Archive for Thinking about cities

Some lines of thought arising from being researcher-in-residence

During the researcher-in-residence sessions at Grand Union gallery’s Im Bau exhibition (Artist: Aideen Doran, 2015) a set of recurring threads of thinking were revisited over and over.

Also thrown into the mix was a visit to New York, midway through the researcher-in-residence period. Although I had gone for other reasons, connections to the emerging thoughts from my sessions at Grand Union were uppermost in my mind as I wandered around that city so that the visit became yet another researcher session.

These interconnecting, and at times repeating, elements formed a loose framework that allowed for some reflexive thinking on cities, change, development, progress, decision-making, planning, style, art, the contemporary, memories etc.

Acting as researcher-in-residence took my thinking far and wide: moving across ideas, circling round and round (like some armature of connectivities), sometimes getting the wide overview and sometimes homing in on a detail.

The focus was always on the content of the Im Bau exhibition, and the lines of thought that could be spun out from that; and on my own interest in cities, urban issues and decision-making.

The sessions extended understandings, appropriated ideas from elsewhere and made links between previously separate considerations.

What follows is an attempt to corral some of those swirls of thought under a small number of relevant headings, knowing that not everything can be tidied up in that way.

Read more

Writing in a Flash: Changing the ending

One of the core skills of a writer is to be able to write to length. Sometimes this involves stretching the word-count to get to something credible without losing the plot. Often it means chopping back and back to remove all superfluous text and cut a rambling piece down to size.  Sometimes it means complying with the word-maximum criteria of an editor, a writing competition or some other challenge.

Book-buyers may exercise their own, individual, rough and ready, on-the-spot judgement about value-for-money: The weighing of the number of pages of a novel against its cover-price; pound weight for pound cost.

How long is long enough? Does it really matter? It all depends. Read more

Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes

I have summarised, for myself, my understandings of some of the things that key people have recently written about cities. These may only be partial understandings and are not meant to cover all that everyone has ever said on the subject. Nor is it a claim that any of the ideas are my own. Often they have come from a number of people writing in overlapping ways about particular aspects of cities. Where the ideas are more obviously being linked to a specific source this has been named, but the resulting document is not intended to be a fully-referenced academic paper. The exercise resulted from my own general interest in thinking about cities and is offered for the general interest of others.

The ideas have been grouped under loose interconnected headings: placemaking and placeshaping in cities; resilient cities; smart cities; data-rich cities; cities as planned systems; walkability of cities; benefits of density; what makes cities sustainably great; liveability and the issue of creative influence; how a city becomes a first-rank leader; cities, central government and innovation; governance in complex cities; cities and economics; good-enough cities, resourcefulness, adaptability and spontaneity; what the future might hold for cities.

My initial exploration resulted in a summary that was more than 400 pages of text with many click-through links. This has been edited down and further summarised so that the resulting document ( Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes  ) is around 30 pages long with just a few onward links and with a section on ways forward if others want to explore further.

This post continues my earlier thinkings on cities which can be found by scrolling down this same site. (… passing all sorts of disparate other stuff on the way…) or going to the postings put up on June 27th 2012 under the headings:

  • In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get where it wants to be?
  • Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?
  • The nature of cities: A way of thinking

I would be interested in other people’s reactions to any of this, via geoff@thewordsthething.org.uk

Writing in relation to the art exhibition ‘Metropolis: Reflections on the modern city’.

This exhibition, 23 March – 23 June 2013 at Birmingham Museum & Art gallery, is billed as a major showcase of international contemporary artwork focused on interpretations reflecting modern city life. At the time of the exhibition I was exploring (a) cities (b) contemporary art (c) writing. It seemed natural therefore to bring these three together by inventing a role for myself as Writer in relation to the Metropolis exhibition.

This involved thinking about what ‘writer in relation to ….’ might mean and committed me to several visits to the exhibition, participation in guided talks about the artworks, taking notes on each work and extending these with further thinking or research.

The commitment was to produce up to twelve relatively substantial pieces of writing stimulated by the exhibition. These are being put on this site as first drafts, by the end of July 2013.

Currently available are:

Fiction:

Three short pieces based on dreams of visits to cities.

The ramblings of an old-time cop proud of working the city streets

A young bureaucrat is asked to write a report on the likely future situation re homelessness in Moscow. But it is 1991 and the system is in transition, making it difficult to know what is acceptable.

Riots have broken out at estates on the outskirts of Paris and a young journalist interviews two young women to get their views on what life is like for them.

A piece of paper found in a book prompts a young woman to explore her city’s public spaces, with unexpected results.

A child’s dream of city life becomes a reality for him.

When Outside becomes forbidden, citizens have to live their lives online, safe indoors – but Outside will always exert an influence.

 

Non-fiction:

An exploration of what I meant by ‘writer in relation to’.

