This was originally a long (as you'll see) rambling response to an email on the DoES Liverpool discussion group asking where all the local tech speakers are for the upcoming GDG DevFest Liverpool. Given that it ended up with a potted "what I've been up to" and some general ruminating on the local tech scene, it felt like it might be worth posting here too.
(And if you want any more of my recent writing, it's mostly been ending up on the Indie Manufacturing blog.)
tl;dr - a long ramble about me being busy, then 3 suggestions. Skip to the ###### to find the suggestions :-)
I'm extrapolating wildly from my experience here (so, y'know, it's all speculataion and probably wrong, but that doesn't usually stop me ;-) but... it might be that they're all busy and aren't sure how the event fits into what they do?
I did get asked about it a while back and haven't replied or done anything else about it. Sorry about that, it's nothing personal, I just get too many things like that in my inbox and my far-from-perfect method for deciding which ones I can respond to is that I do them in roughly priority order (which is a whole different can of worms to unpick...) and get to as many as I can. Which ends up appearing rude to anyone else because they just don't get a response :-/
I try to pass on any that others could do instead and where it's more obvious that I'm a bottleneck otherwise, but I think the GDG request looked more like a general request (not an impersonal one, but one where me not replying wouldn't stop you finding other people).
I've also recently ignored the chance to go to Poland and speak at some big dev conference there, and go out to Texas for Dell launching their IoT strategy. Which isn't to show how important I am or how successful I am, but to show the level of opportunities that I'm annoyingly passing up.
So I've missed out on those, but what I have done is... DoES is still here and functioning better than ever (there's still a load of "organisational debt" to work through, but there are a load more people involved in helping make epic shit happen - last Saturday's Make:Shift:Do being a great example - without me being involved, which is great and freeing me (and the other directors) to look at longer-term stuff), and yesterday I sent off the PCB designs for the Ackers Bell which is my bootstrapped startup side of things as I build IoT product.
Alongside all of that, I have to find enough consultancy work to actually provide any income to fund the rest of this stuff :-D And work that will fit in and around that (and take precendence at times, obviously, as that's the only way I get any money while I'm still in the product development side of the startup...).
Right now that side is getting a bit more focus, as the big project I was expecting to do with Museum in a Box which would've paid the bills for the next few months has fallen through and so I'm in the hustling to find things to replace that shortfall (so if anyone has any paid projects... give me a shout :-)
All of which is a rather long-winded me, me, me...
So some thoughts that aren't just "sorry, I'm busy"...
Firstly, in case anyone is hanging back thinking "oh, one of the usual suspects will step up in a minute" - we won't necessarily, and so you should offer to give a talk. The only way any of us get better at speaking and get better known for our speaking is, guess what, by speaking at things :-D If you're worried that GDG DevFest is too big a leap for your first talk (and I don't know how big a thing it is, so first off ask Paul [who's organising the Liverpool DevFest]!) then find a meetup where your experience would fit and offer to speak there. Or an even easier first-speaking step would be to speak at Ignite Liverpool sometime - that's more varied in the sort of topics we cover and it's only for five minutes :-) That won't all solve Paul's immediate problem but will mean there are loads more people to speak at next year's ;-)
Paul, who is GDG DevFest aimed at? I'm assuming it's for Android devs, with a touch of doubt that it's maybe wider than that? I don't pay much attention to what Google are up to, so don't know anything about it. It's tricky to then think about how I'd frame a talk at it, as I don't know who the audience is. I don't have a standard talk that I dust off for all my speaking gigs - each one (maybe as can be seen for how not-polished they are ;-) is written specifically for the occasion.
Finally, where /are/ all the Liverpool techies? There was a BBC report into tech clusters across the country and according to that Liverpool has more tech jobs than Cambridge (20k vs 19k). As someone who's lived in both cities that's either (a) ludicrous or (b) I hardly know anyone in tech in Liverpool.
I suspect it's mostly down to differing definitions of "digital tech job". Liverpool has a load of agencies whereas Cambridge has lots of tech startups, and the latter require more engineers. I know a load of people running the agencies in Liverpool, but I don't seem to encounter the techies working in them enough.
There are loads of events going on round the city now, but lots of them seem to be more general and/or aimed at the business side of tech. There's nothing wrong with them at all - they're /really/ useful - BUT they don't attract developers (IMHO). I think there's a gap in the community for the meetups where you find out more about how to do load balancing on a database cluster or the lessons learnt in building an app to talk to the Facebook API, etc.
I think. Am I just not getting along to enough of the right meetups? Is there a demand for that sort of thing beyond me?
I suspect the regular GDG does fall into the sort of meetup I'm talking about, so this half-rant isn't aimed at that. However, I don't get the same visibility of what talks it has, or when the events are happening, as I do with Baltic Schmooze or Creative Kitchen (for example). Is everything hived off in its own silo of meetup.com group? How can we cross-promote things without giving everyone more work to do in running a meetup or requiring everyone to sign up for loads of meetup.com groups? I guess the Startup Digest used to provide that sort of coverage, so maybe there aren't enough events out there?
In my role as the mouthy one of (which is subtly different from spokesperson for...) the community in DoES Liverpool, I often end up in strategy meetings, "cluster groups", etc. and also sought out by people from support organisations and elsewhere who want to get to know the community.
Many, many of these meetings are inspiring and energising - I love the ones where a "quick 10am meeting" is interrupted by us suddenly realising it's now lunchtime as there's been so much to discuss and explore (although the work side of my brain is usually also cursing how much work time I've lost); but similarly some are energy-sapping as I wonder why no-one else seems to notice that the gathering is never likely to achieve anything.
Because this tends to be the voluntary work of running DoES rather than work that earns me a living, it's tended to be quite reactive rather than proactive. The problem with that is that it's easy for all of my time-for-meeting-interesting people then gets taken up by other people who want to talk to me, rather than people that I think I should be talking to.
Pondering on this of late, I've decided to change it.
So, I'm aiming (as an incentive to action, rather than as a hard-and-fast goal) to make time for at least one meeting each month with someone that I think is useful for me to connect with. With the accompanying acceptance that it'll mean I won't have time to meet someone else who wants to meet me instead. An acceptance that my time is finite, and hopefully the value gained from the meetings I do have will outweigh the value we lose from the ones that I miss.
At present, I think that's going to start with looking for other people doing interesting work elsewhere in the city, and people who are also good at connecting up good and interesting projects. Trying a little to connect the connectors.
When I went to Laptops and Looms II one of the four "things I'd been pondering" was the role cities might play in building a better future. I was reminded of it at Oggcamp recently when I chaired a session about Code for Liverpool, and so thought I'd finally write up some thoughts here.
Above is a photo of the notes I jotted down on the train over to Laptops and Looms. Obviously there's a bit about how we get to the sort of "smart" city that we citizens want, rather than the one that's most profitable for big tech firms (or new tech startups). However, it's the "City as lab?" part that I think is most interesting.
There are many challenges and possibilities facing society today. However, I don't think I'm alone in a general feeling of malaise that we're failing to address any of them.
Actually, it's not that we can't address any of them, it's that there seems to be a limit to the size of project that we can tackle. Kickstarter, pop-ups, artist collectives, hackspaces, etc. mean it's easier than ever to complete certain types of project, yet once you get to a certain size or scale of project we seem to hit a barrier.
As you can see in this highly scientific graph, once we get above the red line we tend to be overwhelmed with the difficulty of tackling things. Dan Hill sums it up well with his comment that you can't crowd-source a light-rail system.
I have a theory (not exactly a new or unique one) that cities are the best environment to tackle the problem of scale.
Although some of these projects - for example, climate change - sound like they're best dealt with at a national or even international level, I think we've had far too much evidence to the contrary. I think - despite all our fawning over technology - we're fundamentally social and interpersonal beings and as our organisations grow in size, that's something that gets lost along the way.
That's why the city is an interesting and fertile ground for new ideas and experiments. It's big enough for newcomers to reinvent themselves, yet small enough that bad actors' deeds are noted and the community can be wary of their actions in future; and it's big enough that successful initiatives can gain the critical mass to transfer elsewhere, yet small enough that individuals and small bands of people can develop the connections and networks to make an impact.
Since moving back to Liverpool this is something I've been half-consciously working towards. Helping to nurture the existing fertile ground for experimentation, social change, and prosperity and open up the city as a possibility space for such initiatives.
And in addition to expanding the DoES community itself we also look to the wider context.
And it also involves an element of JFDI. Hence projects like the "somebody should" list for the whole city, which has started to gain some movement thanks to the more recent Code for Liverpool idea and hackdays.
I don't know what we'll achieve through those and other initiatives, but that's not the point. It's not just down to me, it's also the responsibility of my fellow Liverpudlians, and those who choose to join us. Interesting times indeed.
Yesterday was the first Code for Liverpool hackday. I'm still revelling in the happy feeling of having been part of it.
I think most people would have missed it, but for me it was a telling sign, a weak signal, of Liverpool's maturing tech scene.
Over the course of the day over a dozen interested citizens, with a wide range of skills, came together and collaborated on a range of projects with the loose aim of making life in the city better.
And it was a joy to behold. Watching a group of people use their skills and knowledge of how to mix digital tools with the more traditional let me experience first-hand the true power of loose collaboration. Something I've just marvelled at from afar with things like the IndieWeb hackdays in the past.
I've been to, and organised, lots of hackdays, etc. in the past, but I think it was the level of familiarity among a majority (but far from all) attendees that let us get on with doing things.
It's hard to explain why it was so edifying - it was in a mass of tiny interactions.
Ross Jones just getting on with things and setting up a Pirate Pad to take notes. Me getting up and writing down the URL for that on the whiteboard so latecomers could easily get up to speed. Brett Lempereur picking up one of the project ideas and just starting to hunt down code libraries to implement it. Kate North - while digging into spending data - keeping an eye on who hadn't found something to do, as were a few of us, but then finding ways to draw them in. Zarino Zappia coming back after a few hours away giving out Awesome Fivers and just diving back in whilst giving impromptu Github lessons. Ross Dalziel slipping in and quietly getting on with something, before dropping an amazing text adventure as documentation on us as he had to head off.
And lots, lots more. I loved being part of it.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
Submit your entry to the project.
On starting to read it, I discovered the manifesto contains a series of questions to work through. So I figured it would be interesting to blog my answers, and it's taken a little time to find the free space to do that.
In response to the preamble before the questions, I think that the artists (and other citizens and society members) should be looking to set the agenda, not follow it. What does Liverpool need, what does the UK need, what does the world need? We should play an active role in the discussions about society and the world around us.
And onto my responses. Ping me if you end up doing the same, I'm more interested in the conversation than in my responses...
The Liverpool bit is important to me, all my physical work is signed as such. It matters in a simple way because I moved back to help make the city better, having grown up with it in a pretty poor way. It matters in a bigger way because the city is open to new ideas and thought in a way that Cambridge never was (to me at least). And it's a city, so big enough to have an impact on the world, but small enough that an individual can make a difference in the direction, the meter of that impact.
I don't think there's one aesthetic, nor should there be. The city is far too big and contains far too many artists for that. However, there's definitely an strand of laser-cut birch ply, Arduino-powered interactivity and interaction with the Internet running through my sub-section of the arts scene.
I think there's more crossover between technologists and artists in Liverpool than you get in most other cities, save maybe Bristol, in the UK. I think that benefits both the arts world and the technology community.
When we're honest with ourselves and each other. When we look out to the rest of the world and participate in it, rather than merely setting ourselves against it. When we celebrate work because it's good, not just because it was created within the city boundaries.
A more porous seam between technology and the arts - allowing technologists to influence the arts, but possibly more importantly encouraging artists to influence technology.
It's a work-in-progress (and probably always will be), but DoES Liverpool provides a large part of what I need.
I'm not sure I'm ready to become a fellow of the academy, but I'm definitely up for continuing the conversations and critical dialogue. More of this sort of thing, please.
I live on the edge of Toxteth, a borough of Liverpool. It is "best" known as the location of the riots in 1981 - you can see the Rialto (a landmark point in the unrest) from my front door.
It's more gentrified these days, particularly the town side of Upper Parliament Street, although it still suffered a little in the 2011 flare-up.
I pass through it pretty often, but generally only the through-routes and during the day. Having heard many scare stories over the years, it was with a little trepidation (though not enough to force me onto the main roads) that I ventured off on foot through the side streets as dusk descended.
It was much more animated than I expected. Not busy, but markedly more people out and about than I'd expect, given the time of day. Both walking somewhere, and pottering about in their front gardens or just sitting on the stoop. Very much Jane Jacobs' "eyes on the street".
I was a few minutes early as I neared my destination, and I wondered if those eyes would become suspicious if I ended up loitering, given it was outside an empty shop.
Turning the final corner, I saw there were three other people hanging around there already. As I approached I greeted them with what sounded like a secret service code phrase - "Are you here jellyfish spotting?". They were.
I'd assumed I'd be the only person out to see tonight's unveiling. I'm not quite sure why, this is Liverpool after all. By five-past ten, when the shutters had opened and we could see the luminescent jellyfish in their tanks, the group had swelled to about twenty - arty types; a few dog walkers; drivers pulled up to see what was happening; a couple of mothers, with their young kids, in their dressing gowns, obviously being allowed up late to come and see the show. I even ended up discussing laser-cutting techniques with an artist who'd actually sent us an email about it in the time since I'd left my flat!
The jelly fish are there for The Physical Possibility of Inspiring Imagination in the Mind of Somebody Living, a Biennial artwork by Walter Hugo and Zoniel.
I don't know if it will inspire imagination, but it was great to see so many people drawn into the depths of Toxteth so late in the evening.
Last week I attended the Best City, Best Business awards evening, held at Liverpool Central Library. They'd asked me (along with Cllr Nick Small, and Christine Bulmer-Goodwin of Empower Funding) to give a brief talk before the awards, as a local entrepreneur (the second time in as many weeks that I was speaking at the library).
It was an informal talk, with no slides. Rather than talk about what I've done, I related some of my journey back to the city, mixed in with a call to give before you get and to look for ways to help each other rather than just compete. Building a business is a hard job, after all. I also related the story of Silicon Valley's open culture beating Boston's more insular approach, and finished with some pointers to the community and events we have at DoES Liverpool (particularly Liverpool Startup Club.
I fear it was as dis-jointed and scatter-gun as that sounds, but everyone was very polite about it...
Anyway, what was more interesting were the winning businesses. There were two categories: Best Business Start-Up and Best Women’s Start-Up; each with three prizes: second runner-up, runner-up and winner. There are some impressive businesses among them, making a real difference to people's lives. I had a real case of imposter-syndrome by the end of the evening.
The council website has published an article about the awards today, but it fails to link to any of the businesses. In this Internet-age, that's a disappointing oversight, but also in this Internet-age, I can publish things myself, and so wanted to fix that.
I've been enjoying exploring some of the material in the BBC World Service archive, particularly some of the programmes tagged with "Liverpool".
I've also been improving the archive, by suggesting some better tags for the content as I listen to things. I'm impressed with the level of finish to the project, particularly for an R&D project - the registration system remembered the page I'd been trying to reach when I first registered, rather than just dump me at the homepage once I'd clicked the link in the email; the tagging process is easy as is suggesting more suitable images for the illustration. If I've one suggestion from having used it for a bit, it would be to use the user-suggested tags for the image searches (or maybe let the user suggest a search phrase). On this programme about the Anglican Cathedral's Lady Chapel I had a choice of a number of photos of random cathedrals, or generic shots of Liverpool, and the nearest I could find was one that I knew was a view from the top of the cathedral, whereas presumably at least a shot of the Anglican Cathedral itself would be available (and a better choice). But that's nit-picking really, it's a great resource.
Tristan Ferne, from BBC R&D, has published an excellent set of describing how they approached the project. Well worth a read.
Recently I picked up a copy of Merseyside in Crisis after coming across it in the library (the library's copy is only for reference within the library). I thought it would be interesting to compare the views of Merseyside's problems from the late-70s/early-80s with now, and was hooked by mention of the area being hailed as a future "Silicon Valley of Europe". More on that when I get into the dog-eared sections later.
The book was written by the Merseyside Socialist Research Group, which in itself is an intriguing concept. From what I can tell, it was something of a left-wing think tank, which makes me wonder if anyone(/group) is trying to fulfil that role in the city today?
And pairing that thought with recently-moved-to-this-parish Andrew Bolster's recent posts exploring Northern Ireland's innovation strategy (though you could replace Northern Ireland with Liverpool City Region in any of that and I'd not be surprised), my pondering of Liverpool's strategy, and other civic-minded locals such as Francis Irving, I do wonder if there's scope for experimenting with the think tank concept to make (in my opinion ;-) more useful proposals. It would need to offer useful, constructive opinions and not just add to the noise, but maybe there's some scope there?
