Popping-up everywhere

Choreographing local creativity

A colleague recently helped set up a creative collaboration between two friends: an architect and a visual artist. It took a couple of years to plot, and a few months to choreograph. It involved getting local permissions — mainly from land and building owners, rather than the local council. And there was plenty of other planning and logistics to ensure that the event — a sound-and-light show between buildings and across a couple of streets in North East London — was safe and fun for whoever bothered to turn up.

2000 people turned up! There was no marketing or promotion — just a flurry of emails and facebook posts a couple of weeks before. But some of these got picked up by local networking sites and a major on-line listing magazine — and suddenly they were inundated. Continue reading “Popping-up everywhere”

Evaluation – proving or improving?

Prompted by a great presentation from Jon Hugget, The Social Innovation Partnership hosted a lively discussion on Evaluation and Social Innovation this morning, organised in partnership with Impact Hub Westminster and °directional thinking.

Starting from the premise that too often evidence just gets in the way of innovation, Jon posited the view that the focus of social innovation should be on ‘Improving’ what we do, not trying to ‘Prove’ the validity of what we are doing.

There was broad agreement that the desire to demonstrate robust evidence can sometimes be a barrier to responsive and engaged social action and innovation – and a range of examples were cited of programmes which have succeeded through a commitment to agile and responsive methods of evaluation and learning while the project is progressing: from driving to primary healthcare, safe sex counselling to early years intervention.

Proving Improving
Slow Quick
Objective Subjective
Academic Practice-based
Laborious Responsive
Robust Useful
Longitudinal Immediate

However, all participants acknowledged the value and importance of evidence, and a strong case was made for investment in data-gathering and of understanding impact over the longer-term. Indeed, the point was made that, although funders and commissioners will often rely too heavily on evidence and data which appears detached from practice, this will assist them in being more adventurous and risk-tolerant than practitioners who might be too close to the action to take risks and countenance failure.

But there was remarkable agreement on the need for a more flexible approach, with a call for a broader, more diverse, approach to evaluation and measuring impact. There was a particular emphasis on the importance of drawing in users and practitioners – to be part of a more interactive evaluation process, based on live, ongoing, experience, rather than just longer-term research. A more radical approach was also suggested – one which might invite users and practitioners (rather than funders and commissioners) to drive the process, and shape the measures against which success is determined.

Ultimately, of course, everyone wants to contribute towards social programmes which are ‘proven’ to make things better for the people they’re trying to support, and no-one wants to waste resources on programmes which fail. But for TSIP, and for other partners, social innovation will always require a more agile and dynamic approach where getting things wrong might actually lead to improvement. Placing evaluation at the heart of that ‘improving’ mindset will ensure that those failures drive future change.

Perhaps characteristically, the group called for a ‘learning’ approach – one in which evaluators shared ideas, and were open about what works and what doesn’t. As the first of a series of breakfast sessions, this meeting provided the starting point for such a dialogue with other sessions to come.

 

Tech City – the story so far

Ian Dowson shared his research on the Tech City cluster at a recent breakfast discussion, highlighting among other things:

  • The scale of new business growth in and around Tech City, nearly matching New York – although still dwarfed by Silicon Valley
  • The number of investment and exit deals in London compares well with both NY and Silicon Valley, but the amounts are tiny compared to both: angel investment deals average $1m in California but just a quarter of that in London
  • London start-ups illustrate a maturity of development and expertise – driven by multi-national, multi-disciplinary partnerships, with impressive educational and experience credentials
  • The Tech City business culture is also marked by strong creative businesses and experience, and a remarkably dynamic and open market-place of meet-ups and knowledge exchange.

This discussion followed the recent visit to Tech City which highlighted the notion of the ‘blended’ business (echoing the concept of the ‘fused’ or ‘superfused’ businesses found in Brighton), but also the pressures on workspace and the general problem around property prices in London.

The way in which creative businesses and others are moving out, on account of rising rents and other pressures, was identified as one of the inevitable by-products of a successful business cluster. Tom Campbell has blogged on that here, and the need for a more sophisticated approach to planning and housing policies was highlighted.

But in answer to the question ‘What have we learnt?’ (or better, ‘what are we learning?’ – since the transformation of the area hasn’t finished yet), a number of intriguing ideas and challenges emerged:

  • The relationship between corporate companies and investors and the start-ups and micro-businesses: In one sense, the big companies are key to fueling the profile and success of an area – but to what extent might they damage the energy and dynamism of a start-up culture? Are the corporates ‘providers or parasites’? How does the shift to a big-firm/uni/incubator model for start-ups affect the dynamics of the human capital networks?
  • Accelerating the inevitable: Has Government focus and investment on Tech City simply accelerated an inevitable transformation of an area which has been gentrifying over decades? Or has the injection of new money and profile created something more interesting – a unique combination of technology and creativity, which may not have evolved quite so successfully without that focus? Can it be replicated elsewhere in the UK, to catalyse investment and growth, without jeopardising the characteristics of the place which made it attractive to start-ups in the first place?
  • And what of cultural and creative institutions themselves? Rather than bemoan the fact that a creative ecology is turning into a tech-cluster – what can cultural and creative agencies and investors do to sustain the creative edge of places like Shoreditch, Hackney Wick, Manchester, Glasgow….?

Localism and leadership

Tristram Hunt led off the most recent Culture and Creative Industries breakfast session, bemoaning the lack of clarity in government policy on localism and democratic renewal.

He wasn’t against much of what is being developed – and, indeed, the Local Economic Partnership (LEP) model was identified as a potentially ground-breaking way of focusing energy and resources around industrial and demographic requirements, rather than arbitrary borough or regional boundaries – bringing together public and private sector to develop long-term programmes for growth. Continue reading “Localism and leadership”

Virtual government

It seems ironic that within the same week that David Cameron was announcing that East London is to be the UK’s ‘Silicon Valley’, three quarters of staff at the London Development Agency were given notice of redundancy.

East London has, or had, been a priority for the LDA for a number of years, and huge effort has gone into fostering business growth and, not at all unconnected, investing in regeneration and local skills projects. If East London is now a place where business wants to move, then due recognition needs to be placed at the door of the LDA, and other public sector partners who – in various different ways – have helped to make London east of Old Street Roundabout a good place to live and do business. Continue reading “Virtual government”