, time, knowledge, skills and sometimes perhaps cash, to help? So, for example, we might invite citizens to explore issues around poverty in an area, and what they might be able to do about it.  And we might end up with something like Disrupting Poverty in Leeds ask people to think about what they can do about empty properties in Leeds and end up with something  like Empty Homes ask residents to explore how … [Read more...]

Bonsai People in a Bonsai Culture?

Bonsai = An ornamental tree or shrub grown in a pot and artificially prevented from reaching its normal size The bonsai is not a genetic variant but has within it the potential to become a fully grown tree.  However it is carefully cultivated to meet the demanding requirements of the gardener.  It is fed few nutrients, kept in shallow soil, not allowed to form deep roots, continually pruned and kept 'in proportion'; shaped to the precise requirements of the gardener and the specifications of their profession. Bonsai People Bonsai people have had their development limited, distorted and shaped by the influence of their environment rather more than it has been driven by their own potential and aspirations.  To an extent we are all Bonsai People.  But some people have been more bonsaid than others. And some seem to be very content with their bonsai nature.  While others are frustrated at the sensation that there must be something more in them than this. Yesterday I was on the phone with Rich Huxley and we were talking about developing musicians. I told him of a mentor in Leeds who had boasted to me about how they had worked with a 14 year old boy whose ambition was 'to be the best bass guitarist in the world' … [Read more...]

A Way Forward for Communities?

There is no doubt in my mind that community based and bottom up approaches to enterprise support like those pioneered by Ernesto Sirolli and subsequently developed and transformed by projects like Bizz Fizz and on a much more modest scale Elsie, provide significant clues to the emergence of truly sustainable and enterprising communities. But instead we get celebrity entrepreneurs and academics delivering masterclass after masterclass after enterprise competition on a seemingly endless treadmill driven by incoherent policy and the increasingly desperate search for those Holy Grails of 'narrow'  economic development - the quick win and the high-growth start-up. It must be time for us to develop a focus on long term, community building  approaches to sustainable development that embraces the economy, culture and social cohesion as an inseparable trinity.  These things cannot be pursued successfully as separate entities managed by different silos. They are all part of the same process of 'development'. We need to develop affordable processes that engage the whole community in nurturing the development of those willing to act boldly and helping more of its members to see that bold action will often reap its reward, … [Read more...]

Product, Price, Place and Promotion – lessons for the entrepreneur from a virtuoso violinist

What happens when you take a £3m violin, a virtuoso violinist and a platform for them to perform? Well, the answer is - it all depends.  If the platform is the mass transport system of Washington DC or the Concert Hall with tickets going at $100 and more. At least two lessons to reflect on here: The first is pretty prosaic and pertains to that classic of the 4 Ps of Marketing: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. You have to get all four right.  A brilliant product is nowhere near enough. The second is more metaphysical and probably best captured by Weingarten:  “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?” … [Read more...]

The Problems with Buildings…

Buildings are expensive things to run.  And these days fewer of us need them as places to go to work.  Or at least we don't need to go to just one of them.  And we don't need to pay rent. Yet there is a vibrant industry driven by developers, politicians and consultants bringing semi derelict buildings, especially in poor communities where regeneration cash is easier to come by, back to life as managed workspaces, incubators and start-up hubs. When money is being sought to kick these schemes off the business plans always look achievable.  This occupancy rate at these rates per square foot, taking a contribution from the community cafe, with fixed costs of x and variable costs of y, within z months we will be generating a profit and re-investing in the local community.  Money is raised work is done and with hard work and good luck the building is eventually opened. Except it is rare that members sign up as expected, rents are hard to collect in an economy where most cities have millions of square feet of empty office space.  Fixed costs are usually higher than projected as budgets over-run and interest repayments are higher than anticipated. That break-even point always seems to be 'just around the corner' even as … [Read more...]

Leeds as a twin track city…

This was at the heart of the debate of the Inner South Leeds Area Committee meeting recently. In short, our residents die too early, our streets are full of fast food take-aways, our air is polluted by the motorway and we need a new sports centre. What should we do about it? We will put health at the heart of local government and tackle it... This is classic Visions of the Anointed Stuff! I can be pretty sure that if I knocked on 1000 doors in south Leeds and asked ‘what keeps you awake at night’, or ‘what is it that really stops you from living the way you would want?’, not many would say,’Well, if only I could live as long as those folk in leafy north Leeds, or even those exotic southerners in Kensington and Chelsea!’ (K&C has the highest life expectancy of any local authority in the UK I believe). These are the concerns of the health professionals and the public health statisticians. They are not the everyday concerns of local residents. And, if we want to do meaningful development work we have to start with these everyday concerns. Of course if we wish to build service empires around the ‘healthy living’ agenda… We also know that the real determinants of longevity are, at root, not based in … [Read more...]

Spock Logic or McCoy Compassion – where should we start?

What should we do when we are asked to help someone develop their project, and we really don't like what we see? Top to bottom, wall to wall the project just seems to be full of problems.  To our eye it seem poorly conceived, badly executed and almost pre-destined to fail. Where should we start? Well the classic 'expert' approach is to diagnose the problems and put them on the table.  We confront them with the reality of the situation as WE see it.  If our relationship is strong enough and our credibility is robust they might just take it on board.  But more often than not what we get is denial, and shown the door. Because this is a person who has taken their very best shot, using the resources they have available to make something happen. It is as if they had shown us a photo of their children and we respond by rattling through a list of their obvious deficiencies 'bad skin', 'overweight', 'terrible dress sense' and 'awful smile'.  We might be trying to help, but.... ...this IS their baby.... So, when someone shows us their idea and asks us to help, and we see it as full of flaws where should we start? By pointing out 'the obvious' or rolling up our sleeves and helping? What will really … [Read more...]

The business of human endeavour…

For a long time now I have had real concerns about the focus of policy makers, and the projects that they spawn, on 'enterprise' and 'entrepreneurship' as being just too business oriented.  It is as if the only fields of human endeavour that matter are commerce of some kind.  Making money or fixing societies ills. This is especially un-nerving when you see it played out in our primary schools as 6 year olds are encouraged to wear badges that proclaim them be a 'Sales Director', an 'Operations Manager' or a 'Brand Executive'. Yuk! What about all of those other great fields of human endeavour? Climbing mountains, making art, having fun, playing sport, writing, cooking and so on. What if we encouraged our 6 year olds to wear badges that proclaimed them to be 'Footballer in Training', 'Ballet Dancer under Construction', 'Surgeon to Be' or 'The Next Michael McIntyre'?  OK, so perhaps we don't need another Michael McIntyre.... but you get my point? Because what really matters is not exposing more people to the world of business and entrepreneurship.  It is to get them imagining possible futures, and learning how best to navigate towards them.  It is about developing people with a sense of agency and influence over their … [Read more...]


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