Anyway, on to all the dog-eared pages of Merseyside in Crisis by the Merseyside Socialist Research Group, published in 1980. There are a lot of notes for such a short book, but that has a lot to do with interesting bits of history that it exposes. It'd be interesting to compare lots of these facts and figures from the turn of the 80s with their equivalents from today.
I agree with most of their analysis of the problems, but am less convinced of their solutions. However, that doesn't stop it being worth a read.
The "Crisis of Merseyside" can not be viewed or resolved in isolation. The problems facing Merseyside exist in many of the industrial regions of Britain and in other parts of the world. The deep-rooted problems of the area - in unemployment, housing, industry, and the social malaise that follows in the wake of decline - are part of the deepening and continuous crisis of British captialism and in turn part of the crisis of world capitalism.
Thirty five years [since the post-war recovery got underway] Merseyside has one in every six of its working population unemployed, and in some parts of the area up to 50% on the dole. Youngsters leaving school can wait two to three years for their first job. Many families in the worst hit areas have two or three members out of work. Closures and redundancies have devastated the area. The dream of a better tomorrow has been shattered.
Early on the 2nd February, 1979, Merseysiders woke to the surprising news that theirs was to be a 'more secure future'. Local councillors and industrialists were busily announcing that Merseyside was to become the 'Silicon Valley of Europe'. GEC/Fairchilds new £35m micro-processing factory was to be built at Neston, providing 1,000 jobs. Tory M.P., David Hunt, called it a 'major breakthrough for the region'. Coming after a year in which 14,000 jobs had vanished from Merseyside this had to be good news. And all due to that little 'miracle chip'. But had we not heard all this before? After all, the arrival of Henry Ford and company in the early 1960s had been met with similar enthusiasm. Alderman Braddock, the Labour Leader and Chairman of Liverpool's Finance Committee, had suggested at the time that:
But nearly twenty years on, despite the coming of the motor industry, with its £60m investment and 30,000 jobs, the euphoria of such politicians still has a hollow ring.
[Over 30 years later, little - sadly - has changed. The GEC factory came and went, and is now an Aldi distribution centre. And still the cries of "inward investment" as the holy grail and end to our problems can be heard...
Later in the book, we see the problem with large employers who don't have any real ties to the region:]
Rationalisation[, the relocation and consolidation of factories,] is very frequently, therefore, associated with firms completely abandoning a region, or even a whole country - they look elsewhere in their search for increased profitability.
[...] none of Merseyside's major firms is controlled by a local management. Only three out of every ten jobs are in firms which are controlled locally. And as the rationalisations go on, the number is dropping all the time.
A crucial feature, then, of the economic development of Merseyside is its increasing dependence on nationally and internationally based companies.
[Looking further back in history...]
By 1857 nearly half of the United Kingdom's exports and approximately one third of its imports passed through Liverpool. The town became an entrepot for people as well as goods and established itself as the main port for the mass movement of emigrants from Northern and Western Europe to the New World. Between 1860 and 1900, of the five and a half million emigrants who left Britain four and three quarter millions embarked from Liverpool, a new trade in human cargo which shipping lines were not slow to take advantage of.
The heroic age of the entrepreneur and merchant prince was over. By the end of the First World War the era of imperialism had arrived. Throughout the period, British rates of growth of production, exports and productivity were all slower than in the early Victorian years. [...] As British capital fought for survival in the new epoch, whole areas like Merseyside, the North East, and South Wales were hit by the "depression". In short, the so-called "regional problem" was born.
Notably throughout the '20s and '30s a large number of companies opened plants on Merseyside. They were mainly those involved in 'Food, Drink and Tobacco' - such as Jacobs, Crawfords and Hartleys etc., though some engineering firms, like Plessey, came too. These firms were keen to exploit the 'growing pool' of female labour, and it is noticeable that all these companies relied extensively on recruiting women.
[In the 1960s and 1970s] The multinationals [GM, Ford, Dunlop-Pirelli, etc.] came to Merseyside largely as a result of the Government's regional policy, which lured them through a variety of 'sticks and carrots'. They were attracted too by the very conditions which had been unfavourable to capital previously, namely ; the existence of an 'adequate pool of labour', low wages, and the lack of an [union] organised workforce such as existed elsewhere.
[Then something of a "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" moment for Silicon Valley...]
This is not to say, however, that radical and even socialist redirections in policy are impossible. The state has to manage the effects of its policies and to this extent is constrained by the power of organised labour and pressure from below. The U.C.S work-in in 1971 was one example of this.
[This is from such a different age, isn't it? However, that also shows how much can change in such a (relatively) short period, which means we don't have to accept the current situation as intractable.]
However, in general terms, regional policies have failed to provide effective long-term solutions. Such policies have at best produced short-term improvements and at worst exacerbated economic decline.
The departure of Courtaulds from Skelmersdale provided the classic example of a multi-national corporation which took the money and ran at the first available opportunity.
Look around [the inner city of Liverpool]. 15% of land is either vacant or derelict. The largest amount of open space in any city in Britain. A testimony to the folly of politicians and planners. Theirs was a straightforward policy. Clear the slums, build a motorway system to the docks, rehouse people on the estates, like it or not. The population of the inner city was cut by half in these 'boom' years - 800,000 to 500,000. Of course we know the last chapter. The docks were rationalised, rates were lost and the money ran out. The motorway was never finished. The people of Liverpool have to live with the devastation that remains. The planners have moved on to their modest, but equally destructive, ring roads.
Even in the more successful estates like Skem, the priorities of capital prevail, as one commentator ruefully remarked:
In a very real sense [the council] are "managers of discontent". A point not lost on Peter Walker, a former Tory Secretary of State for the Environment who, in a Commons debate in 1978, outlined the political threat:
In the first place, financial aid is channelled to private industry in the form of grants, subsidies and employment premiums. This has the effect of paying part of a firm's costs of production. It is worth looking at the extent of these grants on Merseyside over the last few years. Since 1974 for example, regional incentives have totalled £55.7m and regional development grants £162.6m. Quite a sizeable amount. Also, under the Advance Factory Programme 59 units (a total of 45,000 sq.mts.) have already been built since 1974. Another 64 units have already been authorised.
The local authorities no doubt paused for a moment of self-congratulation. For when it comes to transport they have never been found wanting. The recent £35m proposed ring road around Liverpool City centre is only the latest chapter in a continuing sage of the sacrifice of Liverpool to the container lorry and the motor car.
Progressive or not, it is clear that the intention of [a community development project in Vauxhall] was, by focusing on the community, to establish new forms of social control over what it saw as 'problem' people. Politically important this, because it successfully diverted attention away from the real causes of deprivation. By locating the 'problem' within the people themselves, it made it seem as though inequality and deprivation were the inevitable result of 'urban' ways of life - rather than the products of a particular economic system.
In principle, the idea of the industrial estate is not to be jeered at for a socialist Britain engaged in renewal and regeneration would certainly have adopted an identical policy of starting from scratch in the fields. That the policy has obviously failed is not the fault of just about everyone's favourite scapegoats - the city planners and architects. Without in any way wishing to exonerate the architects and their political masters for such crimes against humanity as Netherley, Cantril Farm and Tower Hill, the failure of the industrial estate has got nothing to do with architecture. It has failed because the industry located in it could not provide secure and long-term employment.
The problem of Speke is neither its people nor its housing. The problem is economic: while the city council could plan organise and run the housing side of the operation, it was powerless to do the same for the industrial side of the operation. The council could provide the houses and the land and services for the factories - but not the jobs.
[Moving on to the history of the Labour Party in the city]
[The religious divide in the city] meant also that up to the 1920s Catholic working class areas like Vauxhall, Sandhills, Scotland Road and Brunswick voted for their own party - the Irish Nationalist Party, which in the early '20s became the second largest party in the council. After Irish partition in 1921 the basis of the I.N.P. in Liverpool was eroded. Irish independence, the cornerstone of Nationalist policy, had at least been partially won, even though the exclusion of the six counties from the settlement left the nationalist goal incomplete. The I.N.P. in Liverpool changed its name to the Catholic Party, and finally was absorbed into the Labour Party by the late '20s.
Once again, the traditions of Liverpool are unusual The Labour Party in Liverpool has always been weak. It did not win a Parliamentary seat in Liverpool until a by-election in Edge Hill in 1923 (how ironic that Labour's first seat in Liverpool should be the one to be taken from Labour by the Liberals in 1979). It did not win a majority of Liverpool seats until the Labour landslide of 1945. On the council, Labour only gained an overall majority as late as 1955, and since then has only ruled intermittently. Compared to the other major working class cities of Britain this is a very poor record.
In 1955 the Labour group became the controlling party on Liverpool City Council. The secretary's annual report fairly accurately records the event.
Opposition to high-rise [blocks of flats] was beginning to grow. Sheenan the Tory leader of the council said he didn't like putting people in the sky and a survey carried out by the Daily Post suggested that only four in every hundred of those questioned wanted to live in flats. But the housing committee was not disheartened. In 1954 they sent a deputation (expenses paid) to New York to see the multi-storey flat construction methods.
[...] none of the local parties were prepared to even take on the task of doing something about the problems of the city. It is hard to see the Labour Party of today mounting a coherent campaign to resist the run-down of Merseyside. There seems to be a crisis of confidence within the party itself.
[Did that provide the opening for Militant? Not that they achieved any resistance to the running down of the area.]
Men on Merseyside schooled in the casual [contracts of work] tradition [mostly on the docks] did not easily or willingly submit to what they believed to be 'union dictation'. Casualism, despite its associations with poverty and general insecurity, conferred a degree of independence and control over the job which many workers would not easily relinquish.
One group which did not come within the structure of the union until 1942, and then only under the exigencies of war, were the cooks and stewards, who consistently fought the union throughout these years. They were the epitome of the tradition that insisted that you "got your own job, worked your own company and if it was no good got out". Given that the bulk of the transatlantic liner trade was conducted from Liverpool in the inter-war years the cooks and stewards were in a strong bargaining position. They could bargain for themselves without any "big brother".
Mass production makes intolerable demands on workers - The discipline of the clock; the speed of the line; the tyrany of supervision; the ever present threat of lay-off; the power of management. In this context the struggle for job control takes new forms.
So do we beg and grovel for any crumb that comes our way? A council-created small firm, another grant from central government for grass seed or even a private company attracted to the area by its "cracker-jack" workers. We don't necessarily reject any of them - we merely say that from the point of view of the nature of the crisis and its acceleration they are not even palliatives - they're insults.
The solution, such as it is, lies not in their hands but in the hands of the people of Merseyside.
All struggles, whether it be over closures, the defence of living standards, against health service cuts, or the fight for equal treatment of women or minority groups, require wider horizons than the trade union movement at present has.
If investment decisions are to be made more accountable, the criterion of efficiency has to be something other than profit. Efficiency ought to be measured by such things as: does it answer real as distinct from manufactured needs; does it enhance the quality of life; does it conserve rather than squander natural resources; and not least, does it provide an outlet for people's creative talents?
Liverpool and New York. Two cities with many connections. Once opposing endpoints of the transatlantic liner routes, now they can add a new link. Both host Ignite events which have featured talks about burgers!
At Ignite NYC, Hilary Mason gave a great talk about using data to find the best cheeseburgers...
And for his first Ignite Liverpool talk (back in April 2010!), now veteran IgniteLiv speaker Alistair Houghton talked about his passion for burger chain Wimpy...
Of course, we're always interested in hearing from people who'd like to speak at a future Ignite Liverpool. Next one is on 14th November 2013 - visit the Ignite Liverpool website to let us know if you want to talk, or to just book a ticket to come along and watch.
At the end of the working day today, as a bunch of my co-workers at DoES Liverpool sloped off to the pub for a pint, I headed over to Liverpool Vision's offices on the other side of the city centre for a meeting about the city's digital infrastructure strategy plan.
John had been asked to go and represent DoES Liverpool, but couldn't make it and so I went instead. It was one of those meetings where you feel a bit of an ego boost for having been asked, but that's tempered by having to sit through a load of powerpoint slides and you can never work out whether you made any contribution or if it was just another hour-and-a-half of your life you won't get back. Still, you get lovely views over the city from Liverpool Vision's offices.
ACME, the part of Liverpool Vision which helps companies in the creative and digital sector (see last week's blog post Digital? Creative? Startup? for more of my thoughts on that...) are trying to work out what they can, or need, to do to help the city compete digitally. It's not a task I envy.
The meeting itself was to gather thoughts and opinions from local creative and digital firms to feed into the strategy document, which is still being drafted. It was a mixed bag - it got hung up on superfast broadband timescales for something like half the meeting, but also covered the buzz in the city now and how the council should be looking to support the direction and ambition of the companies, rather than defining a strategic direction that each of us will just ignore if it doesn't match what we're doing.
I'm still not sure how these sorts of documents or plans have any real effect, especially when there's little money around to implement them, and a host of funding rules to limit what can be done.
I think my main action point from the meeting would be to send anyone involved in setting our digital strategy a copy of Brad Feld's Startup Communities (see the previous blog post for my notes on that) but here are a few thoughts around what might be useful.
Firstly, I wouldn't worry much about the broadband issue. Include something about encouraging it by all means, but any strategy document in any city will be proclaiming how great theirs is going to be, so it's a useless differentiator. Focus instead on things that other cities won't necessarily have put in.
How about encouraging more women into technology, and to starting tech startups? There was one woman in the invited group today, and in the introductions she discounted herself as "just here with him". Aiming to change that would be a great start. Liverpool has had lots of groundbreaking women in other fields in the past, and I think we should be encouraging that in technology too.
More technology startups is a strong focus of many of us in the DoES Liverpool community too. I've written recently about how they differ from "digital and creative", and that's spawned some good debate on the DoES Liverpool mailing list. I did promise ACME a position piece about this last summer, which I've still not managed to finish, but this recent blogging is (in part) me working out some of my thoughts on the topic.
As to areas of opportunity for the city to take the lead, they already had Open Data in their slides and I suggested (as everyone would expect...) the Internet of Things. In both cases that's only because there are people and businesses in the city already doing good work in those areas, and that's how the strategy should work. For emerging technologies, it always needs to be led by people on the ground working in whichever particular tech. So find the good companies, and follow them.
With open data, there's a lot the council can do to open up its own data. It's less clear how they can directly support the Internet of Things, although opening up sensor data and providing ways (APIs, etc.) for others to access infrastructure like Walrus card and the "Boris bike" equivalent would be good. Helping promote the technologies to the rest of the city would be useful too - a more switched on populace will help provide local demand for the tech startups products, and also be more likely to come up with new, related ideas which would (hopefully) lead to more startups.
I don't think I get particularly hung up over labels. I've worked with people for whom their job title was more important than their pay packet, and as long as the company could conjure up new levels of importance (senior, principal...) they were happy. I've never really cared what was written on my business cards, and I don't think my MCQN Ltd cards list any job title (and I can't be bothered to go and check now).
It has tended to be the same with the company itself. MCQN Ltd has elements of consultancy or digital agency/studio work alongside the longer-term product/startup efforts, and so my description of it matches whatever situation requires the description. If I had to pin it down to one or other though, it would be the product company or a tech startup.
I know, that's not pinning it down to one description, but it's close enough for now.
When I was in Cambridge, it really didn't matter - there you were either building a tech company or you were a contractor (or freelancer) who worked at a tech company. There were some lifestyle businesses which were groups of people providing contractors to other tech companies, but overwhelming if you were talking about tech companies they'd be the sort of Silicon Valley style startups looking to build a website, service or product that would scale massively without requiring the company itself to scale at the same rate. Many were funded by venture capitalists or angel investors, but that wasn't a requirement - there had been enough exits (companies being bought, or floating on the stock market) for some people to self-fund, at least initially.
Moving to Liverpool I encountered a completely new (to me) phenomenon - the digital and creative sector. It seems to be a North-West thing, rather than a Liverpool one in particular, where anything involving computers gets labelled as such. I'm coming to realise that it stems from the advertising agency/media world, which isn't surprising given the strength of those industries in the NW - particularly in television. There are echoes of it in London too, although it seemed to be referred to as new media down there.
I didn't think much to it at first, but I'm beginning to think that it's detrimental to the development of the sort of company I want to build, and the sort of company I think we should be encouraging in Liverpool.
As I see it (and as usual, this is me thinking-by-writing, so more than happy to discuss it), the problem is that it takes the media agency organisational structure as its model. That's great for building web and mobile agencies, who can pull together a website or a phone app for a client, and I suspect Liverpool and Manchester each have more web agencies than Cambridge does. That doesn't mean that either are in the same league when it comes to developing innovative technology or companies like Facebook, or Google, or Microsoft.
I'm not saying we should stop encouraging more of those sorts of companies, but that we should stop lumping the more scalable companies in with them. Scraperwiki already try to do this by calling themselves "a Silicon Valley style startup", but that feels a bit of a mouthful to me. Startup would be the usual term in technology circles, but is often used for any new business these days, so I wonder if tech startup would work?
