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June 26, 2015

Threads of Diversity

Rather than fold them into the usual Interesting Things on the Internet(tm)... post, I'd like to point to a few articles that have crossed my path of late...

I think there's a thread of diversity-is-good running through all of them, alongside - with the exception of the FT article on the petrification of London - thoughts on better ways to organise things. They also all challenge the orthodoxy, so although there's a fair chance they'd improve the lives of the many, there's a risk (and only a risk) of that being to the cost of the ruling classes, and so would need actively pursuing as ideas.

As ever, it shows most things have been done before, despite our love of the seemingly new. There are plenty (almost too many - I'm not sure where to start... any pointers?) of writings from Stafford-Beer, but less information about the Lucas Plan (discussed, including video of a documentary about it, in the Fab Lab article).

I wonder if any of the people behind the Lucas Plan are still around, and if they'd be interested in sharing their experiences with those of us experimenting with the latest wave of similar projects...

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June 22, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: June 22nd 2015

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June 15, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: June 15th 2015

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June 01, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: June 1st 2015

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May 28, 2015

Archive: Launching It’s Liverpool 2020 at Social Media Cafe Liverpool

Back on Thursday 16th February 2012 I gave a talk at Social Media Cafe Liverpool to launch a new project...

The idea was to inspire and collect stories about a Liverpool of the future, to help us talk about where we want to go and how we might get there.

Sadly I didn't have the time and/or energy to drive the project forward, and it failed to do anything much, beyond me writing (and presenting) this talk. The associated website is long gone, and I hadn't ever published the slides/notes elsewhere - something I discovered when trying to find a URL for it to share with someone the other day. So, this blog post is to fix that.


Assuming all goes well, at the time that this blog post is published, I’ll be giving this talk at Social Media Cafe Liverpool to launch the “It’s Liverpool 2020″ project.  There’ll be more appearing on this website over the coming weeks, but hopefully this will explain a bit more about what the project is…

A vision of the future (guaranteed to be wrong)

A Future.  Part 1

It’s a warm Indian summer morning in September 2020, and I’m on my morning commute, walking down Upper Duke Street.  As I near the Chinese Arch my phone buzzes in my pocket.  I pull it out and it’s the location reminder I set last night – “pick up pastries for the meeting”.  I divert my route slightly and call into the Banksy Bakery.  That’s not its real name, Sam called it The White-Bread-house in a play on its original pub name, but the local nickname has stuck.  I ask him for some danishes, and am also tempted by some of his outstanding soda bread – that’ll work for lunch…

I leave the bakery and cross the street to DoES Liverpool.  We moved into the old Europleasure International building back in 2013 when we’d outgrown our space at Gostins and since then have expanded next-door into the Swedish hotel too.  I swipe my Walrus card against the door to gain access and am met with the familiar sight of people working on interesting projects.  The ground floor is where all the heavy machinery lives – the lathes, Shop-bot CNC routers, the big laser cutters… I don’t venture any further in, but head up to the first floor.

The first floor has fewer of the machines, and it’s split into an assortment of open plan areas with desks and a couple of meeting rooms. There are more people working from laptops here, though there’s some soldering going on over in one corner and one of the meeting rooms is awash with bits of blue prototyping foam.  I drop by the desks occupied by one of the web agencies working out of DoES – to double-check they’re still on for our meeting later, and then head up to my desk on the top floor.

The top floor-and-a-bit is taken up with MCQN Ltd, and it’s from here that we design, prototype and code the devices that are making peoples lives easier and a bit more fun. Bubblino is still sat doing his thing, but has been joined on the “shelves of things” by a wealth of other items.

As I sit down at my desk, one of the project leads gets a call on her mobile. It’s the factory, to let her know that the run of prototype PCBs she sent them yesterday is ready to be picked up. She grabs her keys, and a minute later is unlocking one of the bikes from the public bike station at the Chinese Arch and heading down Great George Street.

A Future.  Part 2

Ten minutes later, she’s parked up outside the factory. Most of the work is mechanised these days – there are all sorts of CNC machines, pick-and-place machines building PCBs, and reflow ovens doing the soldering, but robots are as cheap to run in the UK as they are in China, and this means we can see what working conditions are like and provide this sort of more responsive work.

There are still staff here, and there’s nothing to stop the talented and more ambitious ones from working their way up from supervising the machines to designing products.