Reflections on the modern city: An exploration of we might mean by that term, and the extent to which modern cities might offer solutions to problems rather than be the source of them

An exploration of the language used in the exhibition, how that relates to the language used in studies of modern cities and whether any conclusions can be drawn from that.

 

 

 

Writing about New York as Birmingham as New York

This writing arose as part of Birmingham Book Festival 2012. One organised event was for a small group (of writers/readers) to spend one Sunday touring Birmingham ‘as if it were New York’ – trying to see the familiar features, cultures, roads, areas in terms of features,cultures, roads, areas of New York: helped by a briefing before the walking tour started. Behind that was also the idea of the great Americam roadtrip that had given rise to a range of classic writings.

Each person in the group approached this in their own way. My own ‘methodology’ (which was not quite as clearly thought out as that might imply) was to:

  • Accept the idea that New York images/places could be transposed onto the geography of Birmingham; and willingly embrace the idea that the Sunday walk was a ‘ road trip’ tour of New York
  • Gather snatches of conversations, images, ideas from the day that might get woven into a fictional story of a day’s trip on foot round New York
  • Go back to the map of the (real) New York and replace the trip locations and images onto that geography
  • Invent the characters who might be on a road trip on foot round that city (Very loosely: 3 ‘On The Road’ type characters now in their 60s managing one last trip together)
  • Trying hard not to get too hung up on Americanisms vs English terminology – but the end result shouldn’t jar too much for an American reading it as a tale of New York
  • Getting some sense of (enjoyable?) storyline running through around 2000 words
  •  Extend the same material into a second story. This would probably have some text in common with the first story (because of the common source) but should be able to be read in its own right. As it was it turned out to be a sequel of sorts.

This enjoyable exercise gave rise to two (somewhat overlapping) pieces of writing. These are New York: One Final Road Trip and New York Journeyings: A Memorial

 

 

 

Vancouver: memories, images and realities – A fictional account

The background to what follows is a fictional account of a visitor’s encounter with some of Vancouver’s extensive public art and fascinating architecture. Later, back home, sifting through photographs, replaying memories and trying to get beyond the surfaces that person recorded the following which is put here for interest in the belief that sensemaking and storytelling are basic human attributes.

I loved Vancouver. The word that kept coming to me whilst I was there was ‘nice’. Within that overall blanket of ‘niceness’ I captured (an interesting concept in itself) a wide range of images. Now, back home (another interesting concept) I have gone through a process of elimination that involved sorting the pictures into three piles according to the degree of connectedness, for me, between the image and my feelings whilst in Vancouver (as far as I can recall them this long after the event). The ones in the ‘most connected’ pile were saved, together with the borderline cases from the middle group. The rest were put to one side. This gave me thirty photos, with which I repeated the process, justifying each choice to myself. Those thirty were spread out in front of me and, again trying to articulate to myself any rationale, I chose my top most relevant one, my second most relevant one and so on until I had just a handful in front of me. These weren’t necessarily the ‘best’ pictures of the lot, or even the most ‘interesting’ ones. They were the ones that triggered most reflections of my ideas and ramblings whilst over in Vancouver.

                        

Body sculpture: This sculpture was in the lobby of the wonderful hotel I stayed in. The Listel. It was on Robson, the main downtown street so was handy for all the things I had already decided to do, but the main reason for picking it was that it billed itself as an Art Hotel and, true to its word, was full of original paintings and sculptures. Just walking round the corridors was a great experience.

This sculpture was one of several things that I went back to each morning. I would simply sit and look at it for ages, finding more and more things of interest each time. What kind of things occurred to me on those relaxed observations? Clearly it was a body-part: a torso without arms or feet, and missing the head. So, from one angle, it was a part of a crime scene … a thing that demanded its own history of how it ended up like that … and encouraged speculation of how a detective would work backwards from a discovery of such a body to work out the detailed chain of events that led up to its gruesome discovery by someone. Admittedly this representational, sculptural version wasn’t gruesome (no blood, no gore) but its discovery, tucked away in a corner of the hotel lobby, was still a shock, an unexpectedness, a fascination, a wish-to-know-more.

Tucked away in its corner the piece was, in one way, easy to overlook but, at the same time, was set up on a ledge so was itself doing the overseeing… a shadow peeking out over each new guest. It kept up its solitary vigil as the flow of transients came and went. It might as well have been some remnant of a former receptionist clinging on to the role from a ghostly perch on high. Or some attempt at capturing a Spirit of hotel-keeping, a lighter version of those more solid Greek and Roman antiquities, a reminder that coming and going was nothing in the faceless gaze of an everlasting deity.

The dominant thing about the piece was its transparency, the net effect of the latticework; and yet the whole thing had its own solidity – solid enough to cast a shadow. An ambiguity in itself: that stuff of such substance could be constructed out of openness. Watching the changing light play in and out of the mesh, there was form and shape and substance whilst retaining its sense of emptiness, of being and not-being at the same time: of being and nothingness. Existing yet not existing; real yet not real. The very emptiness of its net structure creates something new, something with its own existence – the diffraction patterns that shifted and swirled as the viewer shifted position. Something out of nothing.