Identifying tech startups separately will raise the profile of that sort of business, and encourage more people to push in that direction. If we combine that with Liverpool's creative streak, maybe we'll manage what has so far eluded the rest of the UK and build some tech firms to rival the US giants.
Last week I was one of the people invited to talk at FACT's evening on Digital Innovation. I mostly talked about what it might be, and how we're approaching it (not that we'd ever call it that here) at DoES Liverpool.
It seemed to go down pretty well, and I've just published the slides plus notes (and audio clips) over on the DoES Liverpool blog.
As part of their Open City project working with European Capital of Culture Guimaraes, Watershed have published an excellent piece about openness and creativity in the context of cities from Charles Leadbeater.
"Creative cities are too large, open and unruly to be regulated in detail, top down by an all-seeing state or experts. They have to encourage collective, voluntary, self-control. A city that could be planned from the centre would also be dead."
Of course, Liverpool is four years ahead of Guimaraes in looking at how the Capital of Culture helped the city. The cultural legacy has been pretty successful, but we need to expand the creativity from the narrow confines of cultural offering to find ways to make the city more resilient and more diverse - both in embracing different elements of society and in the variety of ways to engage with the challenges and advantages of the city.
Ian Scott has written an interesting paper looking into how to boost the number of entrepreneurs in Liverpool, something which is often a topic I ponder myself. He's also dug into some of what Liverpool Vision and the new LEP are planning to do, and is asking some question of it.
It's a difficult position to fulfil and not one that I envy the people at Vision, etc. The excerpts that Ian quotes feel like the standard using lots of words to say very little that's common of death-by-committee plans that try to walk the tightrope of promising lots while committing to as little as possible (not so that the implementers can slack off, just because they don't want to be held to account if they fail). Such is politics it seems.
Anyway, that's not the important stuff in the report. More interesting are the way he breaks down the standard SME classification into micro, small and medium, and then looks at their respective contributions to the economy:
"Thus, the second position [after large enterprises] on the turnover scale would be accorded to Merseyside micro
businesses, a sector comprising 78% of all enterprises in the region."
I'm less convinced than Ian of how important it is for micro-SMEs to have representation within the LEP, but partly because I'm not expecting them to make a lot of difference to whether or not I'm successful. That said, it's frustrating when the city is engaging in areas in which I've an interest and that I only find out about on twitter after it's too late. (For a recent example, see the recent Smart Citiy event).
What would be useful, although I'm not sure what to do beyond the sorts of chatting, and mixing up of events that already takes place, would be more cross-pollination and contact between the assorted groups of techies, artists, and entrepreneurs around the city. And not because then the LEP could deal with us better, but because we'd be building better businesses and bringing more prosperity to the city.
A really interesting film from 1941 which shows how bustling the river and the docks were back then. Given how chatty the @MerseyShipping account it, I suppose it's possible that there still a similar level of activity these days, but it's nowhere near as visible, as it's mostly restricted to the container port at the mouth of the river.
I wonder what new activity we could bring to the docks and the river to reinvigorate it? I'm not sure about the docks themselves, but it would be good to get back to manufacturing enough things that this comment was true again...
"Britain must deliver the goods overseas. And into Liverpool pours a steady stream of home produced articles to meet the constant demand of buyers abroad"
(via Feeling Listless)
Last week the Global Entrepreneurship Congress came to Liverpool - a massive conference about all things business. Alongside the main conference there was a massive programme of fringe events, and obviously DoES Liverpool was no exception. We had at least one event (and often more) each day - some run on our own, and others that we ran in conjunction with other like-minded groups in the city.
One of those collaborations was a panel discussion entitled Open Source Entrepreneurship, and Max Zadow who came up with the idea asked me to be one of the panellists.
It was all very free-form, but I think it worked well - I enjoyed what was basically a long discussion loosely centred on open source and encouraging more, and better, businesses. The other panellists were Francis Irving, Julian Tait and Jon Bains, but there was plenty of engagement and contribution from the "audience" too.
Luckily Defnetmedia had slung a camera in the corner of the room to provide a basic record of the event, and so you can watch it now:
This is a lovely video about 9 businesses in Detroit, which I found via Johannes Kleske...
I love the strapline at the end of the film too, we should ditch all this "It's Liverpool" stuff, and steal that:
Move to Liverpool, work hard and have fun
For a long time now I've been bouncing round ideas about "visions of the future". Not because I've any grand aims to become a futurologist but because I think it's important to ruminate on how things might, or could, turn out.
Initially I thought it would be good to hold a one-day conference on the future - call it "20:20 on 2020" and invite people to present short, Pecha Kucha- or (slightly longer than) Ignite-style presentations where they'd give a 20 slide, 20 seconds-per-slide glimpse of a possible future life in (roughly) the year 2020.
However, compelling presentations of the future require a visual artistic ability that I, and I suspect many others, are sorely lacking - and what's more important is the narrative about how the future would work rather than a few pictures. Plus a conference would take an awful lot of organising and fund-raising that I don't have the time for at the moment.
So, a couple of months back, I found myself revisiting the idea, but this time as a writing exercise. That seems more universally accessible, and allows it to run over a longer period of time - hopefully garnering more interaction and involvement from people, whilst also using the existing infrastructure of blogs, twitter, etc. to minimise the overhead of running the project.
I still didn't have the time to take it further, but a recent conversation on twitter with Maria Barrett and Esther Dix has at least tipped me over the edge into making the idea public. I haven't got the bandwidth to drive it forwards, but if I can find four or five volunteers who want to help make it happen then I think it could be game on. If that sounds like you, then drop me line...
Anyway, onto the idea...
The It's Liverpool campaign, particularly for a council marketing project, is a really good idea - let the people lead the marketing and show why the city is great. It's a great way to promote the city to outsiders. What it doesn't do though, is help the people in the city to work out how they want the city to evolve.
That's where It's Liverpool 2020 comes in :-)
2020 might not be the right date, and it won't be a hard requirement to target it, but basically it's a blog post exercise to encourage people to write an article on their blog about a possible vision of Liverpool in 2020. The guidelines would be deliberately vague - it could be a short story as easily as it could be a list of projects and initiatives. Though it was set in 2015, the second-half of my Barcamp talk will give you an example.
There'll be a website, but it'll just point to posts on other people's blogs, and maybe show tweets tagged with #il2020.
Then there'll be a handful of volunteer curators who'll pick out their favourite pieces, which will be featured on the il2020 website, or in an ideal world we'll pique the interest of the Echo or Seven Streets and they'll be reprinted in a series there.
The idea is to keep the tech minimal and out of the way, as it's the writing that's important. The volunteer organisers will basically be doing bits of promotion; checking submissions and adding them to the website; and curating the submissions (and obviously, not everyone will have to do all of those roles).
I think that would be a really useful project to run, but there's plenty of scope to scale things up if it seems worth our time/effort... It would be nice at the end to compile a Newspaper Club newspaper containing the posts and distribute it round the city... We could find out who's in charge of the Council's ten year plan and present the ideas to them... It could spark some Social Media Surgeries to show people how to start a blog, so they can participate... maybe we could even hold some outside the city centre (at Toxteth TV or KVFM or wherever) to find some new voices...
Worst-case scenario: a few people write some blog posts about the future of the city.
Best-case scenario: some of the actual inhabitants influence some of the direction of the city; the group of volunteers go on to run more stuff, including more regular Social Media Surgeries; we introduce a load of new voices into the online debate about life, society and whatever in Liverpool.
What do you think?
Uncomfortable watching for anyone in Liverpool or Manchester in places, but an excellent dissection of the regeneration industry. Hat tip to Mike Chitty for sharing it.
At Barcamp Liverpool last Friday I gave a talk entitled "What is the Point of Liverpool?". It was an attempt to look at Liverpool's place in the world and the ways that it might evolve over the coming years. Luckily the guys from PodFactory.org were roaming around with some video cameras and happened to capture the talk. Given that they weren't formally covering the event, I wasn't miked up and so the sound levels aren't as good as they would be normally. Still, if you want to hear what I said, you can watch the video after the jump.
I've included the slides here so you can see them better, and included my notes, which will give you an idea of what I was planning to say - I think it bears some resemblance to what I actually said...
More and more big chains taking over from the local shops and pulling the profits out of the area sooner.
The comment from a recent Seven Streets article really depressed me. This is the only option we can envisage?
The only real growth is going to come when we stop waiting for The Powers That Be to save us, and get on with saving ourselves.
It’s a warm summers morning, in 2015. I’m sat at a little aluminium cafe table, on the pavement just over here, checking my email. As I finish off, one of the waiters from The Rat Coffee Shop comes to clear my espresso cup and take it back across the street to the cafe. I walk round the corner and into the bottom floor of the DoES Liverpool building.
As I swipe my card to gain access the door reminds me that I need to go and talk to the web designers who are refreshing the MCQN Ltd website. They’re on the first floor, so I don’t venture into the ground floor workshop – which is packed with all sorts of interesting bits of machinery – laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers, lathes... But instead head up stairs.
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.
After checking over the latest designs from the web agency, I head further upstairs to my desk. 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 heading out onto Duke Street on the office cargo bike.
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...
The Internet of Things is becoming one of the “next big things” – and Liverpool has a good chance of riding that wave, but only because there are people here who are passionate about it and working at it. And if we’re successful, we’ll be hiring people from both inside and outside the city, and will attract others who want to work in the field to move here because that’s where the interesting stuff is happening.
But it might not be the Internet of Things that brings the city its big wins – I’ll be disappointed if it’s not – but it could just as easily be something around open data – with ScraperWiki based here, and the new open healthcare group that Ross Jones has co-founded; or maybe something around podcasting, given the success that Dan and Don McAllister are already enjoying.
Or it could be something completely different, that you’re passionate about. But that’s the key point – it’s not going to be something that the council has stuck in a strategy document somewhere. Not because we can make better bets than they can about the future, but because there’s someone already in the city who wants to drive it forward. It’s all about the people.
And interesting things can come out of Barcamps. The first Bubblino was built for the last one, and he became MCQN Ltd’s first Internet of Things product.
It was also at the last Barcamp that I met Andy Goodwin, and without that connection, Ignite Liverpool wouldn’t have happened. It was where ScraperWiki was announced, and it’s where Thom and I hatched plans for Howduino and to start a regular meetup for Arduino tinkerers. That grew into Maker Night, which then grew into DoES.
It had been quite a while since the last one - a couple of weeks shy of three years! - so was long overdue. Despite it being held at DoES, I was only helping out a bit, which meant I could enjoy the sessions and chat with all sorts of people. John, Paul and Andy and Allison from OpenLabs did all the hard work of organising it, and pulled off a great event.
I gave a talk on each of the two days - on Friday I set out my thoughts on the future of Liverpool in the cheekily titled "What is the Point of Liverpool?"; and on Saturday I chatted a bit about RFID and NFC and showed some of the stuff I've been playing around with in RFID, including the RFIDrum (an Arduino-based noise generator that reads Oystercards, Walrus cards, Android NFC phones, etc. and plays a unique rhythm on some solenoids for each card).
I didn't prepare any slides for the RFID talk, but I did for the other, and that was videoed too. I'll stick the slides and video up in another blog post shortly.
It was great to see so many hardware-related talks happening over the two days. Ken Boak gave an update on where things are with his Nanode devices, and it was great to hear from Trystan Lea on how things have been developing with the OpenEnergyMonitor project. Mycroft talked about his Arduino journey, from encountering Bubblino at How? Why? DIY! through coming along to Maker Night to being commissioned to build a piece by local gallery Metal. He also gave a talk (which sadly I missed as it clashed with another) about the tech behind his Tickets Please game. Finally, John talked about how he's moving from prototype to production with his WhereDial, but I missed that one too as I was busy showing off our Makerbot 3D printer.
I've only scratched the surface of the discussions, talks, connections made and fun had over the two days, but there's plenty more information over on the Lanyrd page for Barcamp Liverpool.
This is an interesting video about the hacker and maker scene in New York
It's from the official New York Internet TV channel. How awesome is that? Wouldn't it be cool if Liverpool had something similar? Maybe it's something that Toxteth TV should be doing. Or linking up with Kensington Vision so they could both branch out and cover the whole city - getting them both outside of their immediate locality. Anyway, that's not what I'm writing this blog post about, interesting as it would be.
The thing that prompted me to write was during the section on hacking X-boxes to stick XBMC (X-box media centre) onto them. It feels like the X-box might be a suitable platform to use as "trojan hardware" to get more creative uses of tech into homes that wouldn't otherwise think of it.
Wouldn't it be nice if some of the How? Why? DIY! / #makernight / GeekUp / DoES Liverpool community ran a hackday out in Kensington or somewhere and let people bring along their X-boxes to show them how to hack them to stick XBMC onto them?
And what if it was a specially built version of XBMC that had a curated set of additional feeds / apps set up, so everyone had easy access to the TED talks, and a Liverpool video channel, and maybe an RSS reader with a set of local feeds as the default starting set. Ideally it would also have some apps to let people, or at least inform people how to, create their own content to feed into the network too. And if you want to get youngsters programming, you could find a programming environment that runs in it (maybe one that makes it easy to write games?) and stick an app-store there too so they can share their creations with others - accessible from the Internet obviously, but also easily found from the XBMC system so their mates can find it trivially.
Anyone want to build it?
The event happened last month, but I wanted to follow up on my earlier post about the council starting to pay attention to me - mainly because it was a typically wonderful bit of work from The Macula, and through the wonders of the web, I can give you a taste of what it was like...
The projection on the Liver Building itself was first...
...and was followed by one on the new Museum of Liverpool building (which had opened its doors a couple of days earlier). I felt this one did a better job of incorporating the architecture of the building into the projection...
Finally, if you'd like to know a bit more about it, here's a good interview with the Macula where they talk about the Liverpool event.
Totting them up in a list just now, I reckon I've worked in over a dozen different offices during my career, and done the odd couple of days in dozens more. It's been a fair mix of buildings, sizes and atmospheres too: a Government DHSS site in Lytham St. Annes; the bedroom office of the early days of STNC; Microsoft's sprawling US campus; and plenty of standard science-park blocks. The best is probably STNC's Highwayman's Vineyard period: surrounded by an orchard for lunchtime walks and apple scrumping, and with an indoor, heated swimming pool - these days it's a gallery and B&B.
However, when I struck out on my own, an office seemed like an unnecessary expense. I already had a perfectly serviceable house, just sitting there doing nothing during the day, so why spend more money on somewhere else that I'd also have to commute to get to? And for the first few years I didn't bother, I worked from home.
Things stayed the same until I started looking for a space to house the Liverpool hackspace group and even then it was the workshop space that was the big draw. As it turned out, the first step towards that was something much closer to a standard office - four of us started renting a room in a serviced office last summer, with the only nod to the "workshop" being an extra table with a soldering iron on it.
A year on and I can safely say it was one of the better business decisions I've made. It's not so much that the office has made me more productive (although I think it would've helped more in the early days of working for myself), it's more that there are people around to share the trials and successes of running a business - you can get a sanity check on things, you're hooked into a wider network for picking up bits of work and meeting new people, and even some of the simple things like not having to worry about staying in for parcels being delivered.
So, I've finally seen the light on getting a desk around some other interesting people, but I've been thinking about how we can reconfigure what an office looks like, and what facilities it offers, for a while now. I gave a talk about co-working, hackspaces and other "new ways of working" a couple of years back, and I'm also a fan of Adam Greenfield's take on city-centre offices vs. edge-of-town, self-contained office campuses, summed up perfectly in this interview from last year:
Adam Greenfield: My feeling is that the apparently generous provisions of classic Valley workplaces like e.g. Google are set up to remove incentives for their staffers to leave campus, and to create incentives for them to remain there for the maximum amount of time achievable.
My idea of a good workspace is a little different: a small office, with windows that open and lots of natural light, in a dense and well-served neighborhood in the central city.
In other words, why isolate ourselves out on the highway, locked up in dreary, pompous, dinosaurian buildings, when our iPhones and laptops have made us mobile, untethered and free? Why surrender to the disciplinary space of the office, with its Taylorist constraints in time and space, when the city itself is well-provisioned with inspiration, strong coffee, good food and plenty of room to walk and ponder? Fortunately, I'm beginning to see signs that this is becoming a more generally accepted reality: see the coworking and Breakout movements.
Jane Jacobs reminded us in the 1960s that "sometimes new ideas need old buildings." I think it's even truer now than it was then.
So why am I telling you all this? Well, the Liverpool hackspace group has moved out of the pub and morphed into the monthly Maker Night event at the Art & Design Academy, which has shown that there's the demand for making and tinkering.
A permanent workshop/studio was always a long-term aim for those of us putting on Maker Night, but just recently we learnt that the building housing our current office is being taken over by a screen school, and so we needed to find somewhere new to house our desks.