We’ve also given over a bit of the building to DoES Toxteth, because DoES Liverpool is pretty busy these days, and not everyone wants to head into town to do their hacking…

A Future.  Part 3

Back at DoES Liverpool I’ve had my meeting, and am thinking about lunch.  I stick my head into the mapme.at office – they’re also doing well, having helped MCQN Ltd lead the charge that saw Liverpool emerge as the leading city for the Internet of Things, and have a fair chunk of the Swedish hotel, overlooking the Anglican cathedral.  John is free for lunch, and as it’s a nice day we head up to the roof terrace.

The South side of the roof is given over to solar panels, and most of the rest is covered in raised beds growing vegetables.  It’s one of many sites dotted around the city which are looked after by the Liverpool Urban Farm.  That grew, if you’ll pardon the pun, out of the Transition Towns group, and is providing locally grown produce along with quite a few jobs.  A couple of the DoES crowd are involved, providing some of the tech that making maintaining the disparate sites easier.

I pick a few of the late tomatoes, and some salad leaves and drop them into the payment scales in the corner.  A swipe of my Walrus card means they’ll be charged to my monthly bill.

As we sit eating lunch, John spots one of the Liverpool Networks electric-trike-vans on Berry Street, which reminds him to tell me that their public WiFi network has reached Garston.  We discuss how great it is that something that started out as a little collaboration between LivLUG, Leaf and Bold St Coffee to provide free WiFi on Bold Street has grown into a national company, teaching school-leavers how to build and install the WiFi hotspots in their factory in Everton, and seeding similar companies up and down the country.

And with lunch finished, we head inside to get back to work.  Life in a resurgent Liverpool is busy but good.

What is It's Liverpool 2020?

A lightweight distributed blogging project to encourage more discussion and thinking about how we want the city to evolve.

We want people to write about what they hope Liverpool could be like, should be like, in the year 2020.  It’s a deliberately loose brief – you could write about the city as a whole; about your specific neighbourhood; about the architecture, the nightlife, the businesses… Whatever you like.

There’s a website at itsliverpool2020.com, but that’s just to point people at the different entries, and feature some of the more interesting/controversial/well-written pieces.

Beyond that, we’ll see how it goes – it would be good to feed into the council’s 10-year plan, and maybe it will raise issues for the mayoral candidates to answer.  Maybe some of the entries will be featured in the Echo or on 7 Streets.  Maybe we’ll use newspaperclub to publish a compendium of them.  Mostly I hope it will help us work out what sort of city we’ll build.

How You Can Help

Well, we’ve got a website, but no web designers on the volunteer organiser committe, so if someone wants to help make it look awesome that’d be great.  Beyond that, mostly we want you to help get the word out about it – blog about it, tweet about it, choose the three people whose ideas about Liverpool you’d most like to hear and badger them to write something for it…

But most importantly…

Get Writing!

Submit your entry to the project.

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May 25, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 25th 2015

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May 18, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 18th 2015

  • The only way is down: 18 notes on the UK election. I'm glad I got to spend last weekend holed up in Hebden Bridge busy with load of interesting people at a fun-yet-full-on hack weekend. With a few days perspective, this is the best of the analysis I've read on the election result.
  • New Clues, from Doc Searls and David Weinberger. Commandments, rules... a manifesto for the Internet. And if you haven't read their original Cluetrain Manifesto, go read that too.
  • ‘Community Led’ – Moving beyond victims and heroes. A good reminder - borne of the lovely news about Granby being nominated for the Turner Prize - that the truth is more complicated than the narratives we hear from the media (and each other).
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May 11, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 11th 2015

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May 04, 2015

Interesting Things on the Internet: May 4th 2015

  • The Internet Mapmakers Helping Nepal. Good write-up of the great work the HOTOSM team are doing.
  • Why are you still here?. As in Grimsby, so the rest of the country. Tales of decline, regeneration, politics and globalisation.
  • Jamie Oliver: how to chop an onion. Fantastic re-working of Jamie Oliver footage.
  • Our better selves are bold and inclusive. It feels to me like this is the crux of choice for our politics. I definitely feel myself get protective, cautious and zero-sum game in my outlook when I'm stressed and fearful for how things might map out, and as a result miss out on opportunities and the possibilities of an optimistic outlook. It's something that I've lost in the past decade, and sorely hope I can get back - that something-will-come-up unassailability that was a core of my character when I was younger (and I don't think it's an age thing, it's something I caught from an ex-girlfriend). An optimistic UK is far better than a fearful, pessimistic one. It's such a shame that our politicians think the latter makes us easier to manipulate for their gain.
  • The Limits of Utopia. A simultaneously depressing and galvanising read. "The Earth is not being blistered because the despoilers are stupid or irrational or making a mistake or have insufficient data."
  • #lowerthanvermin. An interesting look through the career of Nye Bevan. I particularly liked that "he was apparently disappointed by the fact that the miners’ leader Will Lawther considered the NUM’s role to be the defence of workers against management, not pursuit of the possibility of its being the management." That feels like the problem the unions have always suffered from in my lifetime.
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Doing Business Support Right