The corner it overlooked was the small half-hidden part of the lobby that held the public internet terminal – itself a thing that only made sense as a portal to the invisible, without which it became merely a dusty desk and silent terminal. The web/net sculpture held a place of guardianship to the web/net escape-hatch used by the transients to reconnect with the realities they had left behind. Like the terminal the sculpture was a communication route – sans mouth, sans hands, but not quite sans everything. Far from dead; far from dumb; far from lifeless – but still a lifeless form, dead until interacted with, dumb until communicated with. There was a tinge of Zen about the whole thing.

We spent a long time communicating – me looking intently at the piece, and the piece (in its own, rather mysterious way) feeding thoughts back at me.

Red squatting man: Turn left from the hotel, zigzag down to the seawall, follow the walkway round the harbour and suddenly you might happen to come across a circle of men squatting on the grass. They seem animated, chatting across their circle. They have a full set of arms and legs – so no crime scene: this is everyday normality – men passing the time of day, telling each other stories that are more or less true, more or less elaborations on a reality in their heads, more or less absolute fictions.

They take you by surprise. You stumble upon them, but only if you take one path not another. You might glimpse them in the near-distance and be drawn into their circle. They might lure you nearer, tempt you to stay awhile, trick you into passing time with them that you had planned to spend elsewhere. ‘But why rush?’ they ask. ‘Why move on so hurriedly? Rest awhile, stranger. Linger with us.’

You might end up being transfixed there forever as one more member of the smiling silent circle.

In the photograph there is just one man looking off into the distance. He squats like a frog as if he might at any second spring off, yet there he remains, unmoving and unmovable. The shot misses the fact that he is one of a group of silent squatters, eyeing each other up with looks that are not expressionless but enigmatic. The collective has been reduced to a singularity and this changes everything. He (It looks like a He) is alone, looking out; resting or ready for a race? There is a feeling of boldness, of power, of benign tension.

In this particular shot, at that particular time (but shifting as the day goes on or the angle changes) there is a shadow (looming over the man; casting a shade for him to rest in or casting a shadow over his existence?) and a distant pathway and sign (an indication that others may come and go in the near distance but his gaze will not falter; he will remain intent on what is in his head).

I sat as one of the group in silent meditation. I felt their tangible presence. I shifted position and sat directly opposite this one man, staring into his look, daring him to change his expression. I lost myself momentarily and became one of them. I snapped back and became one of me.

One link to Vancouver that this image held out for me was the sense of the surprise of the everyday. There was a childlike excitement at seeing the first floatplane come in to land on the placid stretch of water. I wanted to tell everyone ‘Guess what I’ve just seen …’ but of course to them it was an everyday thing. Another link was as a representation of the strong community that had resettled from the west, coming across the Pacific: again a surprise to me intuitive Eurocentric fixed view of the world that the way to Vancouver was from the West. Beyond that was the way, common to other places, that this rooted community became the historical site of what was now a tourist, heritage part of the city – with the warning that the vibrancy of neighbourhoods can easily tip into nostalgic aspic: Circles of old men animatedly gossiping being replaced by casts circles of statues frozen in the act.

Totemic eyes: This picture was taken at one of the landmark places in Vancouver: the totem poles in Stanley Park. This itself threw up for me a host of things to think about. Stanley Park: An English park; a legacy from the British colonial governor Lord Stanley; with its Rose Garden and so on – as one stop on the tourist trolley bus route, as a place savoured by residents and tourists alike for the Sunday walk, the routine rituals of open-air exercise and relaxation. Yet, there as one of the focal points, harbouring in one of its leafy clearings, a collection of totem poles. Totems; iconic symbols of heritage but of otherness; markers of histories and territories; carriers of stories and myths intertwined so that one reality bolsters another. Reminders that the locality was a site of struggle with nature, a site of daily routine for survival as well as a not-so-long-ago site for community joys and sorrows.

The poles carried meanings within their original communities. Here, clustered together, huddling for strength or standing as proudly independent as they can of the surroundings they now find themselves in, the poles carry sets of cultural meanings that have been shifted in time. The meanings were always mediated versions but now also carry overlays of what the modern tourist viewer brings to it all. Meanings are whatever we ascribe to the context. Are the poles meant as education, or as a parading of history before photograph-hungry visitors (and remember – I felt compelled to get my own shot of them: and a shot that didn’t even wonder if the eyes were those of a beaver or a bear or whatever, just a shot attracted by the eyes because of the electric blue colouring). Whatever they are intended to be they are very popular, very iconic of Vancouver as it is now – whatever they may have been in the past or in other settings.

