The Big Debate: Opening Up

November 4, 2009 at 3:52 pm Leave a comment

I’m a little slower to post my thoughts after the Big Debate than the excellent analysis and follow ups from the likes of Dave Harte and Paul Bradshaw or the instant (and spot on) post from Andrew Brightwell. That’s what comes of being a corporate comms type, wanting to have your thoughts structured and every dot and comma in their perfect place.

In a way, that’s one of the things I hope the Big Debate will help change in Birmingham over time. We – including the wider business community and public bodies – should feel freer to engage in conversation, admit errors and work collaboratively. So what if your first post (or perhaps whole website) is not as good as it might be. No problem, open up and lots of people will help you improve it.

My sense is the event was not hailed a great success by ‘some’ (to satisfy Pete Ashton, I won’t refer to the so called twitterati). I can see why. There was an element of we’ve heard it all before; same old faces and I think the event didn’t have the sense of purpose its title question suggested.

However, there was much to take away I really enjoyed Charles Leadbeeater and Toby Barnes. The suggestion from the keynote speaker for Birmingham to be a home for pirates has resounded positively already. The challenge is to bring the public – and indeed parts of the rest of the private – sector on board with that vision.

My reflection on the bccdiy initiative is that many people do not understand why a group of people would want to collaborate on a project without any funding or formal structures in order to demonstrate what’s possible and because they want to help their fellow citizens access and make the most of resources (notably data) which is already available.

A defining characteristic of the creative community is that its members have both social and business principles and objectives. Many live for identifying and solving problems. If we can bring this spirit of both community and creativity into other parts of Birmingham life, it would have dramatic benefits. As Leadbeater and others suggested, Birmingham needs to open up to encourage new ideas to emerge and grow.

Just as Professor Parkinson did previously, Leadbeater basically called for us to have more confidence. The most successful; the most creative cities are the ones with most confidence (and best connected). I agree that we should not obsess about other cities or trying to brand ourselves a ‘global city’ (others will form that judgment if justified). We should compete with other cities… we just don’t have to use them as our benchmarks. We should invent our own. Too much place making and destination marketing revolves around accepted criteria – cathedrals, concert halls, conventions centres etc. Birmingham should worry less about making sure we have all the things which cities above us in the league tables enjoy, and instead create the criteria they will all be judged by in years to come.

I struggled at the conference to work out whether we were trying to increase recognition of the creative sector in Birmingham; to position that sector from this city as the saviour of UK plc or to increase creativity more generally. All are laudable propositions to, but in my mind at least they became confused.

As others have commented, the terms creative and digital seemed to become interchangeable. They are not the same thing. Creativity can, should and does extend beyond the DCMS definition of creative industries. Digital has come to mean many things, but we can probably all agree data, the internet, electronic means of communication etc. will only increase in importance and value to our lives. We need to be careful about their use, and not allow discussions about culture or creativity to be sidelined by just talking about social media, games or other aspects of digital media.

Yes, creative and digital types love to chat, on and offline. It is good to talk. We just need to be careful about not allowing cliques to develop that impose artificial barriers. We need to connect more communities, including creative ones that revolve around one discipline or area of the city. We don’t benefit from the same degree of interchange between, say, advertising and architecture or performing arts and software as some other cities. Actually, Monday’s event was better at bringing people together from different circles than many previous occasions.

There are many things on the ‘to do’ list to help grow our creative sector and make Birmingham even better known as a creative place, from opening up working spaces to improving access to finance. Perhaps more important than anything, though, is to open up.  Have more conversations; allow a more creative culture to invade technically non-creative organisations and realise you can longer control information or brands as we did in the past.

Kevin Johnson is managing director of Urban Communications.

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