What makes a flourishing city?

Went to an inspiring evening at Bradford Cathedral last night bringing together a wide representation of people representing the City. Flourishing City asked what it takes for a city to flourish. There were some very influential people there including senior management from the council, church leaders, faith groups and activists. Here are my notes.

Jerry Lepine the dean was great. I have to applaud his enthusiasm for the subject of ‘city’ and the welcome he gave. He introduced the evening by saying the cathedral belongs to the City – “it is your cathedral” he said.

We are not about just delivering big shiny boxes, we must step back and allow the next generation to come through endlessly curious, telling stories and connecting people.  [Kersten England]

Continue reading “What makes a flourishing city?”

Points for a personal strategy I must not forget

You know how it is, you start out with the best worked out aims and then over time the world crowds in on you and you end up fire-fighting and responding to everyone who asks for help.

When I switched jobs a few months ago now I wrote a note to myself for fear of being absorbed BY something rather than IN something. The note wasn’t particularly detailed or comprehensive, it was just a reminder of a few things I’d picked up. Here it is again as a reminder to me, and for you if you are interested.

  • Prioritise communication – with prayer as a fundamental part of this.
  • Generate and capture ideas as a habit.
  • Look for and tell stories of success (news, blog etc).
  • Look for diversity of input, thinking and leadership (particularly involving younger people).
  • Provide the tools to explore and discuss challenging issues openly (media, art, film etc).
  • Encourage independence, resilience and sustainability.
  • Follow the energy, look for emerging opportunities for organic development.
  • Form a strategy for the work but be flexible and constantly review.
  • Convert best ideas into well run projects (suggest ideas look for resources).

Saltaire Conversazione – ideas for the future

On Saturday we nipped over to Saltaire  in Bradford to visit the Conversazione event held at Victoria Hall. The demonstration that caught my attention particularly was the 3D printer. I’d not seen one before but what an amazing thing! A 3D printer builds complex objects layer by layer in much the same way as a paper printer does but as functional objects.

3D printing is relatively new technology but, as the man said, it is a technology at the discovery stage. We don’t actually need 3D printers, but creative minds are now figuring out what to use them for. In due course there will be applications for 3D printers which will revolutionise the world in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

So here’s a point. Do we only invent things that solve today’s problems or do we take a risk for the sake of the future? To invest in new ideas sometimes means pursuing something which appears to have little practical business benefit – at the moment. Creating a tool, or a space, or a structure which is not yet strictly needed may be the requirement for future progress.

In my present role working with the Church of England of England we are discussing new ways of doing things in the West Yorkshire and Dales diocese. Whenever change is on the cards there is a temptation to evaluate the proposed changes on the basis of present needs. There is an old saying, “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it”. But inventing new technologies requires us to imagine that we can only grow and be transformed in the future if we take a step of faith today.

Creative thinking requires us to do things which may not seem rational – driven by play, instinct, experimentation. Once we have made something new there will be critics who can’t see the point of it. There will be others who are inspired to make something of it.

It may be good strategy to deliberately break what we are doing today in order to promote transformation in the future.

Waiting to be found

I am trying to be less calculating and rational about taking photos. There is a sense in which it is important to be found by an image rather than to search for it. It was something Simon Armitage said about writing poetry – about not thinking too much but allowing the words to find you. Bishop Nick Baines of Leeds said something recently about discovering that we (all of us) have already been found by God. This inspired me in so many ways.

So here I am wondering what else is going to find me., words, images, ideas. There is something wonderful about not being so intent on searching but being still and listening, watching, waiting. The less we struggle to find something the more likely it is that we will be found by it. This seems to me to be an important element of creativity.

14585109686_08dbe7b2c1_zThis photo and the idea behind it found me. What struck me most was the way the gate post seemed isolated in the field. This field is near Swinsty reservoir.

In some of the reservoirs around here there are abandoned buildings beneath the waters which occasionally reappear when the water levels fall. This gatepost is in a field, a reservoir of grass and wild flowers, but it evokes the feeling of an abandoned place which is slowly, but not quite, being submerged by nature.

Communities Creating Change – Join #OblongLearning on Twitter

As you may know I work part time for a charity in Leeds called Oblong. I’m proud of the achievements of Oblong which has taken on and refurbished a community centre. It delivers transformational projects for communities and individuals including volunteer programmes, mental health courses, arts and social events. There’s a cinema event every month to showcase and support local filmmakers, a media collective undertaking design and communications projects, language classes. There are now more than 50 volunteers, a significant proportion of whom achieve employment not unconnected to the experience they gain at the community centre.

The culture is one of respect for every individual and creation of an environment where they can flourish independently and in partnership with others. The projects we establish come from the volunteers and are led by them

ob-bobThis weekend Oblong is running a two day course called Communities Creating Change for people who want to create real change in their communities and in themselves. Participants will discuss their community’s needs and strengths, learn how to collaborate, engage and think together, practice new skills and make a plan for action. The course will include a look at how we establishing the needs and hopes of the community, how we gather information, communication, collaborative thinking, creative ideas, project management.

