Archive for Other things of interest

A brief view of some of Birmingham’s dalliances with varieties of localisations

The city as a local entity

It is a long time since Birmingham was recognised, by Charter, as an administrative structure in its own right. Various surrounding towns and villages were incorporated into the city, making it the largest local authority in Europe.

There have been recurring issues lasting until the present:

  • What freedoms and flexibilities does the city have, or is it there mostly as a locality for the delivery of central government diktats?
  • The city has always looked for Birmingham solutions to Birmingham problems (from early sewerage systems; civic developments; slum clearances and Manzoni planning; ….) but with the dangers that its size makes Birmingham ‘over-important’ or that its history as the City of a Thousand Trades encourages it to dismiss ideas not Made in Birmingham.

Birmingham has had various attempts at getting a local dimension to city planning and governance, to service delivery, and to the engagement of residents in neighbourhoods in key actions in their locality. Some key features, and tensions, of these are set out below. This is not an in-detail account of all aspects of localisation in cities, but a brief overview of some developments within one city.

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Cities and Housing Issues – a bit of an exploration

In various European and North American cities visited in the last decade, housing has been a recurring theme, both as an everyday lived concern of residents and as a policy concern for city decision-makers.

Whilst there seem to be universal issues, generic across all such cities, each city has its own particular set of housing concerns shaped by that city’s culture, history and the interplay between local and national legislation. Although many of the observations are at city level, it is recognised that none of the cities mentioned are homogenous entities. Each city has its variety of neighbourhoods and its diversity of residents: its physical and social nooks and crannies.

This exploration has been based on looking at newspaper articles, journal articles and policy documents, as well as a degree of wandering and observing the day-to-day facets of a select number of similar cities. It is, therefore, by its nature only a partial view of the complexity of things. It certainly does not set itself out as a well-referenced academic study, nor try to represent every aspect or every city. Any errors, omissions or assertions are personal ones.

The housing concerns of cities looked at tended to centre around the same issues: affordability, renting, house-building rates, local renovations and redevelopments, levels of public/private investment, land ownership and land use, homelessness, who gets to make which decisions, how we define ‘home’, and local/national interplays.

Housing is seen as a key social and political issue for those cities. Declarations and proposals are made at various levels of city/regional/national government, with various ways forward being proposed. At the same time, despite strong commitments to change, the difficulties do not seem to go away in other than piecemeal ways.

What follows is a summary of some of the key points in those observations – not from the viewpoint of a housing expert but from the perspective of an interested bystander who puzzles why the same key issues continue to be revisited with, in many cases, few real permanent inroads being made to fix the problems

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Birmingham : a creative city?

This was written as part of a consideration of how developments might lead a city to think of itself as being a creative city. It started as thoughts linked to an online course run by the University of Toronto.

In terms of population, Birmingham is the UK’s Second City. It is located in the centre of England. Road and rail networks criss-cross the country here. Politically, it sees itself as second in importance to London but keeps a wary eye on Manchester which rivals it for this claim (on the grounds of seeming more inventive and more productive). Its population is steady at around 1million people.

This takes it out of any superstar city league, although it has aspirations to be a modern, world-connected city with a bright future. It is, relatively, a city of young people, a city with a tradition of creativity and industriousness, and a city of opportunity (even if more for some rather than for others).

Whilst not a recognised ‘World City’, Birmingham has a set of formal relationships with cities from around the world: ‘partner city agreements’ with Lyon, Frankfurt, Leipzig and Milan; and ‘sister cities agreements’ with Chicago, Guangzhou and Johannesburg.

It is a city that has undergone, and is continuing to undergo, economic transitions. It was settled in the 7th century and grew slowly as a set of farms and homesteads at a river crossing. It was granted a market in 1156 and by the 17th and 18th century was a place bustling with small workshops creating swords, guns, chains, machinery, jewellery, household metalware and so on. It had the conditions necessary to move ahead through the rapid industrialisation of the middle-late 1800s. It was regarded (or badged itself) as the Workshop of the World, the City of a Thousand Trades – certainly ‘Made in Birmingham’ was stamped on a large proportion of metal goods that supported development at home and in other countries.

This gave the city much of the shape that it has today – in terms of road structures and areas of terraced low-rise brick houses (even if the worst of these were demolished in the slum-clearances of the 1950-80 period). By the 1960s it had become seen as a place reliant  on motorcar use and motorcar manufacture. When this industry restructured and some parts moved abroad, Birmingham was heavily affected, although it never became one of those semi-abandoned, semi-boarded up cities as it tried to reinvent itself as a tourist destination turning the unused industrial canals in the city centre into wharves for bars, restaurants and meeting places.