That gave us the push to bring our plans forward, and the last couple of weeks has seen a raft of paperwork filling, discussions around what sort of space we'd like (and what we can make do with), juggling of (just one) spreadsheet (we're geeks not accountants ;-), and visiting an array of different sorts of buildings and offices. All on top of running our usual businesses. It's been a frantic, but exciting time.
The outcome of all this activity is that we've formed a new Community Interest Company - DoES Liverpool CIC - which lets us rent a space, accept money from people, and generally provide a framework to let people do stuff in the space. None of us are taking any money from it, nor are we expecting to (most of us already have Ltd. companies to cover making our fortunes ;-) and because it's a CIC the profits have to be used for the benefit of the community. I expect that will be mostly around expanding the space, and buying tools and equipment for members to use - things like a drill press, or a laser-cutter, but it'll be guided by what the members want.
We're also on the brink of moving into our first DoES Space. We announced the details at the Liverpool GeekUp meeting on Tuesday, and you can find out more at the Introducing DoES Liverpool blog post on the Maker Night blog.
Basically it will be a combined co-working and workshop/studio space. We're still working out the details but there'll be a small meeting room, an office where most of the desks will be sited, and a more flexible open plan area. The open plan room will have a couple of desks and some workbenches for soldering electronics or messier work, and also let us reconfigure it to hold meetings like GeekUp.
There are two main levels of membership: workshop access gets you access to the workshop/studio space, and use of the shared tools, and is £30/month; the co-working desk is £150/month and provides the same as workshop access plus your own permanent desk. We'll also have drop-in hot-desking at £8/day.
The prices all include bills - electricity, Internet, etc., and the monthly options will be on easy-in/easy-out terms, so no minimum term, and you just give a month's notice.
Interested? Questions? Drop us an email at hello [at] doesliverpool.com, even if you're just thinking you might want a desk in a few months - it's useful for us to know how much interest there is, and what sort of split between desks and workshop/studio space we should be aiming for when setting things up.
An interesting blog post from Tim Williams discussing some of his his thoughts after reading Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City.
I don't like the way that it splits the "how do you solve a problem like regeneration" into two options: the build it and they will come approach that we seem to have been trying in the UK for most of my lifetime; or the help people to escape from these failed cities and towns to a shiny new life somewhere else (which in the UK means within the draw of the M25).
What annoys me about it is that those options are presented as the only choices, and that they label certain towns and cities as "failed". I don't think that's a useful endeavour, as it assumes that (a) everyone should, and will, make decisions based solely on economics; and (b) that moving most of the population into the South-East would be a desirable aim.
I'm proof that the first option isn't true, otherwise I'd still be living in Cambridge rather than having moved back to Liverpool. And choosing Cambridge again, just because I've lived there and so have an understanding of some of the issues it faces, it's already facing problems with the number of people who want to live there now, never mind trying to fit more in. It would be good for the value of my house though...
Where I do agree with Tim and Edward is in the argument that grand building projects aren't going to fix things. I think edifice error is a nice term for it:
I suppose what confuses me is that I don't see what's gained by arguing that we need to help people flee the failed areas. Maybe it's a belief that big companies are the only way that we solve unemployment and poverty? "We have to build big fancy office blocks for our 'inward investment' strategy to work and attract big companies here" played off against "big companies don't want to open offices in poor areas, so we need to move the workforce to them".
That's where my view differs markedly. I agree that we should be investing in the people, rather than infrastructure, but we should expect and encourage them to build new companies and not be surprised if they stay where they are to do that.
Back in October last year, artistic projectionists The Macula released this video of one of their works:
I shared a link to the video in this tweet...
Fast forward to now, and the details of the celebrations for the Liver Building's centenary have just been announced. The centrepiece of which is a projection from The Macula...
It's nearing the end of the academic year, which means that it's degree show time. There are two that I know of at LJMU this week:
And does anyone know when any of the other degree shows in Liverpool are on?
There's an excellent interview with Umair Haque on the GOOD blog. In it he wonders why so many people are protesting against cuts rather than attacking the institutions that caused the problem in the first place, the banks? He argues that a better response than marches and protests would be grassroots organised economic action. I think he's right
The UK Uncut movement et al have shown that they can mobilise lots of people and generate lots of action. What if instead of occupying shops and going on marches, they persuaded people to move their bank accounts elsewhere? Would that succeed where Government is failing, at curbing bank bonuses and making credit more available for businesses that need it?
What if people banked with a local credit union or building society?
What if, indeed.
Why aren't the local credit unions (e.g. Partners Credit Union who are for anyone in Merseyside) working out how to persuade me to move my account across? Surely having lots more people using a local, non-profit savings/loan institution would be a good thing, and widening the customer-base to include conscientious objecting middle-classes would improve the image of credit unions from the reputable lender of last resort?
And what if we mixed in the technical chops of groups like One Click Orgs and the open-source movement? Just think how awesome and secure a way of banking that would be...
Over the past few weeks, those of us who organise events in the digital area have been taking stock a little over the state of the community, and thinking about what direction things should take and where we should direct our efforts.
So far it's been a fairly anarchic process, with ideas often hatched as the result of a throwaway comment from someone planting a seed of an idea with someone else, and all over a pint somewhere. It's worked well - I remember Neil Morrin explaining what became How? Why? DIY whilst stood having a smoke outside Static during some gig or event; Thom and I came up with the idea of Howduino and the Liverpool hackspace during Barcamp Liverpool; and just recently I came across the original email I sent to Neil and Andy Goodwin to connect the two of them for the first Ignite Liverpool, which contained this superb paragraph:
"[Sending this introduction email] is about as involved as I'll be in the process, as I've got too much on this month already. I'll definitely attend, and I can probably be persuaded to put some slides together about something or other, but apart from the odd retweet and email helping promote it, it'll be up to you guys."
I didn't manage that very successfully, did I?
Now that more people are getting involved and more events are happening, it shows that the shared vision over a coffee style of organisation has problems scaling, not least because we're getting too busy running events to get together as a group (and the group is getting too big).
So that's led to this open letter to Liverpool's digital community. If you're reading this (and in the North West) then we'd love to get your input, find out what you want (and then see if we can persuade you to help us implement that *mwahahaha* ;-)
I mentioned a shared vision above, which makes it sound like there's a grand plan being secretly put into action. That's not really true, I mean, I've got a grand plan, but I don't know how shared the vision is, and I'm not implementing it secretly - as anyone who has accidentally strayed onto the topic in conversation with me will no doubt attest.
I tend not to commit plans to paper because I long ago learnt that the benefit of a plan isn't in setting steps in stone, but in thinking about what you're trying to achieve and what you need to do in order to get there. Plans are useful tools to list dependencies and work out milestones, but are also out of date before the ink dries and should be open to amendment when you need to route round roadblocks or take advantage of newly arisen opportunities.
So even more-so than usual, this blog post is just a snapshot of my latest thinking around the topic, and a way to help me order my thoughts.
As plans go, it was quite a long time in gestation. I can trace the start back to the Biennial of 2004. That's when I visited Liverpool for the first time in a few years, and let myself to take in the city properly. That's when I decided that I should move back to the North-West and play my part in restoring the city to prominence on the world stage. Told you it was a grand plan.
Events are just a part of that ambition, but a vital one. When I arrived in the city in the summer of 2008 I looked to the existing events to find out what was going on, and to meet interesting people. Geekup and LivLUG were, and still are, great for finding the software community, and Barcamp Liverpool in the December helped widen that network.
By then I was already starting to agitate for doing more and in the following months started putting that into practice, organising the first Howduino and bringing Be2Camp to the North.
Twitter, and Twestival, helped broaded my network beyond just the software geeks, and meeting Neil meant we could start to bridge the gaps between the techies and the artists.
And that's the most important part of the events for me. Events are a way to engineer serendipity - give lots of people with different backgrounds and skills and ideas a reason to mix and get chatting to each other, and interesting stuff will result. I don't think you can, nor should you try to, be more specific than that. Ignite Liverpool is a perfect example of this although I don't think we'll ever know if it's succeeded.
As to any more detailed planning, that's for all of us to work out. Think about what events you wish were running in Liverpool, and if they aren't already then start them. Test the water with a tweet or a one-minute pitch at the next Ignite or Social Media Cafe. Choose things that will help build the community rather than divide it, and support and help other people running events when you can.
I suppose if I were to put together some maxims by which to guide how we proceed, they'd be these, to which I often seem to return...
I haven't got any permission to give you, but there's piles of initiative for you to take.
Today the Observer put on a TEDx event down in London. It was live streamed to a number of other cities around the country and I made the five minute walk round the corner to LIPA to watch it there.
Given my recent ruminating on conferences, and especially because this was a stream rather than the event itself, I almost didn't bother signing up. And when I did, it was more to see who else would attend the local screening rather than to watch the talks.
As it happens (and I'll come to that in a moment) I didn't meet very many new people but did find some of the talks really interesting, so it wasn't what I expected, but I enjoyed it all the same.
There'll be video from the talks available on the TEDx Observer website soon (so it says) and in lieu of a proper review I'll just list the talks that I think are worth watching. Russell Davies was excellent as ever, talking about pretending; Mark Solms story about his South African farm and the almost-slaves that came with the land was eye-opening; Goldie's life story continued a thread running through the event of triumph over adversity; Jason Drew had a great way of framing the over-fishing problem that shows the sort of approach we need more of in environmental issues; and Vivienne Westwood gave an impassioned argument against consumerism, in favour of culture, and most of all a call to take action for what you believe in.
My least favourite talks were those from the celebrities with a charity or cause to promote. In this post-Cluetrain world (which I readily admit might be inhabited by a minority of us digerati, but an ever growing minority) the lack of passion and the "I'm an important person, so you should pay attention to my cause" approach seems to stick out like a sore thumb against the genuine, first-hand experiences related by the other speakers.
On the whole, I enjoyed the day - if I hadn't then I wouldn't have stayed for all of it; I certainly hadn't planned to at the start. However, with a bit more thought the streaming experience could have been much better.
First off was the signage or welcome to the event - although there were quite a few stewards who seemed to be there for the event, when I arrived in the morning there weren't any obvious signs directing me to the right part of LIPA. There was just a security guard on reception, and although he confirmed that I was in the right place when I asked, he didn't do much beyond point me through the first set of doors. Luckily it was early and so homing in on the only voices I could hear in the building led me to the right place. Placing some of the stewards at the entrance, or putting up some signs would've made the first impression much better.
My other complaint is the lack of effort put into making the showing into an event in itself. Watching stuff on screen is much more like visiting the cinema than attending a conference, and so without any other guidance people treat it in the same way. At the end of each session people filed out and went their separate ways as if the credits had just rolled at the Odeon.
Ideally there would've been tea and coffee available in the auditorium, or in the courtyard just outside, but obviously there's a cost involved with that. Regardless, there needs to be a clearer encouragement to people to linger in one area between sessions and talk to each other. Just having a compere for the day locally would probably do the trick - they wouldn't need to do much, just reinforce the timings from the main event and adding "so nip to the toilet, or grab a coffee from the cafe and come back for a chat about the talks with your fellow attendees" would have done the trick.
There were plenty of things to talk about from the presentations and it's a shame that I didn't get chance to meet and discuss them with the other locals, particularly given that there was hardly any overlap between today's audience and the usual event-goers for things like Ignite Liverpool.
I loved the scattering of Superlambananas that were dotted round the city in the summer of 2008 when I moved back to Liverpool. However, I was a little concerned when the follow-up was an almost identical idea with penguins rather than superlambananas and then when Chester did the same with rhinos - it looked like they might flog the idea to death...
However, this year they've tweaked the format and rediscovered the winning formula. Liverpool Discovers sees a collection of different artworks distributed around the city (and with Wirral and St. Helens) on a variety of themes related to the city. So as well as the art there's a story or bit of local trivia to add to the experience.
I've not seen many of the artworks yet, but have come across one or two on my travels. "Fish and Ships" was the first I encountered, when out for a bike ride last week...
And my favourite so far, "Sugar & Chain", which is even better when viewed at night...
Back on the 3rd February last year, Andy Goodwin arranged for he and I to get a look round the Art and Design Academy at Liverpool John Moores University. We were partly there to scope it out for the first Ignite Liverpool, but mainly to see what sort of facilities they had to offer. As this page of notes that I took on the day show, the answer was lots of cool toys...
That'll be one laser cutter, one flatbed cutter, a couple of CNC mills and a very fancy 3D printer.
It was pretty obvious that the next step was to get to play with them, and so the plan was hatched for some kind of hack-weekend to get lots of people with different backgrounds and skills along and see what came out of it.
The difficulty with non-software hackdays, as I've found with running Howduino, is that people can't always bring all the components and tools that they need with them. For software, everyone brings a laptop, and libraries or applications can generally be downloaded in a few minutes from the Internet. Physical components - be it electronics or sheets of plywood - generally need to be ordered a few days before you need them, and very few people have their own laser-cutter to bring to an event.
As a result, most of the similar digital fabrication events that we found seem to focus on either demonstrating the capabilities of the machinery, or walking people through some examples to teach them how things work. Whilst that's useful, and was soon an obvious element to FABcamp, we also wanted scope for people to bring their own ideas along and see how far they could take them in a weekend.
With setting ourselves such a challenge, and pushing the boundaries of what had been done before around hackdays, it was always going to take some time to organise and so it was almost a year later - on the 29th and 30th January 2011 - that FABcamp Liverpool took place.
In the intervening months, I'd dropped away from the organising side of things, as there wasn't much I could offer beyond enthusiasm, opinions and the occasional pointer or introduction. Andy was the driving force behind the event, with the obvious extensive and necessary assistance from the rest of the OpenLabs team and the Art and Design Academy. They found the other partners to bring in, like FabLab Manchester and Razorlab, worked out the details of how the event was scheduled, and undertook the myriad of tasks required to pull off such a great weekend.
The event was split into three strands: an unconference-ish series of talks and presentations (including, by all accounts, an interesting talk on product design from Ilsa Parry); a number of workshops so people could design and 3D print custom lego minifigs of themselves, or learn how to lay out and laser-cut or laser-etch their designs; and a free-form "work on your own projects" track.
It was the latter of these that I worked on, which meant that I deliberately avoided the talks and workshops. It was a real shame in some ways as they looked very interesting, but my experience at Over the Air back in September showed me that I wouldn't make any progress on my own project if I kept interrupting it with other sessions.
I spent the weekend making a split-flap display. It's something I've wanted to build for ages, but hadn't got much beyond initial ideas and sketches. FABcamp gave me the opportunity to start prototyping and seeing if my assumptions held up when exposed to the laws of physics. I also started to get to grips with using Inkscape to lay out vector designs.
By Sunday afternoon I hadn't made as much progress as I'd have liked, but I did have the electronics and software side mostly done - an Arduino driving a stepper motor - and had a proof-of-concept version of the flap mechanism built. It needs further refinement, and then some more time with the laser-cutter and flat-bed cutter but there was a great sense of achievement in getting that far. I don't think I'm the only attendee who came away with a much better understanding of what can be done and, more importantly, the (beginnings of the) skills to make it happen - coupled with lots more ideas of other projects to pursue...
Hopefully there will be more FABcamps in the future, both in Liverpool and elsewhere. There's definitely the demand for them - tickets for FABcamp Liverpool were massively over-subscribed and went within days, and the only promotion that it got were initial tweets from Andy and me.
There are also some other write-ups and video of the weekend over on the FABcamp Liverpool page on Lanyrd.
In the meantime, if you want to play around with digital fabrication and electronics then come along to the monthly Maker Nights that the Liverpool Hackspace is holding in partnership with LJMU Art & Design Academy.
As I was pulling together a list of techie events in the NW for a friend I realised it might be of use to share it with the wider world. So, undoubtedly incomplete, but here's something of a snapshot of the regular tech meetings and gatherings in the Liverpool-Manchester area. Feel free to add any I've missed in the comments section... (or email me if comments aren't working for you - there's a weird bug that I've not tracked down yet that means not all comments work. Sorry)
And two I haven't made it along to yet (mostly because there are too many listed above to fit in even more :-)
I haven't made it over to Chester to any of these meetings, but know quite a few people who regularly attend:
Daresbury Business Breakfast is an always-packed monthly event for tech business-people to get together for a chat over free coffee and bacon baps.
With so much going on in Liverpool I don't make it over to Manchester all that often, but do from time to time. Mostly to attend the language-specific groups that tend to gravitate to Manchester as it gives them a bigger catchment area (or at least doesn't have a catchment area incorporating a chunk of the Irish Sea...)
And ones I've not attended...
And finally, NW England Perl Mongers - a language-specific group which admirably roams around the NW rather than expecting its members to come to it.
On Wednesday we rebooted the Liverpool Hackspace with the first of what will become a monthly meet-up at LJMU's Art & Design Academy - Maker Night.