The course is full now but the reason I mention it here is because there will be more courses in future and tomorrow we will be extending the discussion to social media by using the Twitter hashtag #OblongLearning . I will try and post a timetable of the discussions tomorrow and schedule some opportunities to join in. In any event there will be nuggets from the group on #OblongLearning from around 10am tomorrow.

Let’s connect.


How to create an image library for churches and community organisations.

I’m sure that journaling our stories through images consistently and over the long term will lead to an invaluable resource. A catalogue of images that truly reflect our organisation’s values and activities can help celebrate achievements and protect our future.

I’ve been working with the Woodhouse Community Centre in Leeds and a number of local churches in Bradford to improve the presentation of their communities online.

The one big stumbling block, it seems to me, is the availability of decent images. Community organisations are about people, what they do and how they relate to each other. The use of images can show who you are and what you do much more powerfully than endless paragraphs of explanation.

Text heavy websites or magazines are simply not going to be engaging enough for the majority of people these days. Of course we do our best to find images we can use but they are often of poor quality and don’t represent the range of people and activities in our communities.

The safeguarding issues around children often mean that children are not represented on websites at all, or at least very little. The photos we use rarely represent smaller groups where the presence of a camera may be intrusive.

The absence of images can make us invisible – for example whenever my wife an I go on holiday you’d think she went on her own by the absence of photos of me! Our churches may seem to be populated by older people who stand in rows smiling and looking towards the camera but not actually doing anything.

If we are going to do this properly we’ll need three things in place.

  1. A policy for obtaining photos and using them online. This means understanding what we can and can’t show, how we obtain permission and what the copyright rules are, among other things.
  2. People who know what they are doing – i.e. photographers who understand the rules, the needs of the website and how to take a decent photo. Publishers who know the history of the photos and can make good decisions about how they are used.
  3. A place to store and catalogue the photos so they can be accessed by the people who need them.

Here I’m going to suggest that we use Flickr to store and catalogue images. It’s only a suggestion and I’m open to any other thoughts about how to manage an accessible library of images for use on the web and other publications.

Heres a video. To see it properly you may need to use the ‘full screen’ button bottom right of the player.


Communications solution for small teams working in a dispersed organisation

Here are  a few thoughts on teamwork and a recommendation for Yammer, a desktop and mobile tool which addresses communications for dispersed teams.  If your organisation is made up of remote groups which need to work more closely together, share ideas and resources then Yammer may be of interest.

I’m hopeless at working on my own.  There’s a confession!  If I try to work on my own I’m prone to distractions or tend to trust myself too much, so I need people to keep me focused and to give me a reality check every so often.  I have a home office, and do in fact work on my own for much of the time and so I value the supportive friends whom I see, usually at the local Cafe Nero.

The teams I have worked with in the past have often been based in a single space – round a big table – where the banter is part of the business.  If an idea pops up in conversation it can be quickly evaluated and moved

forward or ditched.  Arguments can be resolved quickly and excellent work praised in a timely and meaningful fashion.  But what do you do if the team isn’t in the same room, a dispersed team?

Increasingly organisations are requiring teams to connect with each other remotely.  This is for a number of reasons – perhaps because its members are part time or because they also belong to other organisations.  It can also be because team members are fast tracking and juggling with several projects or tasks at the same time and so don’t have time to meet.

There is a value in engaging with people embedded in different situations and yet part of a small dispersed team.  Small teams can become blinkered by their own context and not see beyond their immediate environment, they can bed down into thick walled bunkers.  So, having a close knit team made up of people with quite different outlooks can can have enormous value.  Perhaps they can share insights from different parts of the country of the world

At Oblong in Leeds I work part time with a group of volunteers who come and go.  The organisation is run through a series of collectives which come up with ideas and make decisions through their weekly meetings.  Every six weeks there are assemblies of the whole organisation.  The meetings and assemblies have been inconsistently attended, agendas poorly formed and the meetings devoted to catching up.  The problem was communication.  Getting people motivated and briefed before the meetings was the challenge.

The solution we have found is YAMMER.  Yammer is a tool for connecting work groups around an organisation and enabling them to share conversation and resources freely wherever they are.  Yammer works like a simple and well structured Facebook account where you can see to structure of your organisation & who belongs to which team.  You can follow and connect with relevant people and choose appropriate levels of privacy.    Yammer also gives you the opportunity to create networks outside your organisation.

The benefit to Oblong has been a vast improvement in the internal communications and briefing of the team members.  We can clearly see where people belong in the organisation.  When we meet there is an improved level of attendance and commitment and we can devote the time to decision making rather than catching up.

Anyway.  Advert for Yammer over.


Lent is a great time for reflecting on how things are and where we  would like them to be.   My pondering today has been about the nature of commitment.  I won’t lie, I’ve been inspired by at least one person who I feel lacks commitment (not you I hasten to add).

The kind of projects I get involved with require quite large amounts of commitment if they are to succeed.  Usually the projects are either new ventures or are in some way disruptive to the normal pattern of things.  Oblong in Leeds is a project which has involved the complete refurbishment of a community centre, and the staff there are impressively committed to making it work.   At St Joseph’s Primary School in Keighley where we ran a school film project recently the teachers were impressively committed – yes it’s true.