The eyes are the gateway to the soul. The eyes on the totems were transfixing as if the past wanted to hold me in its gaze and assess me as fit (or not) to stand on those traditional lands. There were eyes everywhere, culled from different places, different communities: relocated to stare out somewhat defiantly – challenging me to come to terms with a different history, a different way of interpreting the world, a different sense of humanity. I felt small in their presence.

This particular set of eyes I found to be the most powerful. Others seemed to look mockingly, or accusingly. These eyes seemed to hold some compassion. I found them hypnotic. With the sun on my back we looked into each other’s gaze for as long as one of us could bear it. The eyes dominated what I saw. It is only when I look at the picture that I see the background detail, the patterning of the wood, and so on.

Tower blocks: Actually that is probably a wrong title – very English, very denigrating. There is a whole set of popular and academic studies done on estates, high-rise living, ideologies and community. The phrase ‘tower blocks’ has negative connotations because of these. But these blocks were strangely attractive. Maybe the better title would be ‘Apartment blocks’. But, even so, it’s not about the blocks but about the spaces between them … the gaps in which one might catch a glimpse of something else, something beyond the sides and edges of the colourful facades. In the case of Vancouver there were the almost secret flashes of sea and sky and mountain beyond the reflecting angular geometry of its urban front.

It is about seeing the gaps (what is almost not there) rather than focusing on the obvious. It is about looking in hope, beyond the normal visibility: things partially screened, partly hidden, almost secret. Things that can only be seen at an angle.

I asked about prices, about affordability, and about who therefore might live in such places (with their securely purchased views of water, of hills …) and who might be relegated to other shabbier dwellings over on Eastside (and whether that means insecure, rented views of semidereliction). Is this image emblematic of Vancouver – the view that people take with them when they leave the city – or is it representative of the city to those who regard themselves as citizens?

The image has its own beauty – blocks of colour, modernist shapes, repeated angles. Shapes and segments, when one takes the longer view, when one sees in passing – but each segment, on closer inspection, when one stops to see, is a home. Each box is a site for daily decisions. People are structured together, boxed in but barely interacting, with each life customised into private individualism. Each apartment is a box within a block; each block is a square on a grid of streets; that arrange to form recognisable zones … and so on … and each on its own timescale. The apartments get changed round, redecorated, refurnished on a rough annual cycle, on street layouts that keep changing as cities reinvent their arteries, their flows, their internal logics to neighbourhoods that get described in guidebooks as emerging more slowly, over decades – neighbourhoods that can be experienced immediately as you move around the city but also which are measured out in centuries as the heritage of an unfolding, ever-expanding city like Vancouver.

I wandered round most of them: Gas Town, Yaletown, Granville, Davie, Chinatown, Downtown, even venturing out onto the beginnings of East Hastings. Areas that were all neatly delineated on the tourist map, all segregated onto their own page of the guidebook. Each having its own personality: the spirit of the area. Each seemingly having its own purpose in the daily workings of the city; its own meanings for the people who live and work there – and different ones for people like me, meandering through as tourists.

Were there always different ways of experiencing the same physical spaces: the lifeviews of residents and the passing views of visitors; the perceptions of settled communities and of newcomers; of First Nations and of latecomers; of City Hall officials and of street-dwellers; of police officers and of career villains? Worlds that overlap and collide and co-exist and coalesce into a shimmering vibrancy that is Vancouver.

Fence: I spent a long time watching the change of light and shadow on this background before eventually deciding to take one shot as a representative of the whole process that probably deserved more – a film maybe, to capture its richness – but had to settle for this single shutter-click. After all a film would only have been able to capture the one bit of transience out of the whole day, or what would have been recordable yesterday or the next day, in different weather. Each recording, however long or short, would have been a fragment of the totality; one of the millions of possible variations of the same reality. Whatever we record, write, think, do, attempt is a mere fragment of what might be written, thought, done, attempted. Life turns out to be merely one version of a myriad of potentials.

At the same time this image was uniquely the one I had before me at the time. It was all I had. I was being fascinated by this one not by any imagined others. I focused on the detail in front of me. The lines; the edges; the transitions from light to shade and back again; the patches of light in the shade and patches of shadow in the light; the hard fixed lines of the wooden slats interplaying with the fuzzier shifting lines of shadow; the straights and the arcs; the ambiguities of it all.

When I stopped watching I realised that I had spent more than an hour there: Amazing how long you can spend watching a line of light move across a background.

Steps?: The only reason why this kept getting through the selections was that I have absolutely no memory of taking it – yet I must have done, There it is on the memory of my camera, sandwiched between a shot of the Steam Clock on Water Street and a shot taken the next day of a strange little statue of Emily Carr.

I remember sitting in the Starbucks next to the steam clock, inside and warm whilst a knot of Japanese waited in the drizzle to take a photo of the clock as it went into its steam-driven Westminster chimes. A quarter of an hour later the sun was out (such is the changeability of Vancouver’s many microclimates) that I was able to get a shot of steam and clock without others cluttering up the scene.

