Pete Ashton has posted a great entry recently to his blog, wondering whether Birmingham City Council has an obsession with big, grand, look-at-how-great-we-are events that seem more about showing off to the rest of the country (and world, if the world happens to care) and engaging in woolly activities like "improving the brand" than it is about putting on enjoyable and great events for the population. He asks why it has to be about the big, major initiatives and why it can't celebrate more smaller events - something that might, paradoxically, differentiate the city more than another me-too big lighting switch on.
Reading Pete's article, it seemed to me that you could switch some of the names and some of the projects (although thankfully I don't think we've had a similar failure with people getting injured) and it could easily be about Liverpool. There's a similar desire for big projects that swallow up millions of pounds of funding and promise grand regeneration, prosperity and job targets in the middle distance. It all makes for great headlines in the Echo, but does it really achieve much more than that?
I suppose it depends on whether you think that the way to improve the city is through a top-down or bottom-up approach.
From my (admittedly somewhere near the bottom) perspective, the top-down style seems to provide good media soundbites and short-term bragging rights, but at the expense of much of the money trickling down the lowest level and a high risk of failure. Liverpool One isn't perfect but is about as well executed as a big shopping mall project could be, but the Innovation Park seems to be a grand project casting around for a purpose still.
Maybe the problem is with a focus on trying to attract prosperity from outside the city, rather than nurturing the potential of the people within it? Do we have to create these grand schemes in order to successfully bid for regeneration funding? Are we building big science parks and office complexes with a view to attracting big companies to relocate to Liverpool and bring their jobs with them? I don't know; it would explain things better if that's true.
Is that how successful cities operate? "Move here and we'll give you loads of handouts". I'm not sure I'd want to live in a city populated by people who are only around because they were paid to be here. I think it's better to take a longer-term approach and help the people already in the city, who want to be in the city, to create interesting and new businesses. Some of them will fail, but some of them won't, and I don't think it's immediately obvious beforehand which are which. We should be encouraging all of them, and helping people dust themselves down if things do go wrong. That way we'll end up with a much more resilient mix of businesses and who knows, maybe the next Meccano or White Star Lines or Littlewoods...
Yesterday afternoon I spent an enjoyable afternoon doing some hacking and making, but of a slightly more old-school type than my usual hacking.
Through the Transition Towns South Liverpool mailing list I heard about a "DIY and fixing" workshop that was being held at the Liverpool Social Centre on Bold Street. As the announcement email stated:
"The idea being that if you have anything which needs fixing, be it clothes, a bike, a computer whatever, bring it along and try to fix it yourself. All going well there will be other people there who have either experience in something similar, or keen to help out and together we will work it out.
For those of you who have nothing to fix (surely you have something thats been broken for ages and you just haven't had the energy or time to fix it), there will be a project of making something."
I didn't have a project to take along, and part of my motivation was just to meet some other people doing making/tinkering/hacking sorts of activities in Liverpool, but I was also drawn in by the idea of the collaborative project: Luke wanted to build a bike-powered generator.
Luke is on the right in the photo above, discussing the next step in tbe build process with Mark. The three of us spent a few hours pulling rusty nails out of bits of wood, sawing, drilling holes and screwing things together.
The first step in the bike generator was to build a frame to lift the back wheel off the floor to let it rotate without the rest of the bike moving. Once that's done then there needs to be some mechanism to drive a motor in reverse to generate the power, but yesterday we were just focused on building the frame.
Luke had brought half an old wooden pallet and a length of steel pipe, which you can see scattered around the floor in the photo above. By the end of the session we'd transformed it into something that looks like it might do the trick, as you can see in this photo. It still needs some diagonal bracing added, and the piece for the other side still needs the "feet" pieces screwing on, but we were pretty pleased with the progress we'd made.
I think Luke is planning on finishing off the stand on his own (as it doesn't need much more work) and then the next session will look at how to connect the bike wheel to the motor, which should be an interesting session.
It gave me plenty of food for thought on how best to run these sorts of activities though. A permanent space, where we could collect a set of useful tools, and where there were some decent workbenches would make things lots easier; and I wonder if weekend sessions would help the Liverpool Hackspace be more productive. The Tuesday evening meets are good, but it's often hard to get much beyond catching up with each other and chatting about stuff - having a whole afternoon means you can really get stuck into something, but maybe makes it harder for people to attend?
It turns out that we did still get a mention during the conference, as Russell talked about us in his presentation. Now that the audio has been released... well, I don't know what to write here. I'm still a bit stunned at the level of compliment. Good job I didn't make it to the conference, all of Russell's good work would've been undone by my transformation into an incoherent idiot.
I mean, Bubblino is cool, but "like the mother of all demos [...] or the mouse"? Really? I'm flattered and gobsmacked in equal measure.
Anyway, you can have a listen to it all here (and you should listen to all of it, but if you just want:to hear how amazing Bubblino and I are, then skip to 5m20s in):
Russell has stuck some words and pictures to accompany the audio over on his blog.
And in reference to the title of this post, I don't want to prove Russell wrong by making Bubblino less amazing, but by building something even better.