Fifteen of us gathered in the workshop, surrounded by all manner of interesting tools and machines, and within sight of the digital fab room. As it was the first Maker Night, we had a couple of short talks to introduce what we mean by "making". Andy Goodwin was ill and so couldn't make it along to give his talk on fabbing, so it fell to me to give both talks. I've embedded the slides here in case anyone wants to see them:
After the talks things broke up into a number of activities. Some people had a tour of the digital fabbing lab; others had a play with the Arduino and the ARDX beginners kits that I'd taken along; and some just worked on their own projects.
Future events will be a bit more hands-on - you'll be able to work on your own project if you like, but we'll also be aiming to organise a led workshop too (things like building an Arduino from scratch, or making a solar chime). We'll also have some ARDX kits in case anyone wants to have a play around, so you don't need any electronics or programming experience to come along.
Maker Night will be the third Wednesday of every month, at the Art & Design Academy on Duckinfield Street. 6:30pm for a 7:00pm start.
UPDATE: It has been pointed out that I'd got the day wrong - it'll be the 3rd Wednesday of the month, not Thursday as I'd originally written.
A few weeks back I got to visit the Liverpool Town Hall for the first time for an event to announce that Liverpool is opening an embassy in London.
Yesterday saw the opening of the aforementioned embassy which, obviously, isn't a true embassy but some office space to allow big Liverpool companies and council officials a base from which to meet up with businesspeople and politicians in the capital.
I'm not entirely convinced of its value - mostly down to my disdain for "inward investment" as a regeneration tool - but from attending the event and hearing the leader of the council and the newly-appointed council business advisor speak about it I'm happy to give it the benefit of the doubt.
They seemed open to questions and criticism, and honest about what they want to achieve. They're trying something a bit different, and going to see how it works or if it works. The embassy is open for three months initially, and it ties into some of the promotion around the upcoming Liverpool Boat Show. Keeping it open for longer will depend on it proving its worth, and also on finding further funding from the private sector. The initial costs have been provided from money that last year paid for some of the junket to MIPIM and they are already signing up sponsors to help with that.
The Telegraph, however, has a rather romantic and curious piece which, despite waxing poetic about the delights of Liverpool later in the article, also irks me somewhat. I think my irritation can be summed up in this paragraph from it:
"But an embassy is a redundant idea because Liverpool already has many eloquent ambassadors actively abroad (myself included). And the thing about these ambassadors is this. Liverpool inspires an intense, mawkish sentimentalism… coupled with an extreme desire to get away and never return. Its diasporised diplomats speak eloquently of the city’s intense romanticism while praying never to be required actually to live there again. Ever."
Although he is undoubtedly eloquent, someone who talks about how wonderful the city is whilst simultaneously claiming it's somewhere one would never want to live isn't someone that I want as my ambassador.
Liverpool is a great city - not just to hark back to, but to live in, to play in, to run a business in. If our current "ambassadors" aren't getting that across to the rest of the country or the world them maybe we do need our own embassy.
One of the things that's risen in popularity with the rise of Twitter is the URL shortener - those services that take the long and unwieldy (if informative) web addresses and chop them down into something that still lets you include a few words of explanation as to why you're posting links to your followers.
However, one thing they don't have is a bookmarklet to let me do one-click URL shortening. With bit.ly I have a button on my browser toolbar, and when I want to shorten a URL I just click that button. It launches a new tab which contains the shortened URL for the site I was on when I clicked the button. Then it's simple for me to copy and paste that into Twitter to send my message.
So, a quick look at the source code for scou.se later, I present the Shorten with Scou.se bookmarklet.
On Firefox, Chrome and Safari (I don't think it works on Internet Explorer, but I could be wrong) just drag the Shorten with Scou.se link to your toolbar. Then next time you want to shorten a URL, just click it.
The Wednesday before last was the third Social Media Cafe Liverpool event. The cafes are an evening event for anyone interested in using these new tools like blogging and Twitter, and feature a couple of talks followed by a chance to discuss the talks or just have a chat over a drink or two.
The most recent was billed as "The Art One", because the Biennial season is upon us, and the event was held in the Biennial visitor centre on Renshaw Street (the old Rapid DIY store). There were talks from Anthony Pickthall (head of marketing and comms for Biennial), Peter Goodbody of the FAB Collective and finally Adeyinka Olushonde demonstrated the Liverpool arts and cultural organisations map before we repaired to the lovely Dispensary across the road for beers and conversation.
It's really nice to see SMC Liv finding its groove and growing with each event. This event was standing room only and it's attracting a whole new group of people from the local community - there's a reasonable crossover with the Ignite Liverpool crowd, but it's tapped into some new groups too. I must admit I didn't really see the point in having a Social Media Cafe event, as I figured it would just be another talking shop for the usual suspects. Thankfully Neil, Ella and Stu thought differently and I'm delighted to be proved wrong.
The Wednesday before last was the third Social Media Cafe Liverpool event. The cafes are an evening event for anyone interested in using these new tools like blogging and Twitter, and feature a couple of talks followed by a chance to discuss the talks or just have a chat over a drink or two.
The most recent was billed as "The Art One", because the Biennial season is upon us, and the event was held in the Biennial visitor centre on Renshaw Street (the old Rapid DIY store). There were talks from Anthony Pickthall (head of marketing and comms for Biennial), Peter Goodbody of the FAB Collective and finally Adeyinka Olushonde demonstrated the Liverpool arts and cultural organisations map before we repaired to the lovely Dispensary across the road for beers and conversation.
It's really nice to see SMC Liv finding its groove and growing with each event. This event was standing room only and it's attracting a whole new group of people from the local community - there's a reasonable crossover with the Ignite Liverpool crowd, but it's tapped into some new groups too. I must admit I didn't really see the point in having a Social Media Cafe event, as I figured it would just be another talking shop for the usual suspects. Thankfully Neil, Ella and Stu thought differently and I'm delighted to be proved wrong.
She sums up most of the problems with government interventions in regenerating or encouraging creative digital technologies. In the Tech City case it's the national government latching onto something that has been growing for a few years (Silicon Roundabout), but there are similarities with what the NWDA and local councils have been doing in here in the north-west.
It's why I think the Innovation Park and Media City UK are unlikely to amount to anything much, but also why I'm on the fence about the Baltic Triangle redevelopment and quietly optimistic about Liverpool itself.
Our office space is a smidge over £100/month and could be less if we had another person sharing the office, for which there's plenty of room. We're in the heart of the Ropewalks, which is where the creatives really are, regardless of where the council would like to corral us. Out of the office window I can see the Kazimier and Wolstenholme Projects. The Biennial is all around us, particularly the Independents strand; on my ten minute by foot commute, I can pass over half-a-dozen Biennial venues.
For sustenance there are a plethora of independent options: Bold St. Coffee, Leaf Tea Shop and Brew Tea Bar providing caffeine; the Egg, the Italian Club, Mello Mello, the Shipping Forecast for something more substantial or a beer.
There's still lots to do, but it's an interesting place to be. I'm looking forward to helping it develop over the coming years.
My morning commute takes me past the old Whitehouse pub on the corner of Berry Street and Duke Street. I suspect most people wouldn't recognise it by name, but if I say that it's the Banksy pub in Liverpool then I think many more people would know what I was talking about. Here's a picture of it...
It's a rather run-down building, but the Banksy rat livens up what would otherwise be a fairly bland and ordinary block.
The pub came up for auction a few months back, which made the BBC news website - which claimed it was up for £495,000 but could go higher. It actually sold for £114,000, from a guide price of £70-80,000 and just afterwards this article in the Liverpool Echo said:
"[The new owners] said they were keen to keep the Banksy rat, renovation work permitting.The 200-year-old pub is one of the city’s best known landmarks and is Grade II listed."
Since then nothing much seems to have happened. Scaffolding went up and lots of refurbishment work took place on the adjacent building on Berry Street, but I don't know if that's related or not. Then today I spotted some planning application notices fastened to the lampposts outside the pub. There seem to be two (rather similar) planning applications in 10F/1494 and 10L/1722.
The Related Documents section seems the most interesting, with diagrams of the changes being proposed and the work to be done. The headline for the application is that it's a change of use from a pub to a shop with two flats above. I'm not convinced that "there is great demand for convenience stores with alcohol sales and for living accommodation in the City Centre", but that's nothing of any real import.
The big question-mark is over what happens to the exterior. It seems very strange (to me at least) that there's no mention of the Banksy in any of the documents that I've looked through. There is mention of all the windows being replaced (which would remove most of the bottom half of the rat) and existing "render" to be removed from front and side elevations and rerendered with painted finish (their "s on "render") which would remove the rat's head and shoulders.
I also spotted a Venmore's auction board up on the door, and it's listed in their November catalogue with a guide price of £175,000 and "Famous Banksy Graffiti Art on Building" written below the photo in the "Look out for..." section. It's even referred to as "Banksy Building".
It seems strange to me that something which features so prominently in the auction listing gets no mention in the planning application. If I was being cynical I'd think they were trying to sneak through a planning application to allow the artwork to be removed (as it no doubt makes it trickier to refurbish the building) to make the site more attractive in the new auction.
Update: Hakim phoned the planning office this morning to clarify a couple of things. I wasn't sure if comments from people who live a way from the site would be considered, but it turns out they will be, so everyone and anyone can add comments. More importantly, the reason there are two seemingly identical applications is that one is for "consent" (presumably because it's a listed building?) and comments should be left on both applications. If you've already left a comment on one, please post one to the other application (and if you followed the link from here then this will be the one you haven't done yet.
The popular image of modern Detroit is that of the failed, desolate city. This three-part documentary, however, shows the flipside of that. All the interesting and exciting new uses of the old buildings, led by the people who live there - people who've stayed with the city after boom turned to bust, and also those who have moved to the city because they can see the potential it offers.
The other two parts are available at the Detroit exploration page on the Palladium Boots website.
I think there's a lot that Liverpool could take from what's happening in Detroit. There are already similarities and the beginnings of a similar ground-up renaissance happening here, but I wonder how we help it break out of the city centre and spread to districts like Kensington or Anfield.
I want to pull out a couple of quotes from the documentary, because I think they sum up the ideas perfectly.
First off, from Phil Cooley, who mirrors a lot of the reasons why I moved back to Liverpool:
"If I moved to New York I have no say in what happens in that city... and that's a ship you can't steer. If I'm here and I give a damn and I actually go out and I'm part of the community I can actually do something and make a difference in Detroit."
And then a quote from one of the members (unfortunately I didn't catch her name) of the Detroit hackerspace - OmniCorpDetroit. I couldn't put it better:
"Detroit... doesn't need any saviours... people get the idea that you need a huge chainstore or sports team or something to come in here and, y'know, be the proverbial game changer. We don't need that here, we need entrepreneurs, artists, do-it-yourselfers, thinkers. Detroit's always been a culture of making. We want to keep that alive."
Last night I headed down to the Shipping Forecast with Dan to attend the Mellowtone night, courtesy of the guys at the excellent Liverpool blog 7streets. I managed to win the free tickets from the competition in their recent interview with the Mellowtone nights' promoter.
The Shipping Forecast is fast becoming one of my favourite bars in Liverpool - a good range of beers, decent food and a relaxed, indie vibe. I'd been a few times before for drinks (and sometimes food) but yesterday was the first time I'd ventured downstairs to the gig venue.
It follows the great tradition of Liverpool music venues by being an old warehouse basement - brick walls with reasonably low (but not so low as to be a problem) vaulted ceilings. It's a fairly intimate venue, and they've done a good job (to my untrained ears) with the sound system - all the acts sounded great.
Neither of us had heard of any of the performers before but the quality bar was set surprisingly high. I'd quite happily go and listen to any of the bands again, and have been enjoying a re-creation of the night as I've dug out the myspace links for this blog post.
I tend not to hold too much store in multi-page reports and treatises setting out how group X or initiative Y will revitalise and regenerate Liverpool (or anywhere really...). However, on reading that a group calling itself the Knowledge Economy Group had released such a document, and that they claim to represent the sorts of businesses of which I'm one, I thought I'd take a closer look.
As seems usual for these sorts of reports, the headline figure (e.g. in the Liverpool Daily Post article) is all about the number of jobs that could be created. I don't know why journalists persist with such numbers - surely nobody believes any more that they bear any relation to reality? And it reduces all jobs to being completely equal. I'm not convinced that 1000 part-time jobs at Tesco, say, are better (in anything but the short-term) than 150 at a locally-owned haulage firm. We should be looking beyond the grandstanding of job counts to the merit of the approaches and projects being proposed.
Getting into the specifics of the proposals and there are some very interesting recommendations.
But before I get to that, a few comments on some of the less impressive sections - to temper my enthusiasm. All of these quotes are taken from the 22 page executive summary (pdf) - I've only dipped into the 216 pages of the full report to follow interesting references from the summary.
"(iv) Press for the Media Access Bureau business model to be reviewed, given the currently very low take-up, to ensure that maximum advantage can be taken of the technology which Northern Net represents and then ensure that further media access points are provided across the city region where there are concentrations of creative and digital industries"
Or maybe we realise that the "very low take-up" is for a reason, and stop wasting money and effort on trying to prove the "significant opportunity" in MediaCityUK...
"4.1.2. It is also hoped that the opportunity will be taken to establish an ‘Innovation Board’ which should be driven by the private sector, with strong academic and business support and have the job of keeping the city region and its economy at the leading edge of thinking (the Foresighting role); the leading edge of technology development and the leading edge of applications for the use of new technologies. The Innovation Board should be free to prompt debate and encourage innovation across the economy, supported by the LEP."
I'm not sure what an "Innovation Board" would do, other than generate reports like this one. I can't see how any business could hope to stay at the forefront of new technologies if it's sat around waiting for somebody else to tell them what those technologies are. If the council (or whoever else) needs to tap into any "foresighting" information, they'd be better off talking to the attendees of GeekUp Liverpool, that's already a group "driven by the private sector" where members give talks to spread information about new technologies and encourage debate about how that affects our work and businesses. And you get to do it over a pint...
And to take us into the more exciting ideas, I'd love to get Francis' take on this section:
"(a) It is proposed that the Universities of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores jointly explore the establishment, in conjunction with other centres of expertise and the wide-ranging public sector across the city region, of a Public Services Institute which would focus on two distinct areas of action:
Finally, onto the important bits.
"...it is recommended that the opportunity should be taken to explore next generation technologies (e.g. smart materials, physical computing, additive layer manufacturing)"
Physical computing? Things like Arduino and the Internet of Things, you mean? And "additive layer manufacturing" sounds remarkably like 3D printing to me...
"The following action is proposed:
(c) The establishment of Fab Labs in the city region would promote innovation and creativity and improve the image of manufacturing as well as supporting the development of emerging business ideas. There is an important crossover here with the creative and digital sector.
(d) Digital Manufacturing is the 21st century way to make products – producing real physical products from igital information. Work is needed to examine how partners across the city region can best promote the application of this groundbreaking technology in support of the manufacturing sector."
As is probably apparent from my comments, I'm not sure what these reports are supposed to achieve; however I think it is great to see technologies like physical computing and digital manufacturing getting included.
If you want to read the full report, it's available at the Knowledge Economy Plan page.
John Tolva has written an excellent essay (it's a bit long to be a blog post really) entitled Lessons from unmaking urban mistakes. In it he looks at how the inner-city highways have improved traffic throughput in the city, but at the expense of the human-scale interactions, and also looks at how the highways affect the surrounding architecture.
It's a difficult problem to solve. When I travel around the city by car then it feels like it's quicker on the trunk roads, although given the number of sets of traffic lights, maybe it isn't. Here in Liverpool the docks and the Pier Head feel cut off from the rest of the city centre by the six lanes of traffic on the Strand. The problem is even more pronounced when you get to the north edge of the city centre and the inner-city motorway that is Islington. I think the resurgence of city-centre living would have bled out to the north much more if there wasn't this huge gulf of inhospitable tarmac in the way.
Is the answer better public transport, maybe an underground system to provide capacity without taking up surface space? Or to separate the cars and pedestrians? If the latter then we'd need a better solution than the desolate pedestrian subways and underpasses that resulted when we tried that with the new towns in the 1960s and 1970s.
Maybe block-level one-way systems help - basically separating the carriageways of the highway to adjacent streets so that there are fewer lanes of traffic for pedestrians to navigate at any one time. That seems to work reasonably well with Dale Street and Chapel Street in Liverpool (although these days Chapel Street has reverted to two-way traffic).
As you can see, I don't have any answers to these questions yet. It's just something I ponder about in some of my thinking on how to improve Liverpool. And the question is made all the trickier because the solution needs to work with the existing fabric of the city - demolishing and rebuilding swathes of the city are only likely to generate a different set of unintended consequences.
Toxteth Library, which has just been fully refurbished, is a lovely building and only a few minutes walk from my flat. Each time I pass it I think that I really should make more (or even some) use of it.
I've had a couple of ideas of how that might happen, and last night found some time to have a play around with the Amazon API and the library catalogue. More on that as and when I get it finished, but my experiments reminded me of the Library Lookup service that Jon Udell pulled together years ago.