I remember the walk over and down to the jetty and the bobbling little boat across to Granville Island. I wandered round the place and then got a bit disoriented trying to find a way back up to the bridge to start the short trek back to the hotel. It was then that I came across this statue of a woman, a donkey and a monkey (tucked on a corner just off Granville). The plaque explained all. I remember stopping, reading.

I remember Starbucks and the clock. I remember the bobbling boat and the loaded fruit stalls. I remember the weather, the seagulls, the flyover, the traffic. I remember everything: So why have I no memory of taking this shot?

I am not even sure what it is. It could be steps, or shelves, or balconies. It could be a picture of things high up, from below – or maybe that is some illusion. There are diagonals; there is repetition; there are lines of light, blocks of darkness, hints of colour and pattern to break the monotony. I can see all that but still have no memory of taking it. Strange.

I read somewhere recently that our idea of memory has changed. It used to be that memories were stored, each in its separate box. Pigeon holed, to be revisited as a whole unity. my image is of a huge warehouse full of cardboard evidence boxes all labelled and filed, and some old half-forgotten guardian as the only one who remembers the somewhat idiosyncratic indexing system. A ‘lost’ memory is then a box not put back in the right place with the possibility of it being stumbled upon surprisingly, having slipped down behind other boxes – open the lid and there is the whole memory readily back in place. The current view is more complicated: Each memory has to be reconstructed (from fragments stored in distributed form across the brain) each time it is called to mind. It is a wonder, on this model, that more memories aren’t reconstructed differently (But how would we know? Each memory would feel that it is the right one, having no other memory to compare it to – we could end up living a life based on thousands of badly-constructed false memories …) or that links get broken and it becomes impossible to put that memory together in that specific way (But the fragments are still there, itching to be constructed into something … maybe a sense of a memory that doesn’t fully appear – a deja-vu ..).

Whatever the cause I find it incredulous that I have the tangible evidence of having done something that my brain has no memory of me having done. Scary.

Looking at the set of pictures spread in front of me I am struck by several ideas. These images are significant things; things that are heavy with meaning for me. They each relate to some reality out there on the streets of Vancouver but here, back home, out of context, they are abstracted things. They seem things I have grabbed, to hold onto, to mull over, to make something of them, to pore over and maybe read more into them than they deserve as they begin to take on meanings of their own.

The pictures are symbols, totems, reference points to be gone back to over and over again (particularly if a person feels that they are losing their way). They become a mix of imaginations and remembrances, and when the time has passed they become assurances that things must surely have happened – because there is always a photo in the album.

 

In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get to where it wants to be?

The Sustainable Community Strategy for Birmingham (UK) has as its goal that, by 2026, the city will demonstrably be a good place to live, to work and to bring up children. The strategy sets out some broad ways forward but on the surface these can look quite similar to the existing plans for progress that are not taking the city forward at the scale and pace necessary to achieve that goal.

In order to get to where it has set the marker down, the city as a whole (whatever that may mean in practice) will need to adopt some changes to the ways that certain things – progress; outcomes; systems; engagement; diversity of views etc – are thought about. Birmingham knows that it can improve such things by understanding them better. All of this raises the question of how a city (as a learning, developing system) learns to change by changing the ways that puzzles are conceptualised and acted upon. What are the most-likely-to-succeed approaches for the future? What more does such a city need to know and understand if it is to attain the aim of being a flourishing, connected, diverse, sustainable community by 2026?

This is not unique to Birmingham. Other cities want to make similar progress. The thinking that follows may equally well also apply at the level of towns, organisations, networks and so on.

Given the complex nature of developments, the scale of changes to be made, the pace at which many interconnecting things need to happen at the same time, and the shifting nature of local, national and global contexts there is a sense that thinking ways forward is unlikely to be simply linear and definitive. Planning, innovating and moderating ways of being and ways of doing things may be much more of an unfolding exploration. It may not be adequate to sketch out grand-scale inflexible pathways. There may need to be more reliance put on modest, contingent, conditional and interpretative sets of changes to ensure progress continues to be made with a larger, looser but equally robust framework that is able to sustain progress year-on-year towards the desired state of things.

Reflecting back on system-changes that have been more or less successful in the city over recent years there are a number of understandings that can be clustered in different ways so that emerging key lines of influence might be glimpsed. From the work done in Birmingham it seems that there may be at least five such lines of influence. These are:

  • The understandings of middle managers
  • The capacity to harvest past learnings and make sense (and sensible use) of them
  • The extent to which a variety of views are able to count within the drive for system-wide change
  • The abilities to maximise leverages that can move things along from being plans to being impacts and further on to being real changes in outcomes of the lives of people
  • The various understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations ..