It’s easy to show enthusiasm for a project and even put lot’s of energy into it, but commitment is more than that.  Commitment is about taking a risk and going all the way.  The commitment is usually shared with other people and so there is often a demand for compromise and trust.  It’s really hard.

By definition commitment takes you to a point of no turning back – where there is no return path, all of nothing.   What I see in so many areas of life is an absence of true commitment.  Folk will work hard and be totally professional, but only to a point.  Even in family relationships there is a growing tendency to believe that you can get out at the first sign of trouble, there’s an escape route.

So why am I reflecting on this now?    I suppose it’s because I have been examining my own commitment to the things I believe in and the people I relate to.  My track record is chequered.  More and more I feel as though I don’t want to be bothered unless I can be really committed.  Why be half involved with something?  There are people in my life who deserve my wholehearted commitment, without question.  Maybe there are people who don’t!

Lack of commitment shows itself in an unwillingness to change, and as we all know change is necessary for the survival of all of us. People without commitment often appear dull or lacking in energy. To stand still is to wither away and risk is an inevitable part of being alive.   And where people are concerned that change might also involve forgiveness.

So my promise to myself through lent is to give up the things that don’t mean much and to be more committed to the things that do.  To be unafraid of taking risks or embracing change, and to be forgiving.

I’m not saying I’ll succeed but I’ll try.

Reflecting on creative projects in schools

I've been reflecting on this year's Creative Partnerships projects in local primary schools.  There has been a real mixed bag – some brilliant and others less so. 


The work has involved making video usually alongside a drama practitioner. The projects are set up by the school to a very specific brief.  The brief will usually say that the school wants to focus on speaking and listening, confidence building and so on.   

Here are some bullet points from my reflections:

  • The best managed projects are not always the most valuable.
  • Most learning comes through a constructive response to failure.
  • An open brief is much better than a prescriptive one. 
  • Not enough effort goes into designing and initiating projects.
  • The ideas are rarely big enough.
  • Ambitious and risky projects are usually more rewarding.
  • The active visible support of the head teacher is vital.
  • The most interesting work is done while the creative practitioner is not present.
  • Teachers can be fully supportive or not supportive at all – the worst is when they are reluctantly supportive.
  • Allocation of roles and in particular the role of a project co-ordinator is vital.
  • Build in time for conversation and reflection.
  • Capturing evidence of success immediately is invaluable.
  • Trust the children.

 The most successful and sustainable project I've worked on is in a school which has been somewhat ambivalent towards new multimedia technology.  A media team made up of 6 children has championed the use of video and in particular green screen with great success.  The children are now teaching the teachers and hopefully contributing to a change of culture.

The next step is to look at the leadership of creative projects – in particular raising the ambitions and quality of the initial ideas.  Perhaps creating a model for project design and initiation -  but then the practitioner backing off and handing ownership to class teachers or the children themselves.


What does ICT really stand for?

I'm going to an ICT conference in Manchester on Friday. Apparently ICT stands for Intermittent Cervical Traction (I looked it up);  You can understand why I'm apprehensive.

Actually, I have a lot of reasons to be apprehensive. For a start there will be a lot of teachers there and secondly it's all about technology (not traction).  So why am I apprehensive about technology?   

I'm very interested in technology and what it can do but I feel uncomfortable when it becomes the topic of conversation. It's like someone talking about cars when what they really want is the freedom of travel.  A car will take you along pre-determined roads and you can only stop where there is a parking place.  I prefer to hitch a lift on whatever mode of transport happens to be pointing the right way and get off wherever.

It's for this reason that my current project is to set up creative communication teams in schools;  I did start by calling them media teams but the term media carries far too much baggage.  

The teams consist of six children who each have distinctive talents and interests. I've tried to design the teams so that they are independent of specific tools or platforms, so for example we don't talk about writers, web designers or video editors, we say that these are people who like to generate and sequence ideas, or like working with tools to build things. The outputs can be a web page, magazine or an installation or anything else you can imagine. 

The creative challenges set for the team are never to make a podcast, produce a documentary or film an animation –  that would be like giving them a road map and a car and telling them where they need to get off.   Instead they have to meet a brief which is to investigate specific aspects of a specific subject and report their finding to a specific audience. The solution is open to creative thinking.

In reality, the children may well create rich multimedia web pages using exciting digital tools, but the point is that the tools are not the starting point.   

It seems to me that we spend a lot of time getting up to speed on technologies which are here today, gone tomorrow but less time considering the missions and purposes behind their use. The skills involved in effective teamwork, directing and organising, generating ideas, questioning, story telling are higher level media, and the skills required are timeless and transferable.  

And so I would like to focus on those fundamental human technologies. As for the lower level tools I'm inclined to include those under the heading of independent problem solving challenges – i.e. work out for yourself which is the best tool for the job and fathom it.

Let's meet up if you're in Manchester on Friday