What the service does is provide a one-click way to find out if any book that you're looking at on Amazon is available in your local library. Saving you the expense of buying it, whilst supporting your local amenities.
There seems to be a problem with one of the services that LibraryLookup depends on, so the initial lookup for Liverpool that I generated didn't work. However, it wasn't too tricky for me to work out how to fix things, and in case anyone else finds it useful, here's the bookmarklet:
Drag it to your links bar, and you'll be able to click on it whenever you're looking at a book on Amazon and want to find out if it's available locally. If you don't follow what I mean by "bookmarklet" or "drag it to your links bar" then have a look at the Bookmarklets 101 screencast that Jon Udell also put together to explain it all.
Now that I've found an interesting local route for some cycling I've been getting out for a ride every couple of days. One of the nice side-effects of this is that I'm getting to see more of the activity on the river, given that I cycle along the bank from the old Garden Festival site all the way to the Albert Dock.
As I've got my phone with me (tracking my progress via the GPS and MapMe.At) it means I can use @merseyshipping's twitter feed to find out the names of the ships I see; it's been good to start putting some "faces" to the names I've been seeing coming and going on the river over the past year.
To complete the "living in the future" scenario, I've been streaming live video of some of the more interesting happenings that I encounter on the river. The app from Qik makes it trivial to share video on the web, although it would be nice if you could download your videos too. You can see all the videos I take by visiting my page on Qik but I thought I'd share some of the recent river ones here...
First off is one I took when out with John. We had to wait until these yachts had left the lock before we could carry on our ride, as we needed to cross the bascule bridge over the lock...
A few days later I caught the dredger Norma clearing the entrance to the Canning Half-tide Basin next to the Albert Dock...
And on Saturday I happened to arrive at the Albert Dock just as the cruise liner Crystal Symphony was departing. By the time I'd made it round to the cruise liner terminal I'd missed the tug pulling her round, but did get to see them both leave and the Isle of Man catamaran Manannan coming in and the Liverpool pilot boat Pv Dunlin heading out.
As I mentioned in my write-up of the Degree Show, I didn't get round the graphic design section when I visited. However, when I was at the Art & Design Academy for the Re:Think lecture last night (no promises of a write-up for that - we'll see how things go) I picked up a nice cardboard envelope full of A5 cards - a catalogue for the graphic design section of the show with one card from each student.
I'm not going to provide any analysis of the work, but here's a list of the ones that stood out when I had a look through earlier. At a guess it's roughly a fifth of the catalogue, and unlike their product design and architecture compatriots they've all got a web presence (although some of them are yet to put anything much on it...).
In no particular order, categorized by how they list themselves on the card, they are...
I'm afraid this isn't going to be a particularly in-depth review of the individuals work, more a collection of thoughts on the show as a whole. The architecture work in particular got me quite riled up and it would take far too long to unpick and marshal my thoughts into a cohesive blog post, but it was mostly to do with the fact that parts of Liverpool had been chosen (obviously) as the sites for the designs and there seemed to be a lack of thinking about how to integrate into the surrounding area - the idea put forward by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen that one should "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." Lots of big sites being redeveloped (one of the briefs had been a design for a mini-city in Edge Hill, adjacent to the area I was talking about recently!) with the usual boring apartment blocks clustered around some "iconic" tower or civic building. I don't know if that's a problem with the state of architecture; with the briefs that the students are working towards; the fact they're working in groups (for the Edge Hill brief at least); or a lack of ambition and experimentation from the students themselves.
I should stress that there were lots of little bits of interesting and good work spread among the show, and you'd need to be particularly brave to do something really different when you're worried about your mark. I think my beef is more with architecture and the course than the individual students.
One thing that would be useful would be for the student briefs to be shown somewhere in the show. Almost all of the pieces I viewed, across all disciplines, were obviously different students responses to a given brief. Particularly as there were few students around to ask, it would have helped me understand the work if I could find out what they'd been tasked with doing. I think the interior design section did cover that to some extent, although that might've just been contained within one of the student's pieces.
Another thing that surely is essential in this day and age is an online presence. Or even just sticking your name somewhere prominent next to your work! There were plenty of stands where it was hard or even impossible to find out whose work you were viewing, and many more had just a mobile number or an email address. That's fine if someone wants to get in touch with you right now, but it precludes any further investigation into your portfolio and makes it hard to share details of your work with others. So, Dahlaina Jones, Paul Richardson, Tim Spencer and Thomas Kenny - if any of you happen to read this - I thought your product design work was interesting enough to pick up one of your business cards, but I can't show anyone else what your work is like because you haven't included any web links. Contrast that with Leigh Adkins, whose work can be found over here.
Maybe the course could require an online part to the submission and provide a few lessons on getting things online? It would be an easy few marks to acquire for the student but would set them up for life after uni...
Here are two songs that I'd been thinking of including in the previous blog post about regeneration here in Liverpool. In the end they didn't quite fit with what I wanted to say but I thought I'd still share them. Think of it as a kind of bonus track to the last blog post.
They're both examples of the North-Western folk music that I've known all my life, and are both written about the slum clearances of the 60s and 70s - telling through music what Who Cares communicates through film.
First off there's the Liverpool view, from Jackie and Bridie - Back Buchanan Street
And then the view from the other end of the East Lancs Road, the Houghton Weavers singing about the Manchester equivalent - Room Up in the Sky
Since before I moved to Liverpool, huge areas have been boarded up or 'tinned' - part of the New Heartlands initiative to regenerate the areas. I'm not sure how long that's been the case but even so, that's almost two years and it's only in the past couple of months that the bulldozers have moved in and flattened the houses. I don't know how much longer it will take them to build the new estates, but there are houses nearing completion on another building site in Edge Hill and they must've been at least a year in the building.
So that's a minimum of three years that streets-worth of a number of communities in Liverpool have been empty. That's a long time for shops and businesses in already poor areas to survive whilst waiting for someone to sell things to or employ.
It's not like it's a small area either. One area I pass regularly is this one in Edge Hill - three or four entire streets of terraced housing have been demolished. I went up and took a few photos a couple of weeks back, you can some idea of the scale of destruction from this panorama...
And that isn't the end of it. Less than half a mile down the road there's the Edge Lane regeneration project which is going to clear another swathe of this part of Liverpool. At least with that one there's some reasoning behind it, as they'll be widening the main road route into the city centre. If you head half a mile in the opposite direction there's more of the same just off Smithdown Road. This time they've left the houses that are actually on Smithdown Road, and have just cleared the area behind, so once they're done if you don't look too closely you won't notice that the fabric of the area has been ripped out.
There have been people fighting against the schemes but the council seem to have pushed on regardless. Then once the damage is done, they have the gall to come up with a half-hearted sorry, I think we made a mistake.
What annoys me most is that we've been here before. In the 1960s and 1970s we did this wholesale replacement of streets, broke up communities and demolished huge numbers of now-desirable old houses. Could no-one in power spot that this wasn't likely to work or come up with something better?
It's not like you need to go far to find the evidence. About a mile from this site in Edge Hill is Falkner Street. At one end it's still cobbled and lined with lovely Georgian terraced houses - the houses fetch around £0.5m and the street featured in a recent Hovis commercial showing the Tommies going off to the first World War. It's one of the most desirable parts of the city. Yet when Nick Broomfield filmed his Who Cares documentary in 1971 they were busy demolishing some of the houses further down the street.
The houses in Edge Hill are a bit newer and not quite as grand as those on Falkner Street, but that just means they're more suitable as single-family homes. Lots of the Georgian terraces have been broken up into flats as there's not the same demand for eight bedroom houses now we don't have servants.
Conveniently the Google street view car passed through Edge Hill before the demolition, so I can do a few "now and then" shots. I've taken a copy of the street view images to save you having to click through and also because they'll presumably change at some point in the future, but if you follow the links you can explore what the area used to be like. There are some more photos of the area (and the location of the old Edge Hill college) over in my Edge Hill photos page.
Traffic lights by the Durning Arms: Google street view
End of Uxbridge Street: Google street view
Is this really the best we could do? Turning streets into a ghost town for a few years, then flattening them and handing them over to a developer to throw up something cheap and cheerful? It might be the easiest and cheapest option in the short term, but I don't see how it's going to achieve anything approaching regeneration of the area in the longer term.
UPDATE: There's a follow-up musical bonus track for this post.
Out for another bike ride today and I've found a much better route that runs to just over six and a half miles without lots of to-ing and fro-ing in Sefton Park. It still takes in both Princes Park and Sefton Park, and adds in a lengthy ride along the bank of the river. It's the first time I've been along that stretch of the river - the marina and housing is all very nice but it's just one huge soulless housing estate isn't it? Are there any shops or things that aren't houses or offices down there?
A couple of things lately have reminded me how little exercise I've been getting, and how much I enjoy it.
A few weekends ago John McKerrell and I threw our bikes onto the train and headed up to Southport. From there we set off down the Trans Pennine Trail to see how far we could get in the day. Having not done any training, and having only just gotten my bike back on the road (the gear cable had stuck, giving me only one gear - resulting in hardly any cycling over the winter) I wasn't expecting to get too far. In the end we made it all the way down to Widnes, and then cycled over the bridge to Runcorn station to catch the train back. When I checked my bike computer at the end of the day I was rather amazed to find we'd done 38 miles.
And then over the weekend I spent an enjoyable couple of hours throwing a frisbee round with some mates in a park in London. I haven't played frisbee since I used to head down to Parkers Piece in Cambridge to play ultimate frisbee in around 2005.
This afternoon I decided to get out of the flat and get a bit of exercise. So I headed through Princes Park and into Sefton Park. You can see where I went on the map below (although the orange trail isn't that easy to see against the map)
Both parks had plenty of people out enjoying the weather and jogging, walking and cycling, and there were the odd games of football or rounders. I even found the boating lake on Sefton Park but didn't spot any boats out on it - maybe it hasn't reopened yet after the refurbishment of the park.
So this summer I want to get back into being a bit more active. The only problem is finding some people to play sport with. There are plenty of five-a-side leagues and such, but I'm not looking for anything so serious. What I want is the sort of groups I knew in Cambridge - people who are up for a regular, friendly, anyone-can-play game of football (anything from 3-a-side through to 10-a-side), or game of ultimate frisbee. Rounders or softball would even be a possibility. A social trip to the pub afterwards wouldn't go amiss either, but isn't an essential.
Does anyone know of anything like that in the centre of Liverpool? Or is anyone up for joining me to start getting out to enjoy the summer and get some exercise?
On the evening of Thursday 29th April I went along to the Philharmonic Hall with a couple of friends to see a rather rare occasion - a Gil Scott-Heron gig. I haven't had chance to write-up the event so far on my blog, but I don't want to leave the occasion unrecorded.
It was an amazing gig. One of the best gigs I've attended. I can't imagine how good he'd have been to see in his prime - the banter with the audience was superb, and the songs fantastic. The guy is, understandably, a legend.
And if you don't know who I'm talking about, have a listen to this (which was the probably the stand-out track of the evening) and go check out his back catalogue ("I Think I'll Call it Morning", "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Lady Day and John Coltrane" are personal favourites)
The video of my Ignite Liverpool talk is now up online, so if you'd like to watch it, here it is...
The rest of the videos from the first event can be found on Defnetmedia's YouTube channel.
Following the success of the first event, we held the second the Thursday before last. Our turnaround time of getting the videos online has been quicker this time. You can see them all over on this Defnetmedia page, and read the write-up on the LDP Creative blog.
Inspired by Britain's adaptation of American-style debates, my friend Deena DeNaro is organizing American-style debate watching parties at local pubs in Liverpool and challenging people in other cities to do the same. The first one will be this Thursday (22nd April) at Hannah's Bar on Leece Street.
Doors are 6:30pm. The debate itself starts at 8pm, but turn up earlier to get yourself some food and catch the build-up...
Debate will be on Sky from 8-9.30 pm followed by moderated responses from the audience.
Join us in Liverpool’s original New York bar for burgers, beer and democratic dialoging. We are still looking for a venue for the 29 April debate. To RSVP - use Plancast. The Plan is here: http://plancast.com/a/2qmu
O'Reilly, the tech book publisher, organises a series of events under the banner of Ignite and a group of us are bringing the format to Liverpool as part of O'Reilly's Global Ignite Week.
It'll be a series of talks on a variety of topics, loosely based round the themes of technology, social or politics. Each talk consists of exactly 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds, so even if one of the talks isn't up your street, it'll be over in five minutes and there'll be something different to look forward to.
We're holding it at the new Art and Design Academy, next to the Metropolitan Cathedral, from 6pm-8pm on Thursday 4th March.
We've still got a couple of slots available for presenters. If you fancy giving it a crack (and you don't have to be a seasoned presenter, we're more than happy for presenting newbies to give a talk too) then just email a brief (50-100 words) outline to firstname.lastname@example.org by 24th February and we will inform you if you have been chosen by Friday 26th February.
And feel free to share details of the event with anyone you think might be interested. See http://ignite.oreilly.com/2010/02/global-ignite-week-liverpool-uk.html for the full links and info.
Reading Julian Dobson's recent article Warning: Dementors at large reminded me of a bit of neighbourhood tidying that's happened here in Liverpool. It was probably just done by the owner of the building, rather than the council or as part of the Baltic Triangle regeneration going on in the area, but it provides some anecdotal evidence of how an intended improvement could affect the delicate threads of activity that it seeks to encourage.
The building in question is next-door to the Novas centre, which was the location of the first Liverpool Barcamp back in December 2008. At the time, I'd decided to give a talk to try to encourage more entrepreneurial and creative activity but had only started putting the slides together on the morning of the second day of the event.
I had the words done, but was looking for suitable images to accompany them when John McKerrell pointed me to a photo he'd taken earlier that day of some graffiti on the building opposite.
The slogan on the mural summed up my call to action perfectly - "First rule of the cosmos: get off your arse and make it happen" - and ended up as the final slide in my talk Don't Just Change the World... Improve It!.
I don't know how much action my talk inspired, but it did have some effect. Just the other day in an email, a friend explained what an upcoming meeting was about:
"I am meeting [him] to give him the obligatory 'Get off your arse and make it happen' (c) McEwen 2008 talk"
So, just a nice fluffy "man gives talk partly inspired by graffiti, at least one person was listening" story, but one that shows the potential unintended consequences of such "tidying and improving" as the clean-up of the graffitied building that's happened since then...
This is what the graffiti looks like now:
Good job Barcamp Liverpool happened when it did.
On New Year's Day I wanted to get out of the house for a bit and went for a walk. As is often the case in such time, I found myself drawn down to the river. As I neared the Pier Head, I passed this poster, stuck up by the North-West Development Agency (the regional regeneration quango) to help hide an ugly old concrete building awaiting demolition and remind us of the good work they're doing. (Just as an aside, the much more attractive stripey building to the left of the picture is the old offices of White Star Lines, owners of The Titanic).
I've seen it before, but this time it struck me that the choice of language sums up what irks me about the whole regeneration question.
We make big things happen.
People of Liverpool rejoice. The NWDA is sorting everything out for us. At best, this sends the message that the inhabitants themselves don't need to do anything because the NWDA is taking care of it all. That's lovely, but what happens if the government decide to scrap the RDAs?
At worst, it steals the credit for any improvements from the people responsible and presents it all as the work of the NWDA.
This is one of the classic signs of a bad manager or a bad leader, and it's particularly disappointing for a regeneration agency to fall into the trap. Surely the ultimate sign of success for a regeneration quango is to make itself obsolete? And to do that it needs to empower and lead the people to where they realise they can do it themselves - not to hoard any scraps of success under its own flag.
A few weeks ago, Michael Dales recommended the Joyous Machines exhibition at Tate Liverpool to me. I've had a busy few weeks, but having got some work completed and invoiced yesterday, I rewarded myself with a trip down to see what it was like.
Michael's right, it was the sort of thing that's right up my street. It was great to see that someone (Jean Tinguely) was experimenting with making art from motors and bits of metal and wood in the 1960s, and there are some really nice intricate workings to the pieces. Lots of bent steel wire, cogs and pulleys - I was as interested in the mechanisms as the art part of it. Naturally, I came away with a head full of ideas about how you could reinterpret the themes for a modern day and incorporate some form of external data source as a driver for the mechanism.
I did also think that some Arduinos could've been usefully employed to improve the display of some of the artworks. As they're getting a bit old and fragile, some only worked for one minute in every fifteen, but there was no way to know when the time period would be up; they weren't on a regular schedule, there were nice chunky red-domed buttons mounted on the floor to start the machines, so something triggered off that to run a simple countdown display would've let you know if it was worth waiting around to see it in action.
It's a shame that none of the sonorous pieces were set up to work - from looking at the mechanism (and from watching the video of the Homage to New York piece) there seemed some interesting mechanisms for making sounds, and I'd have loved to have seen and heard them in action.