It is quite feasible that there could be other ways of articulating the interplays between various fragments of understanding, and come up with a different set of key influences. Nor are the five listed above discrete lines of thought. They are proposed here on a ‘good enough for now’ basis in order to take the exploration forward. Each is unravelled in turn.

The understandings of middle managers

  • There are likely to be expectations that managers at a number of levels will have increased freedoms and flexibilities (as opposed to fixed centrally-managed roles) in ways that bring them into areas that are new and sometimes ambiguous. The way managers view their roles determines the ways they feel able to act in practice.
  • There is already an increased focus on outcomes and accountabilities at the same time as an integration of efforts that de-emphasises notions of ‘being the lead for’, single-agency ownership of issues, traditional structures (of management or governance) etc.. This often requires a new mindset about what managers are there for and how they might operate in a changing, adapting world.
  • There is no shortage of data : it comes thicker and faster than ever before. Frontline staff are expected to both collect and use a wide range of information, with more and more information being fed to middle managers. The managers’ wider understandings of the bigger picture, their operating principles and values, determine how they make use of this information, the frameworks they use to create understandable stories from it, and how the information becomes good professional knowledge that can guide decisions about future paths to take or better deployment of reducing resources.
  • Key managers have direct responsibilities for the welfare of staff and the maintenance of routines (and, ultimately, for demonstrating the need for their own continued employment). This can often lead to situations where parts of the system try to preserve the problems to which they are (or have been in the past) the solution.
  • In a rapidly changing world where solutions often are expected to be more complex or sophisticated, managers are increasingly expected to respond rapidly, flexibly, in responsive ways that can still be shown to be policy-led. At the same time these managers may still be operating in a system that has a legacy of being hierarchical, with its share of silos, and with fixed expectations of how things are to be done.
  • Middle managers may increasingly be seen as responsible for bringing about change (as opposed to their old role of service delivery) may need a different vocabulary or narrative which places less emphasis on reporting ‘things we do’ and more emphasis on reporting the changes made, the journey so far, the distance still to travel, how best to ‘get there’.
  • There are issues for managers around local/central rationalities: who decides what is the best thing to do, the sense of purpose behind decisions to be made, where those views come from, and so on. It is unrealistic maybe to assume that there is coherence to all of this: that everyone shares the same perspectives, or that everyone talks or acts in the same ways when constructing meaning within the daily realities of professional activity.
  • There are balances to be struck by managers between the extent to whichtheir job is to support learning/understanding that takes place ‘vertically’ (reporting up/ disseminating down) and the extent to which learning/understandings might occur ‘horizontally’ (through sharing knowledge across; communities of practitioners challenging each other’s understandings). There are increasing attempts to understand the dilemmas, pressures and rewards that are a feature of the ‘swampy lowlands’ of professional practices; and attempts to reconcile the notions of practice-based evidence and evidence-based practice.

 

The capabilities of the system to harness and make use of learning

  • Systems are, to a degree, unpredictable; time may be needed to see how things unfold and yet the pressure is on to manage emails/meetings etc in rapid, short-focus ways. At the same time much of the available information may appear contestable, ambiguous, even contradictory: things may be less clear cut than seemed to be the case in past years. Key individuals may need to develop new skills in in managing contradiction and lack of clarity.
  • In order to get the best understanding from information there may be a need to take intelligent overviews, to have interrogative frameworks, to exert critical thinking, and to allow time and space for various explorations to take place within the pressures to take things forward.
  • Within a drive to streamline decision-making and to provide quicker responses there is also a need to keep more people within knowledge-loops, allowing for more discussion that captures the variety of perspectives – implying a greater use of time-limited, highly focused, thinktank, guided conversations.
  • Increasingly communications need to be across boundaries or in contexts where no formal boundaries exist. In these situations ‘normal rules’ may not apply and people may operate much more via informal self-arranged subsystems that develop their own theoretical assumptions about what is possible.
  • Whilst there is an increased emphasis on evidence-based practice and outcomes-based planning there is often a lack of agreed understandings about what brings about change in particular outcomes, about how to translate robust knowledge into effective practices, and how the system may best operate in order to foster the implementation of change.

 

The ability to maximise leverages to move from planning intent, to practical impact, to shifts in outcomes in people’s lives

  • Whilst there has been an increased emphasis on securing planned outcomes there has been less practical demonstration of the mechanisms that move from policy to planning frameworks to action schedules for implementation of things likely to shift outcomes at the (almost ‘industrial’) pace and scale needed.
  • There have been strong parallel narratives around closing achievement gaps, health gaps etc – but slower progress in achieving closure of such gaps across the board through system-wide improvements. The same issues stay on the to-do agenda with little forward momentum.
  • Action plans tend to be at the level of lists of activities/ projects/ interventions or, occasionally, at the level of overarching frameworks. There is less articulation of the relationships between strategic frameworks, implemented activities and secured quantifiable improvements in outcomes. Where such descriptions are being put in place these tend to be linear, ‘boxed’, single-action rather than reflecting that things may emerge, that patterns may change, and that things may be reliant on other things being in place.