It has, more recently, shifted from a largely manufacturing base to an economy substantially reliant on service/ retail/ hospitality sectors and sees a future for itself as a place of finance, knowledge and enterprise. It wants to be a city that works for all, with an ambiguity about whether this is possible.

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R:2025 – An interim stocktake (Sept 2016)

R:2025 is an extended, fifteen year, creative programme of activities; a contemporary exploration (to 2025) of things linked to representations, ideas, people and places.

It has a couple of overall intentions. One of these (To engage in a range of exploratory activities, making the outcomes from these activities freely available) is felt to be substantially being met. There will now be a greater emphasis on developing the other strand (To explore how any insights gained can have real-world real-time impacts and value).

Activities underway since 2010 have been shaped within a loose and flexible framework constructed from a number of threads. Substantial progress has been made in exploring:

  • unfolding interpretations of ‘contemporary’, ‘progress’ etc
  • the pursuit of writing in a range of styles, for a variety of purposes
  • issues associated with cities and urban living
  • thoughts around places, spaces, neighbourhoods and locations
  • the construction of identities (of people; of places)
  • concerns with inequality, fairness and social change

More now needs to be done around:

  • aspects of learning and development
  • concerns with wellbeing, flourishing and sustainability
  • approaches to ‘value’ and ‘impact’ (at personal, public and social levels)
  • the nature of evidence, research, knowledge and understandings
  • the characteristics and usefulness of art and creativity
  • aspects of emergence, complexity, uncertainty and contingency
  • public and private innovation and policy implementations

The website already holds a substantial amount of eclectic content from the first five years of activity. This content is meeting the original aims of being broad-based, interesting, responsible, thoughtful, and different. There have been a number of seminars, workshops and focused conversations in cities in UK, USA and Canada; as well as the use of a small number of related blogs, and the publication of several books. The activity was intended to incorporate other outputs. These have included a photographic portfolio and a small number of paper/clay-based art objects: all based around the same framework listed earlier. There is more to be done to build up this stock of art objects. Links are being made with the broad ‘world of art’ – writings based on exhibitions; an outline framework for work on cities and public art; being Researcher in Residence attached to a 2015 exhibition.

The emphases within the work have ranged from quite personal concerns to recurring issues across an increasingly urbanised, globalised and uncertain world. The endeavour is still considered to be a contemporary undertaking since it reflects many of the themes of identities, change, ambiguities, relationships, fracturings and aggregations: locally, nationally, and globally.

The approach continues to be one of developmental and exploratory puzzling, and of purposeful development. Conversations with key contacts have confirmed that what has been achieved so far can be regarded as linked, curated content that forms an extended creative programme operating at a number of levels and in a variety of ways.

At the beginning of the activity a potential Vocabulary was set out. This was composed of words that would be expected to recur in articles, thinking and discussions. A review of these words has been undertaken. It is concluded that nothing additional needs to be incorporated and that any weak spots in usage of the vocabulary are highly likely to be addressed within the next set of developments.

Sitting behind the activity there is still a desire to impact on a number of social issues, and to explore the ways that creative activities can do this is the current context. Although stress is put on flexibility and emergence, the overall driving idea remains clear:

To use creative activities to make demonstrable contributions to changing the ways in which people think, behave and interact; in order to reach better understandings of social processes and developments with the hope of levering some practical impact on a number of significant issues.

This aspect of the work is seen as an integral part of the project’s development activities and is regarded as one of its greatest challenges. It is in its very early stages and will be a focus over the next three years and beyond. This will be interesting, but not straightforward. Emerging notions around usefulness, public value and social impact will increasingly be drawn on as the work continues. It is believed that continued, occasional reporting against this intention is important.

This is the first of such public reportings.

Some outline thoughts concerning everyday puzzles with understanding autism

This is a skate across some of the puzzles that arise for many people when trying to understand the common current thinking associated with autism. It is not written with any claim to expertise. It takes the view of the interested bystander. It does not seek to explain everything to do with autism. Nor does it seek to lessen the daily experiences of those living with lives influenced by autism.

It aims to understand how current ways of talking about autism might get in the way of society adapting sufficiently quickly. The aim is to explore rather than pin things down, and to look at things as a set of recurring puzzles. Some of these puzzles stem from there being a variety of descriptions of autism, which lead to a range of understandings and misunderstandings amongst the general population that, in turn, get in the way of society being structured in ways that support people with autism. The article is deliberately rather wordy but, again, that is all part of taking an exploratory approach.