It was also disappointing that the meta-machines weren't operating yesterday. The machine-drawn artworks they produced reminded me of the vibrobots and brushbots from Howduino events, although produced with more elaborate mechanicals.
But, minor gripes aside, a lovely exhibition for anyone into tinkering, brushbot art and the like. You've got a couple more weeks to catch it - it finishes on 10th January.
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?
For a while now I've kept catching glimpses of a strangely coloured building lit up near the university when travelling to or from home when it's dark. It's not really on any of my usual routes around the city, so I'd never quite worked out where it was or what the building was. Tonight I went for a wander to track it down and capture some pictures of it to share.
It turns out it's the Active Learning Laboratory, part of the Engineering Department at the University of Liverpool. It's on Brownlow Hill, just behind the Metropolitan Cathedral and next-door to the very different but similarly splendid Victoria Building.
It wasn't the best night to try filming things, it's very windy - particularly up on the top of the crypt at the cathedral - and bit chilly. Of course, once I'd found a decent vantage point, it had finished the more impressive part of the colour cycling sequence, which is why this video is so long. Skip to about eight minutes in to get to some of the prettier colour changes.
It's hard to convey with the video, especially as it's just recorded on my N95, but the colours are really vibrant in the flesh and it must be three or four storeys of lighting - almost floating a couple of storeys off the ground. You can get a better idea of the scale from this video, taken from a little way down the hill. The cathedral is just off camera to the right, and the clock tower illuminated in the background is on Victoria Building.
This video also captures the most interesting colour changes that I saw, with the colours in vertical bands flowing round the building and merging into each other.
There's surprisingly little information about it on the university's own website, but I did find this article about the opening from the Liverpool Daily Post and here's another article with technical details about the LED lighting and a video showing off its capabilities.
Yesterday a few of us from the Liverpool Hackspace group went down to Static for a day of playing around with electronics to make
music noises. It was an event called Interface Amnesty, organised by Sound Network as a fringe event for the Abandon Normal Devices Festival. Is that enough links?
The day was split into two parts. First off was a Maker Faire-style show-and-tell where people were demonstrating what they'd made, and then in the evening the space was cleared of trestle tables and a few of the artists present gave performances of their work.
Most of the rest of the people with stalls at the event were just showing off what they'd already made. We were embracing the hackspace mentality, and were building stuff as well as showing things that were finished.
It took us about three-quarters of an hour to get an Auduino up and running, which was pretty good given that it was my mate Andrew doing the building, and he hadn't even touched an Arduino before yesterday morning. So that build time includes him downloading the Arduino IDE and getting it installed on his laptop.
I hadn't heard the Audino before, but was impressed with how good it sounds, and it's just five potentiometers and an Arduino. You could build one for much less than £30. Plenty of the other musicians there were really impressed with what a lovely noise it makes.
Our "already made" contribution came from Ross. At the past couple of hackspace meetings he's been playing around with infra-red distance sensors, an Arduino and some python MIDI code and had got his IR Guitar ready just in time for the event.
I think the next step is getting the distance from the sensor to control something, such as different notes or different volume, but waving your hands about in mid-air is a fun way to play an instrument.
I had hoped to build some of the Chiptune Orchestra instruments too, but although I'd made sure I'd bought all the parts I needed from their partslist, I didn't spot that there isn't a circuit diagram available yet. We did start playing around building an oscillator circuit with the chips I'd bought, but there was too much going on to really get stuck into it. Maybe at the next hackspace meeting...
The music in the evening was a great way to round off a fun day. If I remember correctly, the line up was...
PixelH8, playing songs on his Nintendo DS synth.
Then Mike Blow played a couple of pieces, including this atmospheric one built up from a field recording in a tunnel under the river Elbe. I'm still not quite sure how he managed to get the cathedral bells outside to start up at such a perfect time in the dying moments of the work.
Stretta was up next. I can't find anything that shows what his stuff was like to experience live, but this video and about 3 minutes into this video give you an idea of the sorts of thing he was playing with and using to create his music. The Monone interfaces he was using are beautifully designed and made.
And the night finished with The Amazing Rolo playing stuff through his Wiimote software and his musical jam jars. You can get an idea of what it was like by watching this, but there's more music on his website.
If you've been reading McFilter for a while then you might remember me talking about the superb talks from the TED conference. I even collected some of them together into the TED Taster DVD.
So I was really excited to hear that Liverpool will be hosting the first of the TEDxNorth mini-conferences, on the 7th August. The conferences are a series being put on across the North by Herb Kim (of Thinking Digital fame) along with local partners (ICDC and Kisky Netmedia here in Liverpool), and feature a mix of TED videos with live talks.
It seems there's a bit of theme to each of the events, and the Liverpool one seems to be taking a bit of a "post digital" direction, with Alison Gow from the Daily Post, Steve Clayton from Microsoft showing off the multi-touch Surface table, and Alex from Tinker.it (my nomination for Ada Lovelace day 2009) no doubt talking all things Arduino and hardware prototyping.
Full details on the TEDx Liverpool website.
Following up from my recent post about Liverpool Architecture Society's Integrated City Project: there's now some information up on the LAS website.
And please say hello if you spot me there.
A few days ago I found out about a project that the Liverpool Architecture Society is in the process of launching. The Integrated City Project is a challenge to look at ways of reconnecting the various districts and areas of Liverpool and working out a cohesive set of suggestions and plans for how best to develop the city.
There isn't anything as yet on the LAS website, but the LAS President elect, Robert MacDonald, has kindly agreed to let me publish the details in a web-friendly format here.
I'm not exactly sure how I can help with the project, but it seems that it could be a great opportunity (and possibly that final push that I need) to try out some of the really interesting "civic software" initiatives that are springing up.
Could the findings feed into a set of requirements for some DIYCity.org projects?
Would something like the Sutton Green Map help inform people about amenities, planning and infrastructure issues?
Can we experiment with the recently released source code for EveryBlock?
Of course, it's quite possible that this is the sort of technology-focused response that fails miserably because it's targeted at the iPhone-wielding web native. But I think there are ways round that, and that's maybe where the geeks of Liverpool can help - rather than just installing all these whizzy Web2.0 services, we can extend them and look for ways to integrate them into peoples lives. Maybe text-messaging can provide enough interaction and richness to bootstrap the service; or we could integrate with The Newspaper Club to provide hyper-local, customised paper versions of the content; or work with local shopkeepers to install simple information kiosks... We'll need to work out what the problems really are first, but if services like this are useful then the technical challenges can be overcome.
I don't want to publish Robert's email address online, so if you want to find out more or get involved with the project then let me know and I'll happily pass your details on. My email address is over on the left.
Just imagine a ‘do it yourself’ city. Crises in government organisation and financial development are leading towards the self organisation of people in urban situations. Liverpool Citizens need encouragement to take creative and cultural urban control of architecture and inner city developments.
As an upbeat creative response to the economic recession, The Liverpool Architectural Society (established 1848) and others are planning a positive city wide project as part of the forthcoming cultural years of the Environment and Innovation. The society aims to address architectural, cultural, planning and social issues in the Inner and Outer City of Liverpool. The LAS aims to be inspired by local communities and situations. Multi-professional teams of architects, landscape architects, artists, students and communities will set out to create a series of practical and theoretical urban propositions for the inner city. A locally designed and constructed integrated light rail tram system is also being considered as a way of re-connecting different parts of the fragmented Inner City.
Currently, the Inner City is very much a hollow vessel without people. It needs new urban activity and density. In 1931 the overall population was 857, 247 and in 2002 the population was 441,500. In Merseyside, 83,000 jobs were lost between 1981 and 1986, representing 1 in 3 jobs. The average annual income in Liverpool was £7,363 in 2001, which was £4,127 under the national average. Unemployment is well above the national average. The biggest single knowledge gap is that we do not know whether the vacant land and empty building problem is getting worst, or better, or staying the same. The population increase in the 12,000 of new build apartments, in recent years, has been in the City Centre. Why has the inner city and outer areas been excluded and disconnected from these new developments ? The LAS ambition is to include the Inner City in future speculative visions for the city.
The best way to appreciate the shrinking Inner City and polarisation of Outer City of Liverpool is to just take a short walk out from the City Centre or take a bus ride to The Dingle, Toxteth, Kensington, Edge Hill or Walton or Seaforth. Any number of empty buildings, houses and vacant sites immediately become apparent. These neighbourhoods, districts and locations will be the focus of The Integrated City Project (see adjacent map, copyright James Mellor) This map highlights 33 urban districts including Speke and Garston. There are also numerous zones of vacancy ‘inbetween’ the perceived urban neighbourhoods.
The urban design methodology will be to invite 33 independent and autonomous teams of designers to adopt one the Urban Districts or neighbourhoods. Each group will then be invited, over a twelve month period, to develop local contacts and participate with their communities to create new Urban Models for the neighbourhoods. The community connections might include Liverpool City Council, Merseyside Network for Change, Tenants Spin, City Planners, industrialists,developers, schools, businesses, creative industries, social groups, libraries, hospitals, health centres, GP’s, public houses, cultural, sports and entertainment. This process of design participation will be recorded by public progress presentations.
The objective will be to hold an exhibition in a Major Public Venue in 2010 attracting National profile and publicity. The 33 individual projects will be presented as 1.500 models, photographs of the inner city communities, illustrations of the new projects, interactive multi-media, film and moving image. The Liverpool City Council will be invited to take a lead and participate by displaying the updated Shankland City Centre Model. There will be opportunities for public participation, sponsorship, either financial or in kind with the involvement of various city wide agencies.
It was on Saturday 9th May and I'd just returned from a chaotic week in Germany. It was full of passionate people trying to work out what could be done to help sustainability, but by the end of the day I was getting rather frustrated with how we were defining the Manifesto for Change by what we were against, rather than looking for aspirational and more positive directions to channel our energies. Sadly I was wiped out after my week away (where I'd also acquired a cold) and so wasn't up to engaging with my fellow attendees, so I just retracted into my digital shell and heckled them electronically.
Before reaching that point, however, I did present some thoughts about the growing co-working and hackspace scenes. The flexible working and community-building that seems to come with such spaces could fall easily into a more sustainable way of working. And to meet my aforementioned aspirational and positive approach I even ended with a rather grand vision for how such a movement might evolve here in Liverpool.
I'll leave anyone interested to find more details by reading through my slides, but by all means get in touch if you'd like to know more...
There are notes with the slides, but they don't seem to have come out in the Slideshare presentation. If you download the Powerpoint deck for the slides you'll be able to get an idea of what I was talking about when giving the presentation.
On Saturday 23rd May, a collection of about thirty geeks, coders, artists and complete novices took over the Gallery 1 space at FACT for a day of learning about hardware hacking and working on interesting projects to fuse computing power with the real world.
Howduino was an event hatched up by Thom Shannon and me, and the space at FACT was a perfect location for it. There was a big screen where I ran my "Getting started with Arduino" talk, and plenty of big work tables where people could spread out their tools, soldering irons, laptops and projects as they worked on them.
We weren't quite sure what to expect, given the wide range of abilities from the attendees (from the architecture students who had no knowledge but lots of enthusiasm, to the similarly enthusiastic but much more experienced Aaron from .:oomlout:.) but after a quick run round the room for everyone to introduce themselves, people seemed to find groups to work in and share knowledge.
I think our use of the wiki before the event was vital, as it meant that people had an idea about what projects were available to be tackled, which helped us organise people into groups - we had a quick "hands up if you're interested in X" for each project on the wiki, and then people could find each other afterwards to get started. It also meant that people could work out what components they'd need beforehand, and so come prepared.
By mid-afternoon there was a real buzz in the air, as people helped each other out, traded parts and some real progress was being made by on the projects. It seemed a shame to break up such a productive community, which meant that we left it a bit too late to start wrapping up the day. That was my biggest regret - we didn't get chance to share what everyone had achieved during the event, but it's been great to see the blog posts filtering out over the following weeks as things get finished.
That also meant it was hard to work out what to do about the prizes we had. The guys from O'Reilly who I met at Maker Faire had very generously sent us some book vouchers, t-shirts and an i-Sobot robot, and initially we'd planned to have a number of categories for "Best project", "Most ambitious project", "Most components killed in the pursuit of hardware hacking", etc. However, as most projects were group efforts, and the groups were formed by people who'd only met on the day, it seemed a bit hard to work out who would get the prize; so in the end we held a raffle amongst all the attendees. It seemed to fit the collaborative, helping-each-other-to-achieve-cool-things vibe to the day.
It also means I don't have an easy way to run through what was built on the day, so I'll just list them as I remember them (and include links where I can). We had...
What could we have done better?
The biggest problem with any hackday is the amount of time you have. Ideally we'd make Howduino a weekend event, as that would give people time to get something significant finished. I'd also see if there's a more hands-on way to get people started wth Arduinos. Maybe I could give a shortened version of my talk, so people could get the basics and then get started on a project; but also have a longer, more practical session for people who wanted a bit more hand-holding through getting things working. And maybe run a "driving motors with H-bridges" session, as lots of people were trying to do that, and possibly combine that, or run it just after, a session to harvest stepper motors from old printers or floppy drives.
Back from a whirlwind trip to Essen in Germany for the Kiosk and Digital Signage Expo, I've barely time to catch up on my emails before the next event I'm attending...
Tomorrow I'll be heading down to FACT in the centre of Liverpool for an interesting-looking unconference. The Unsustainable Unconference is part of their "Climate for Change" programme (which is also hosting both Be2Camp North and Howduino).
Follow the link above, or have a look at the flyer below for more information, and come and say hello if you spot me there tomorrow.
Jon Udell is in the middle of another project demonstrating what he does best on the Internet, and what he has been doing time and again since I first started following his work back in the BYTE magazine days.
He's working out simple but effective ways to weave together the tools available on the 'net to make it a more coherent and more useful place. This time his focus is on community calendars.
He's avoided the typical programmer trap of trying to automate everything, and instead is looking at ways to build tools that automate what can be automated, and ease the work required to be done by hand.
I've been following the project with interest, as I think a centralized grouping of all the event data for an area is an invaluable resource for the community. Jon is building such an item for his local area, but it only scales when other people take the lead of curating the event listings in their cities.
This blog post is in lieu of me actually getting the Liverpool listings up and running with Jon's system. When I've got a spare couple of hours sometime (so probably after Be2Camp North and Howduino) then I'll re-read Jon's blog posts and work out what I need to do.
Until then, I'm going to start collecting any Liverpool-related calendars I find online on my delicious account, and will tag them with "Liverpool" and "calendar". If anyone wants to help, then they can either tag any links in delicious themselves and I can pick them up, or leave a comment with the details in here.
Back in October I had a day down in London for an un-conference looking at what happens when the Web meets the built environment. It covered all sorts of topics, from ways to better manage email overload to using 3D sketching software to engage communities in regeneration work. Since the event there's been an ongoing community of attendees sustained on Twitter, and continued discussion about the next event.
I'm pleased to announce that I'm helping to organise the second Be2Camp event, and better still, we're hosting it here in Liverpool.
Be2Camp North is being held at FACT on Friday 15th May. It will be somewhere between an un-conference and a normal conference, with an idea of the day's sessions being fleshed out beforehand. Head over to the Be2Camp North topics page to see what's being planned, or suggest something yourself.
Or just sign up and come along to debate and learn more about the ways that computing can help construction, architecture and our built environment.
This article on the Liverpool Daily Post's Dale Street Blues blog earlier caught my eye - Guest blog: How to improve local government. It's about an interesting project called the Liverpool Commission to look into ways that local government could improve how it interacts with the electorate. Obviously, I think there could be interesting ways that social media and technology in general can help to improve the debate, and I'd like to see if there's any way that I or the rest of the Liverpool geek community could help out.
The Daily Post article is rather low on links to more information, and given my recent experiences with the Year of the Environment it was with some trepidation that I googled for "Liverpool Commission".
Thankfully my fears were unfounded. The first result returned was for a post on Councillor Paula Keaveney's blog about a recent Commission meeting. Not only that, but she seems to blog quite frequently, which is excellent news.
So, Cllr Keaveney - can we have a chat sometime about Liverpool Commission and how the web might help?
Back in November I posted a link to some details on the Year of the Environment. The details were pretty sketchy and it seemed quite late that things were being announced, particularly with all the talk of needing to maintain the momentum built up over the Capital of Culture year.
I'd have thought that now we're in February things would've been announced, and maybe even starting to happen, but I haven't seen any evidence of it. FACT are running a Climate for Change season to tie in with it, but the council have been pretty quiet on the matter.
I'm not the only person to notice. David Connor has just written about it over on his blog, and mentions that my earlier blog post about it currently ranks top of Google for the search "Liverpool Year of the Environment". And he's not the only person to end up here whilst looking for information about the Year of the Environment - 35 other people have landed at McFilter after searching for that on Google in the past month alone.