 

Understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations etc

  • Much use has been made of the idea of ‘value for money’ but without any clear explanations of ‘value’ this tends to be mostly judgements about ‘money’. There is increased concern for Public Value or Social Value. This puts more of an emphasis on attempting to quantify the less tangible notions of ‘use’ or ‘value’ when determining practical ways forward.
  • Where people are concerned with systems approaches and interagency/partnership approaches it is sometimes easier to be unclear about which part of the system is responsible for securing which set of changes within the whole forward enterprise. Even less clear is where any accountabilities may lie (To direct managers? To higher-level governance arrangements? To the beneficiaries of proposed changes? To the wider public in general?). Accountabilities and responsibilities get lost within dotted lines and overlapping boxes, or within shared plans etc.. Accountabilities are not always clear (for what; by whom, by when etc) around ensuring that changes occur at the scale and pace necessary to ensure substantial progress on key priorities.

 

Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?

Following on the thinking from previous posts:

If cities are important (If only because more than 60% of the UK population now live in cities), are they all important in the same ways? There are qualitative differences between London (as capital city, federation of a number of small boroughs, making a lot of ‘noise’ within national debates etc); and cities with a strong industrial heritage (Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry etc); maritime/seaboard cities (Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle); small ecclesiastical/academic cities (York, Durham, Cambridge, Oxford etc);  recently nominated cities … and so on. Cities have, variously, claimed status for themselves as a learning city, or a resilient city, or a connected city. From the lines of thought up to now I would also add Flourishing City as the status that many cities are aspiring to be, even if this not yet being claimed in those terms.

From the various lines of thought described in my previous post, a number of overlapping elements recur time and again as key factors. These can be listed and arranged in different ways to create ‘constellations’ of meaning. Other people may come up with their own slightly different set of aspects, and arrange things in somewhat different arrangements. Below is mine.  Although it is set out (far ease of reading?) as a list it is seen as far more intraconnected since the components can be constructed together in different ways. It is intended more as a flexible lens/framework through which cities might be considered rather than as a definitive checklist. (I would also extend this beyond cities, and suggest that it is possible to use the same kind of framework to look at Organisations or Networks or Communities or Neighbourhoods or Families etc.

Aspects of  a  flourishing place/organisation/network:
Sets out a moral purpose; there is meaning in what is done; promotes a compelling vision of where want to get to
Is aware of values/goals; uses agreed values as basis for decisions
Acts ethically; confronts wrongdoing; challenges bias and intolerance; deals with conflict and barriers
Can go out on a limb; able to express unpopular views
Sets challenging aspirations; driven to meet outcomes; results focused; maintains commitment/purpose
Asks why things aren’t done differently; approach involves querying and puzzling
Uses complex strategies without over-complicating things
Connects disparate things; seeing potential for linkages   (up/down/across)
Looks outwards as well as inwards; interested in broader context
Observes what is going on in practice; watching the realities
Fosters active engagement with people, ideas and events – in ways that are authentic
Seeks positive relationships/interactions; collaboration; linking up with others; manages relationships with peer agencies
Feels part of a wider network/community of others; connecting with others (family, friends, colleagues); being in touch with people
Sees that today’s right answer may be wrong for tomorrow; recognises need for change
Generates new ideas; can put ideas into practice; adapts responses as new circumstances emerge; acts like a creative brain
Shows an interest in things/in the world. Passionately curious re why things work the way they do; how can be improved; wants to know other people’s stories.  Relentlessly questioning; being curious; remarking on the unusual
Stays up-to-date; maintains currency in thinking/knowledge
Looks for information that can help improve things
Is open to new perspectives/viewpoints; sees changes emerging; prepares for change
Reflects on past experiences; Learns from experience; open to feedback
Learns from differences/ambiguities/gaps;  Encourages debate and discussion; promotes conversations-of-equals
Is flexible in how events are seen/interpreted; sensitive to other viewpoints
Experiments; enjoys ‘fiddling about’ to see what works
Operates in uncertainty; calculated risk-taking
Tries new things; rediscovering old interests; exploring/ formulating
Understands how people work; how to get best from   self/others; Seeks opportunities to raise skills of others; Creates culture in which people can thrive
Listens well; picks up clues
Meets commitments; keeps promises
Leads by example; takes bulk of responsibilities
Has adequate self-determination and assertiveness; has ‘presence’, presents self with confidence and assurance
Has a degree of ‘flow/mastery’; has vitality about what is done
Shows grit, stickability, self-discipline
Wants (and gives) clarity, precision, succinctness
Is good at decision-making; decisive despite uncertainties and pressure; thinks clearly; organised; manages multiple demands
Demonstrates resilience; coping skills. Embraces adversity with a track record of overcoming it; strong work ethic
Stays composed, positive, unflappable; relaxed, calmness; manages impulses, avoids over-reaction
Handles difficult situations well; looks for mutually beneficial outcomes
Is aware of own strengths/weaknesses; key strengths are used to good effect every day
Is aware of the world and how reacting to world events is influenced by collective feelings
Savours the moment; appreciating what matters
Shows optimism; spreads positive emotions; cheerful, smiles, thanks others in genuine ways
Is unselfconscious about doing unsolicited acts of kindness for others; readily volunteers
Takes on new challenges/different responsibilities
Offers advice, feedback, coaching to others
Makes sacrifices for the greater good 

