Tag Archive for Birmingham

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 intra-connected 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:

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.

Tales made in Birmingham: a taster selection

As Birmingham’s contribution England’s national Year of Reading a number of very short fictional ‘tales’ were written especially to help promote reading to new readers. These were intended to be distributed as widely as possible to people in Birmingham and beyond. These writings were produced essentially for an adult audience, but have general appeal within that.

These are (fictional) stories told to an imaginary researcher. They capture fragments of the lives of each narrator, told from their own unique perspective. The tales are also being brought together as an imagined account of social research under the ‘Sides and Edges’ heading. A selection is offered here as a taster. The full set is available as an e-book at the Amazon site under the title ‘Made in Birmingham: The Tales’ by Geoff Bateson.

The taster collection of Tales can be dowbloaded here: Tales Collection 1

Poems made in Birmingham: a taster selection

As Birmingham’s contribution to England’s national Year of Reading a number of new poems were written especially to help promote reading to new readers. These were intended to be distributed as widely as possible to people in Birmingham and beyond. These writings were produced essentially for an adult audience, but have general appeal within that.

These were written in deliberate attempts to cover a range of lengths and styles. Some are meant to be taken quite lightly; others are meant to be lingered over. A selection of the poems is offered here as a taster. The full set is available as an e-book at the Amazon site under ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ by Geoff Bateson..

The introductory taster selection can be downloaded here: Poems_Collection_1

Birmingham: recent development activity relating to reading and writing

This article was produced at the same time as a talk given as part of Birmingham’s Book festival. It provided the audience with a summary overview of the diverse range of ways that Birmingham had been bringing about changes to levels of all-age reading and writing across the city. Most of the activities were whole-city changes to the way mainstream learning and teaching was delivered across Birmingham. Many were initiatives ‘Made in Birmingham’ that subsequently went national (and, in a few cases, international). The momentum behind the developments was created, and driven forward, jointly by the several major public services acting in partnership, since 1995, under the Birmingham Core Skills Development banner. The article can be downloaded here: Birmingham reading and writing developments

Where is all this reading and writing taking us?

This is the text of a talk given to the Birmingham Book Festival. It looks at the development of reading and writing over the ages, and the speed with which things are developing. It projects forward to speculate on what things might look like in the near future. There is a comparison of levels of reading ability and levels of writing ability in Birmingham. There is a brief look at the connections between reading/writing and teaching/learning and the links between those skills and society in general. The full article can be down loaded here: Where is all this reading and writing taking us?

Family Learning: Can it promote resilience in children and young people?

This article summarises the thinking that links family learning, resilience and the closing of educational gaps. It is based on some overview research commissioned by Core Skills Developments in Birmingham (UK). Insights are offered about how children can become motivated individuals. When educational settings actively engage parents directly in the learning and development of their children, and support parental involvement in learning in the home, children and young people are able to achieve greater attainments.

The report – final version can be downloaded here.

History of Castle Vale

Castle Vale is a modern housing area on the north-eastern edge of Birmingham (UK). It is unique in many ways and has gone through distinct sets of changes. The things that most people noticed on their first visit to the area, when it was first built as a housing estate, was the flat and open landscape and the very distinct boundaries which seemed to almost cut Castle Vale off from the rest of the city to make a little island of people. These features have recently been changed, and will continue to change into the future, but each change is dictated by past developments. To understand what an area is like now, it is important to understand its history. The history of the Castle Vale area can be traced backwards, layer by layer and then built up again as a sequential record of those things that made the place what it was at each stage of its development.

The history follows the changing fortunes of this one relatively small area of land from its beginnings as a swampy forest, through the feudal times of battling barons, through the growing industrialisation of Birmingham to the First World War, on through its life as an airfield, finally to the construction of the modern housing estate and the very recent improvements to that area. From time to time little excursions are taken into the wider history of the region but only in order to set the very local events within their wider setting and make them even more interesting than they already are.

The full history can be downloaded as a PDF here: History of Castle Vale