There are a lot of business support organisations in Liverpool. I'm not sure if there are really more than I encountered in Cambridge - whether it's a result of the area needing to "be regenerated" or if it's just because it's a bigger city or if I'm just noticing it more now. If it wasn't for the fact that pastries and coffee don't make a balanced diet, you could probably close the food banks by giving people a business suit to wear and signing them up to the right mailing lists.

The projects are all well meaning, and there is definitely room for more people doing interesting things in the city, including running more businesses.

However, lots of the "business support" falls short of making any real difference to things. I'm sure they'll have the survey results to prove different, but no-one gathers any figures for the amount of time lost by businesses trying to work out if this latest networking event is worth attending...

For the past five years or so the best - by a good margin, although that's partly to do with the quality of the competition - support for the tech community in Liverpool has been from LJMU's Open Labs.

Sadly, it looks like their funding is coming to an end and with it the support. I'm writing the blog post partly to thank them for what they've done for the city, and partly to try to capture why they were so helpful, in the hope that those following in their wake can raise their game.

So, a non-exhaustive list of ways to do business support properly...

  • Be part of the community. Get out of the building. Go and find the businesses you're supporting. Get to know them. Get to a point where they know you, and what you can help with. Then they'll start to refer people to you. Seek people out, as the most interesting ones will probably be too busy to come looking for you. This is the most important point in the entire list, as it makes the rest of your job much easier. It also means that at times you'll have to give up evenings or weekends, as some of the community's activities take place then.
  • Experiment. Try new things out and be creative in thinking of ways to support people. Jelly Liverpool started as a fairly low-key experiment to bring the Work at Jelly concept to Liverpool, yet it brought together all manner of freelancers and more into a community, and spawned groups on the Wirral and in Crosby.
  • Look for win-win solutions. Open Labs were keen to find ways that their support would bring benefit beyond what was immediately being funded. For example, as part of the support for OggCamp the Open Hardware Jam included building a 3d printer from scratch during the event. That meant that once the weekend was over, there was a 3d printer which could live at DoES Liverpool and enhance its workshop.
  • Make connections. Part of getting out and meeting the community means that you get to know lots of people and what they do. Use that knowledge to put people in touch with each other where there could be synergies or similar interests.
  • Get out of the way. If you can't help people, don't waste their time even if it would tick off one of your "outputs". Take Open Lab's Andy Goodwin's phrase "I get paid to have meetings, you don't." to heart and remember that the time you take up from businesses comes out of their pocket. Make sure it's worth it.
  • Work with everybody. Open Labs were always happy, and keen, to work with anyone in the city, if they were doing something good. Looking beyond petty rivalries to the bigger picture is something that I struggle with at times, and Open Labs were always a reminder to me that I should do better.
  • Do the hard work to work out what support is needed. The real support that businesses need isn't the generic support you wrote about in your funding application. And while everybody likes free money, there are often better options than doling that out. Combine the first two points on this list and you'll have much greater impact. The most valuable support that DoES Liverpool has had was when Open Labs bought a laser-cutter and installed it in our workshop. We've bought another one ourselves since, but Sophia the smaller laser-cutter has helped no end of businesses, artists, architects and more over the past three years. Other initiatives - such as the "how to film a product video" course or lean startup workshops were only useful for a few dozen companies, but provided far more value to them than a hundred networking events.
  • Amplify what's already going on. Use your time and funding to boost what the community is already doing. I've lost count of the number of times that discussions about an event or project have resulted in a quiet "we can help with that if you want" from Open Labs. Sometimes it's the tiny bit of cash that means the event can happen at all - such as them paying for the building to be open on a Sunday so Liverpool Girl Geeks could hold their International Women's Day event at DoES Liverpool; and other times it's a combination of sponsorship and the more important organising skills to arrange catering, navigate the university hierarchies to book a venue, etc. that take events like OggCamp or NHS Hackday to the next level.

It's not complicated, but it is hard.

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