This thinking is currently being developed further (particularly with the colleague Andrew Harrison) and additional thinking will be set out here and elsewhere in the near future. We hope that others will comment as one way of contributing to the thinking.

 

The nature of cities: a way of thinking

This piece of thinking derives from a number of roots:

One strand is concerned with the importance of cities. Several years ago the nation state was taken as being the driver of much that matters politically, economically and socially. Later came a phase where Regions were given a prime driving role (within the national context). There was an increased focus on regional growth, regional economies and (politically) on the potential of elected regional assemblies. We now seem to have a broader recognition of the importance of cities. Initially this was via a hybrid concept of the city-region whereby the regional economy was driven essentially by the wide impact of the activity of cities on their regional hinterland. More recently it is being linked to the potential value of elected city mayors and the capacity of cities to manage more of their own developments.

A different strand was the work of Martin Seligman. I have had a long-lasting interest in his work. Many, many years ago I was formally registered on a chemistry undergraduate course but (not being attracted by any form of sports; and not being enticed by engagement in more than a minimum number of university social/drama/drinking/weekend activity clubs) used some of the spare time to sit in on lectures in the psychology and sociology departments – and follow up some of the recommended readings in the library. This got me interested in the work of Gregory Bateson and the early thinking on systems and on the outcomes of human interactions; the work of the Symbolic Interactionists and the way people operate as individuals within social/group/organisational settings; and Seligman’s work on learned helplessness. Over the years these interests have been woven in with other things and insights adapted as new ideas have been put forward to explain social processes. Seligman’s shift to focus on ‘flourishing’ paralleled a change in focus within Birmingham, including part of the work I was involved in, to ideas around flourishing neighbourhoods, city-level progress, organisational optimism, and so on.

A third strand was an interest in learning (at different levels) which meandered through thinking about learning organisations, learning cities and testing out the extent to which Birmingham was considering itself to be a learning city. This, itself, started to interweave with thinking about how change can be brought about at the necessary pace and scale within larger, seemingly complex organisations – and the attitudes and behaviours that prevented intended improvements being brought to fruition. Along the way this brought in notions around communities of practice (and the work of Etienne Wenger, Jean Lave etc) and the nature of community and cooperation (and eg the writings of Richard Sennett).  Some of this linked across to reading I was doing on complexity theory (with links into the work of people such as John Seddon); some connected to writings (eg Michael Fullan) on leading change in larger-scale educational settings, and work more generally on leadership (eg Adam Bryant’s writings on what makes certain chief executives more effective than average). There were connections, also, to the work of Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence, especially emotional intelligence at work and the implications this might have for organisational processes and structures. Where writers are indicated (as in this paragraph) these are intended to be indicative of the sorts of things being explored rather than direct specific references to the only writer in that area of interest. They, and other such writers, will link into the reader’s own stock of thoughts to produce different ways forward for different people. I am, here, simply sketching out my own lines of enquiry.

A further, connected, strand was the emerging work on wellbeing and resilience – whether this be the ideas around how individuals can sustain their own wellbeing (eg the Foresight Report); or ideas around the wellbeing of organisations such as major public services in a city; or the connections  between resilience, learning, flourishing and so on. This brought me back to the latest work by Seligman – his own thinking having shifted from the topic of Helplessness, through Optimism, and on to the recent focus on Happiness and most recently onto an analysis of Flourishing. His book and website on this are well worth the visit in my view.

All of this was background, vague, and held as a loose thinking framework that enabled particular questions to be thought about in different ways. One such question was ‘How does a city such as Birmingham (UK) change itself through learning? If Birmingham can be considered to be a wide dispersed learning system how does that system learn to change? How can public services, undergoing change to new operating models – partly in the desire to deliver better outcomes in peoples’ lives and partly in response to reduced public sector budgets – build learning into these changes? ’

Another puzzle was the extent to which there might be common recurring messages arising from a range of insights that might form elements of a flexible framework through which a city can self-assess itself as having the capacity to flourish etc. – and the extent to which these might also apply at subsidiary levels (such as major organisations within the city, neighbourhoods, families, individuals …)? What might the interconnections be between the layers eg how does Birmingham influence family life; how does the activity patterns within families influence Birmingham as a city with its own perceived ethos/’spirit’ etc?

This sets a scene that can be explored in more detail ….