I completely agree with David when he says:
"I’m not expecting the Local Authority to drive this alone, or even expect any of their environmental partners to fly the flag. We all have a responsibility to play our part regardless of a themed year or where you live or work.
Can we please grasp this opportunity to maintain the momentum of Capital of Culture and direct that energy into a better place for our children and grandchildren?"
It does seem to be an opportunity being missed. Maybe I'll find out some more at the Liverpool Environment Network Open Meeting that's on tomorrow as Cllr Berni Turner will be speaking there after lunch. I'll report back if I find anything out.
No self-respecting river can be without a Twitter account these days. If the River Thames has one then it's about time that the River Mersey was twittering too.
Rather than go on about the tides, I thought it would be more interesting to get a feel for the traffic using the river.
From his office in Tower Building, my granddad used to be able to look out over the river and see the ships coming and going. I'm a bit further away from the river, but I've knocked together a simple service to watch the ships for me and then twitter about them. I might not be able to see them (unless I walk round to the other side of the cathedral) but by following @merseyshipping on Twitter I still get to hear what's happening.
Another piece of news that first featured in my twitter feed was the fact that I won the "Bitchin' Pitches" session at Barcamp Liverpool when I talked about the Mazzini project. It's been great to hear such positive things from people about it, and over on the company blog you can read more about the competition.
In the run up to Barcamp Liverpool I set myself a challenge, and was even stupid enough to spell out the rather ambitious idea here on my blog. I decided to prepare two talks: the beginners guide to Arduino I've already posted; and a second which would be about inspiring people to start a business, or work out what's "wrong" with Liverpool and fix it, or use technology to counter climate change.
I didn't want to steal two slots in the schedule if that would stop someone else from presenting anything, so I held off adding the second talk until late morning on Sunday. There was a slot free for the end of the day, which fitted nicely with my ideas of rounding off the weekend with something of a call to arms.
I tried to pull the possible threads together under the umbrella term of improving the world, but I think my current business-focus skewed things a little. Still, I hope the dozen-or-so people present take the general idea and twist it to their own experiences and passions, and that me rambling about doing great things does have some small effect.
I've done what I can, whether this is "the spark that started things happening" will be up to others.
As ever, the slides are on Slideshare. After the talk, Alex asked about the assorted business networking events I'd mentioned, so I've thrown a list of places that I find out about business events and networking onto the GeekUp wiki. Feel free to add to that if you know of any similar links in the NW. The other way to find out about more of the events I attend is to keep an eye on my Upcoming page.
This is the first of a couple of posts I'll no doubt be making about Barcamp Liverpool - this one being the easiest to get out into the world.
I did a session about getting started with Arduino physical computing boards on Saturday afternoon. I talked a little bit about what the Arduino boards are first, and then stepped through the ubicomp equivalent to "Hello World" and from that moved on to hacking a toy ray gun so that it would alert me whenever someone twittered about Barcamp Liverpool. I'll expand upon the twitter side of things more when I write-up Bubblino...
Here are the slides. When I was writing them I tried to make them make sense if you weren't at the talk, but if anything isn't clear then ask questions in the comments.
In a couple of weeks it's the first Barcamp Liverpool. One of the "rules" of Barcamps is that everyone who turns up should have a talk ready that they offer to present. I've been pondering over what I should prepare for my talk.
So far I've generally hinted at doing something Arduino-related, and have been assuming I'd either talk about monitoring your home (show the Mazzini prototype, talk about that and some of the similar projects from others, or some of the things I learn about at Homecamp); or running a more general "Getting started with Arduino" session where I plug some LEDs and a switch into a breadboard and write a bit of Arduino code. And I expect I'll still have something along those lines as one of my proposals.
However, I've just realised that I should be turning my thinking on its head. Rather than coming up with ideas based on the knowledge that I've got that others might find interesting, I should instead be answering the question:
You've got the attention of a couple-of-dozen motivated and intelligent geeks; how do you want to change their lives?
Now you could improve their knowledge, which is what my initial ideas cover; but maybe it would be better to inspire them to go out and improve the world, or challenge their thinking and affect their future behaviour.
I'm setting myself the challenge to go to Barcamp Liverpool with two proposals: one along the lines of the Arduino tutorial, and another that falls into the second category. I'm just not sure what it will be about. Maybe I'll talk about starting and building businesses that make a difference; or lead a brainstorming session to work out what's going wrong in Liverpool and how to fix it; or implore people to find ways to improve the reuse and recycling of technology to improve the environment; or...
I'd love to hear anyone's ideas, comments or thoughts on what this second proposal should aim to achieve. I'd love it even more if you came along to Barcamp Liverpool and presented something along these lines to inspire me. How cool would it be if we could point to Barcamp Liverpool as the spark that started things happening?
Software City held its second annual event last week. It's a Liverpool software networking and pitch-to-investors event which sees a collection of companies present their ideas to a panel of advisors/investors (including ex-Dragon Richard Farleigh this year) who respond with some questions and suggestions. The rest of us watch and take the opportunity to chat to peers (i.e. others in the software business, not a collection of Lords), investors, development agency representatives and other hangers-on during the breaks and post-event drinks.
It was a good event and I made some useful contacts, including finding out about the NWDA's hi-growth business funding/assistance scheme and discovering that one-man offices are available on Liverpool Innovation Park for less than £150/month.
In lieu of a proper review, I'll just mention some of the more interesting companies who pitched during the event. Maybe they'll be some of the future stars I was looking for recently...
Momote have a cross-platform mobile phone development platform. I thought that's what J2ME was supposed to be, but looking at their website it seems more of an XML-based offering. That reminds me of the stuff I worked on back at Trigenix before they were bought by Qualcomm. I'd be interested to find out more about it, and see how their offering is different from the ones tried before.
These guys are building some cool new devices to let you get more active with your games console. In a similar vein to the Wiimote for the Wii, but they have controllers for PS3 and XBox in addition to the Wii. They've got the jOG on sale already, which lets you jog on the spot to get your in-game character to move around, and have another product in development which also notices when you crouch down or jump.
Yuuguu were the only company I'd heard of before, although I didn't really understand what they offer. I've got more of an idea now - they're trying to help people collaborate remotely by offering a product to let you IM, share your desktop and audio conference.
They want to make it easy to enable adhoc collaboration, without having to book phone conference sessions, etc. and now have integration with existing IM networks and the ability for users to collaborate with people who don't have the Yuuguu software installed by accessing the service through their web browser. I think they need to let people use it purely in the browser too, as that will help get over the initial "not sure I want to download and install yet another bit of software" reluctance.
Should I pitch at Software City 2009?
Following on from a successful year as Capital of Culture, next year sees Liverpool focus on the environment. Up until recently though I didn't know much more than that. No-one seemed to have any idea of what the plans were, or who was involved in making it happen.
Information about it is starting to leak out. Last week I attended the first part of the Trade Waste Management & Computer Security event at the new BT Convention Centre where Councillor Berni Turner outlined what they're planning.
And before I'd had time to write-up my notes and publish them here, the details have been released on the Liverpool City Council website.
I think the most interesting ideas are the green ambassadors and the hosting of special events to encourage debate about environmental issues in each of Liverpool's five neighbourhoods.
Hopefully I'll be able to find out a bit more about getting involved before January. I wonder if anyone wants to help me build/fund a live energy usage display for the city...?
Life seems to be a whirlwind of networking events at the minute, which is how I managed to have signed up for last Thursday's Life Is Too Short To Go Unnoticed without really knowing what it entailed. It's strange how the world sometimes throws you exactly what you need, and an opportunity to work on the business rather than in it was something I was looking forward to.
Quarter of an hour in and I was beginning to have reservations. It seemed to be shaping up to a formulaic "here's lots of snippets about successful companies, you should try to be more like them" - the kind of event where you sit there nodding and thinking "oh, how clever", but once you get back to your business you realise that you haven't discovered a new way of doing anything. I was even wondering how I could find a game card so I could play Buzzword Bingo.
However, that was just the presenters, John Leach and Simon Bailey from Winning Pitch, warming up. They started to win me over during the second presentation, when John pulled up a slide entitled "The UK Sales Mentality". Pictured below were Del Boy, Arthur Daley and Frank Butcher, and John set about explaining how he hates shows like The Apprentice and Natural Born Sellers with their ultra-competitive, win-at-all-costs sales mentality.
From there I enjoyed the rest of the day. They encouraged interaction with the attendees and had a few practical exercises which helped us to start applying their ideas to our own situation. At the start of the day they outlined their objective, which was for everyone to find the top three tasks to have completed (the first step of) before the end of Friday, and at the end we each took our turn to share some of them with the rest of the group.
The business plan is the big task from that. It's also the one I've been putting off for the longest. I'm quite annoyed with myself, and a little amazed, that I've avoided it for so long. I'm a strong advocate for having a plan, regardless of whether or not you manage to follow it to completion. I'd almost suggest creating a plan and then immediately throwing it away, as the process of working out your route forces you to think about what you want and how you might get there. Your subconscious is then primed so that it can spot opportunities when they present themselves. I doubt that you'll end up where you thought you'd be when you wrote the plan, but I bet that it's a better place than you'd have ended up if you hadn't made one.
I didn't manage to get my three tasks started by the end of Friday, but that's because I already had the day earmarked to finish my VAT return. So I've given myself an extension till the end of the weekend, and am well on my way to achieving that. I haven't been able to work on the Mazzini prototype because I'm not at home, but the first draft of the plan was done yesterday, and I'm pulling together a list of the funding opportunities today.
Techcrunch UK has written again this week about the need for a technology centre (a la Silicon Valley) in the UK and how it might be happening in London. As usual, there's been a ripple of debate in these parts about the article, and whether there is, or should be, more of a scene here in the North West.
It hasn't stirred up as much debate as such items in the past, and I wasn't going to bother commenting on it until I read an article about it by Rob Knight.
He argues that there's a good case for having such a tech hub in the NW and cites the great developer community as one of his top reasons. He also says that "[if] there’s anything that the North does badly, it’s probably self-promotion."
I hope he's right, because I can't list any big or up-and-coming companies from the area who are doing interesting things. And I've been keeping an eye out for them.
It's strange, because there is such a coherent and active developer community, and there are many more networking opportunities and discussions going on in Liverpool, Manchester, and the surrounding area than I encountered in Cambridge, and yet...
There seem to be a lot more people working to build things for other companies rather than chasing ambitious projects to change the world. If we do want the NW to become a tech centre then we need to get on and build it, which is why I've moved here. At GeekUp Liverpool the other night, John mentioned that it would be great to get some big tech companies into Liverpool, and I'll extend what I said to him to the rest of the North-West - that's a great idea, what's your big company going to do?
It was announced a month or so back, but the tickets for the upcoming BarCamp Liverpool are now available.
It's a two-day un-conference taking place on the 6th and 7th December 2008. I've just booked my ticket, so I'll see you there...
This sign is on Leece Street, and I pass it almost every time I head home from the centre of Liverpool. There are more dotted around the city, part of the Biennial I think, but this one seems particularly appropriate given the current world events.
This week has seen me out almost every night at some sort of networking/social gathering. I even had to miss watching the Champions League game on Wednesday and so missed seeing Gerrard get his century.
On Tuesday evening I was at 3345 Parr Street for this month's Liverpool GeekUp. Dave Verwer gave an interesting talk where he built a little iPhone app in less than 20 minutes. iPhone development doesn't look too tricky, and there seem to be a collection of "pattern" apps to help get you started. Dave's main recommendation is to get to grips with Cocoa development in general, and then the jump to iPhone dev is fairly easy.
There was a larger turnout than last month, but once again everyone was welcoming and I got to chat to lots of interesting people. I also seem to have agreed to give a talk about something, probably Arduinos. It might be a month or two before I've worked out exactly what though...
Thursday night was another geeky get together, but this time the Liverpool Linux Users Group. The OpenStreetMap talk had to be cancelled as they couldn't get their usual room and so it was just a drink-and-chat session in the bar at FACT.
The membership seems a little geekier, and less business-y, than the GeekUp crowd, but isn't full of rabid free-software advocates arguing over which Linux distro is best. I even survived admitting that I used to work for the Evil Empire (aka Microsoft).
Last but by no means least, yesterday evening I headed to Doctor Duncan's for the Liverpool Green Drinks evening.
Doctor Duncan's is one of Cains Brewery's pubs with a great range of their ales on tap. I was on the IPA last night, and I'll have to work through the rest at future Green Drinks nights. It's also a lovely old building with the walls in the room we were in decorated with ornate tiles.
It made a refreshing change to be the only geek there and I had an enjoyable evening chatting with a variety of people from environmental consultants to architects.
I think I'll be attending all of the gatherings in future, although hopefully they won't all fall back-to-back every month.
Well, we're finally here in Liverpool with Internet access and everything. It feels like an age since I left Torino, mainly because - err - it was over a month ago.
Things have been a bit hectic: first off finding somewhere to live (we've got a gorgeous apartment in the shadow of one of the cathedrals); then gathering all the possessions that we left scattered around the country when we headed off to Italy; sorting out utilities, phone, Internet; and finally buying a flat's-worth of furniture as the new place is unfurnished and all our existing furniture is being rented out to some nice people down in Cambridge still.
We managed most of the furniture buying in a day-long trawl of second-hand shops (the old church at the top of Upper Parliament Street is great) and charity shops around Liverpool and have some great buys. Lounge, dining room and bedroom fully furnished for £400. Result.
Most of the boxes have been unpacked now, and we've been venturing out exploring some of what the city has to offer. This weekend you couldn't miss the grand spectacle of La Princesse, a giant 50-ft steampunk spider.
We headed down on Saturday afternoon and fought our way through the crowds to Derby Square, where we were soaked to the skin with the water cannons fired over the crowd as part of the "water ballet". Luckily no-one seemed to mind, and many seemed to enjoy it. In between manufactured downpours, I took a few photos on my phone and have uploaded them to my flickr account. Start here if you'd like a look.
So, the Tory's favourite think tank has published a paper (pdf) which claims that we should close Liverpool and move its inhabitants down to Cambridge. With the predictable flood of outrage, the-North-is-nice-really, and it's-true,-they're-all-money-grabbing-spongers commentary following in its wake.
I've held off writing anything about it here because I don't think adding to either side of the argument will achieve anything other than help sell a few papers (or provide a few website readers, at least).
Instead, I thought I'd offer a personal perspective on why I'm in the middle of doing just the opposite to the recommendation and swapping punting on the Cam for a ferry 'cross the Mersey.
I didn't leave Cambridge because it's a terrible place - it's not. I lived in East Anglia for a decade, with the majority of that time in Cambridge, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There's plenty of greenery (cows graze in the centre of town for God's sake); it's easy to get around by bike (although often a right pain to navigate by car); and there are many technology firms providing jobs. And those companies aren't the big Blue-chip names you get in the M4 corridor, so there's more of a start-up/doing-interesting-things vibe to the place.
However, a few years ago I was doing some hard thinking about what I was trying to achieve, and what was important to me, and came to the realisation that Cambridge doesn't provide the answer.
Part of the answer is geographical, or is that geological? Cambridge is on the edge of the fens, and hence very flat. That makes it hard to go mountain-biking, or hill walking, unless you can make a weekend of it. Compare that with Liverpool, where in a day trip you can choose between the Lakes, Snowdonia or the Peak District.
But more so it's about what I can offer to the area in which I live. Cambridge is doing just fine for successful technology companies, and its problems are related to transport infrastructure and how to cope with the hundreds of thousands of homes that the government seems intent on dumping onto the surrounding countryside. That's not something that interests or excites me.
Having grown up on Merseyside in the 1980s, I'd seen the worst of Liverpool's decline first-hand. The idea of taking MCQN Ltd. to the city and helping both to grow really got me fired up, and a trip back for the Biennial in 2004 confirmed my decision.
I'd pictured my return along the lines of the prodigal son, returning to single-handedly drag the city back to prosperity, so I was somewhat surprised (and only a touch disappointed) to discover that they'd quite rudely started without me.
The building and reconstruction work that was already underway in 2004 has continued apace in the intervening years, adding a few new towers to the city's skyline and converting huge numbers of old office blocks and warehouses into new apartment-blocks and office complexes. Wandering round the city whilst looking for somewhere to live I've been amazed at how much things have changed in such a short time. And at how much work is still going on.
It's not just the buildings though. When I left the North-West in the mid-90s, there weren't many computing jobs, and those that did exist were mostly in defence work and over towards Manchester. Nowadays there's a thriving community of geeks in the North-West and along the M62 corridor, with regular get-togethers in Liverpool (and Manchester and Preston and Leeds and Sheffield...).
There's still plenty of regeneration work to do - the city centre has been the focus of the improvements and you don't have to travel too far out to find boarded up houses and deprivation - but there's a buzz to the place, which I'm sure isn't just because it's currently the Capital of Culture. I'm looking forward to getting into the thick of it, and to help push things forwards myself, when I pick up the keys to our flat in the shadow of the Anglican cathedral next week.