The first part of what follows is an outline drawn from various documents and websites of people and organisations actively involved with autism. The second part lists the many detailed behaviours that organisations and individuals consider as recurringly observable in the range of autistic people. The third part tries to set out some of the difficulties that get in the way of everyday understanding of the issues around autism.

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Researcher in Residence

In the period April-July 2015 I acted as Researcher in Residence attached to an exhibition (‘Im Bau’ by Aideen Doran) at the Grand Union Gallery in Birmingham, UK.

What follows is an exploration of the researcher-in-residence model; a description of what was undertaken in relation to this specific exhibition; and a listing of some of the headline thoughts that were outcomes from this activity. Read more

Contemporary Identity of Individuals: a personal exploration

Why is the idea of identity worth exploring? Is contemporary identity any different from any past or common-sense understandings of identity?

What follows is a summary gained from reflecting on my own experiences and studies, up to and including the transition to retirement.

Identity is a complex and strategic notion that sits at the centre of many current events and discussions. Identity appears to be crucial, yet is contentious. Identity defines, differentiates and distinguishes. It is central to our individual being yet, for many people, identity is seen as structured by social processes beyond the individual.

In recent decades, it appears that identity has become more central, as accounts seek to explain events as culturally rooted in individual concerns. Identities, and processes of identifications, have become important again.

Contemporary views of identity sustain a number of puzzles that are worth exploring.

This is the first of a pair of linked articles on identity. It focuses on identity and people, whilst the next article focuses on identity and place. Read more


Bureaucracy has got a bad name. It is seen as a relatively recent disease in society, yet it has had a long history. Based on rationality and fixed procedures, it can be seen as having stemmed from very positive attempts to deal with variability, unpredictability and patronage – injecting transparency and fairness into social processes.

Bureaucracy has changed as society has changed. With the advent of mechanised mass production and the search for ever more efficiency, it became variously associated with totalitarian regimes, rule-based systems and a lack of humanity. As society continues to change new forms of bureaucracy are emerging. These can be viewed positively as adaptations to flexibility and creativity, or can be viewed more critically as the permeating of all social interaction by procedures and attitudes that are relatively meaningless yet which operate as a means of control. Read more

Some exploratory thoughts on Progress

The idea of progress is a complex concept. Normally it is taken to mean that the human condition is improving over time and will continue to improve into the foreseeable future.

This conceptualisation of progress include a sense of advancement, forward movement, and gaining a higher understanding or ability. It is an upward linear progression, a continuation, a development. Progress is Onwards and Upwards.

It also has the more subtle sense of simple passage of time; a going from place to place, a procession or journey, things being underway – as work being in progress: an unfinished thing that may or may not work out well.

The Enlightenment struggles with the idea of Progress were attempts to rationalise ways forward. Do we have similar impulses and methodologies that allow us to sense ways forward, to make contemporary progress, in a world that seems more fragmented, with uncertain sets of relationships? How will we agree what constitutes progress in a context that is complex, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic? Read more

Thinking about ‘Contemporary’ : a hesitant exploration

As with so many useful terms, there is no simple single understanding of ‘contemporary’. It is still being explored and in some ways may never be fully settled on. At the same time, there are some clear lines of sight that help people see a way through.

Contemporary, by its roots, is about time and belonging together. That apparent clarity is immediately one source of difficulty. Its common-sense understanding has contemporary relating to particular things coexisting within this current time period (Contemporary = of the present) but (a) there is a different sense in which anything in the past was contemporary with other things in that same past period. (Everything is contemporary in its own time – so there is nothing especially contemporary about today); and (b) not everything that exists together in the here and now might be judged to be contemporary in its values.

Maybe one answer is to declare that the currently contemporary relates to the now of today and simply ‘is’, as something that cannot be generalised beyond its very fragmented existence. This sees the contemporary as being a highly diverse set of outlooks (more so than things have been in the past with diversity in cultural production, exchange, consumption, materials, meanings. and with little expectation of being able to neatly draw boundaries to contain it. That, in turn, leads back to contemporary being able to encompass everything and anything, so long as it is thought of as contemporary.

This contemporary-as-diversity arises from an understanding that we currently live in a very different kind of world, and that any socially-constructed activity will reflect things that are shaped by a unique set of stronger, broader, different forces. This brings some paradoxes and puzzles: The world (physically and socially) is more connected than ever before but, at the same time, feels more fragmented. There are widespread, almost universal, influences but these play out differently everywhere: Think global; Think local.

This was also true, in its own way, of past eras of expanding trade and industrialisation. There is something particularly new and different in the nature of those same influences, making the contemporary what it is today. What is so specific about the shaping forces of now? What is it within anything contemporary that clearly marks it out as such: as being characteristic of twenty-first century existence rather than of any previous age? Read more