Saturday, 30 July 2011

Networking, innovation and why we all need to get out a bit more often

I attended the Knowledge Economy Summit last week at my alma mater the University of Leicester. Holding the event was pledge number 85 in the new City Mayor's 100 days programme.

Attended by a mixture of academics and businesspeople, the principle aim of the meeting was to discuss how the relationship between the two could be enhanced so that Leicester can develop a real innovation culture in the same way that it has in the creative and cultural arena.

It was a constructive and friendly event but what was apparent from this is just how fragmented the connections between various organisations, sectors and individuals are. Yesterday's event is not the first time I have witnessed this. I recall the early days of the City Centre Management Board where it transpired that some of the different retail traders groups barely new each other - not a great place to start for promoting the city's retail offering. I've also seen it with the heritage bodies who, for a long time had very little communication despite overwhelming overlaps in their aims.

I don't see this as necessarily a bad reflection on Leicester people, I have no reason to believe they are inherently more parochial or tribal than anywhere else. However, I do think that a variety of factors including political leadership problems, old boy networks, recent immigration, high turnover of residents have probably all played their part in keeping people in little pockets rather than working together.

What I have seen is when people do get together and the ice breaks then the results can be striking. The successes of city centre management are a case in point as are the increasing collaboration of the heritage groups to put heritage and history firmly back on the agenda.

The diversity of people in Leicester can stop being just a 'raw material' and instead be a major asset if people are willing to cross boundaries and trust each other. The more networking and mixing opportunities such as last week's event the better. As I said in the meeting, it's important to remember that the 'soft' networking is just as important as specific goal-orientated meetings between say academics and businesses. All of the major cultural and industrial movements from the Renaissance to Silicon Valley happened when large groups of people from different disciplines got the opportunity to mingle.

Here are some off-the-cuff ideas for kick-starting an innovation culture in Leicester:-
  • Take the "build networks not destinations" mantra and apply it to the innovative people in the city. If we build the network we will also become the destination. (hat tip also to Dr Alan Cann of University of Leicester)
  • Hold, encourage or promote regular events which include 'soft networking' like Cafe Scientifique, Creative Coffee Club or Skeptics in the Pub and don't try to take over what existing groups already do well.
  • Host lectures and seminars by world class speakers from innovative businesses, organisations and universities a bit like Amplified Leicester or TED (could we tempt TED into running a conference in Leicester?).
  • Create a newspaper, newsletter, blog or blogroll of innovative projects, products and research happening in Leicester a bit like Leicester Shire Promotions' Big It Up campaign or even my little city PR project Leicester On The Map.
  • Celebrate successful Leicester innovators and encourage them to stay and invest in the city.
  • Get participants used to sharing ideas rather than hoarding them, unnecessary non-disclosure agreements and patents can stifle innovation.
  • Discourage non-competition clauses in employment contracts as per Californian law
  • If money is to be spent on new buildings and facilties, build networking, collaboration and serendipitous encounters into the fabric of the building (compare New Walk Centre with LCB Depot!).
  • Create open LinkedIn, Facebook or Google groups for people interested in promoting innovation to keep the conversation and connections going after face-to-face meetings.
  • Smash the separation between science and arts - have scientists and technology people in the LCB Depot and artists in the forthcoming Leicester Innovation Centre (and stop calling areas names like 'Science Park' or 'Cultural Quarter'). Scientists and artists are both creative and innovative - think like Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Get help from outside. Bring in people who have personal experience of places that have succeeded and remember that sometimes 'stakeholders' can be handbrakes.
  • Read this book: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steve Johnson which stresses how innovation comes when people interact in 'coral reef' communities rather than from the genius of solitary individuals.
Leicester is a bit like a party with bunch of really interesting and different people who don't yet know each other very well. Whether this is a crying shame or a wonderful opportunity for innovation depends on whether your glass is half full or half empty!

Monday, 9 May 2011

Critical Mass Cycle Rides

I went to my first Critical Mass Cycle Ride in Leicester a couple of weeks ago. These are held on the last Friday of the month and a lot of fun as well as a great way for cyclists to own the streets. Despite being smaller, these are arguably better events than SkyRide as they are entirely grass roots events on the open road.

Turn-outs at the Leicester rides are growing and are approaching the 200 riders mark which is amazing. Here are some ideas for making it even bigger and better:-
  1. Invite newly elected mayor Peter Soulsby to attend
  2. Break a record for largest critical mass or most riders in costumes.
  3. Get a celebrity along
  4. Do a charity fund raiser
  5. Give it a blog and get that auto-posted on Facebook & Twitter (I can help with that!)
  6. Do a recruitment prize/bounty for whoever brings the most newbies.
  7. Buy all newbies a drink at the end
  8. Run a weekend ride to attract more families with kids.
  9. Run a Critical Mass ride in conjuction with another event
The next ride is on 27th May 2011, meeting at 6pm at Orton Square beside Curve.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Questions for Mayor Candidates

I'm going to tonight's mayoral 'Big Debate' at DMU which will hopefully be more enlightening than the damp squib put on by the BBC at Curve last week.

Below are some of my ideas for questions.

Which one(s) shall I ask if I get the opportunity? Does anyone have any other suggestions?

1. People in the county look down on Leicester and outsiders don't even know where it is. What will you do to solve Leicester's public relations problem?

2. Why did it take an EDL riot to bounce us into celebrating what we all have in common?

3. Why do we invest so much time and money on new stuff whilst letting our existing stuff decay?

4. Decisions are made largely behind closed doors and public consultations happen after the deal is done. What would you do to end the cult of secrecy in Leicester local government?

5. Mixed raced children are the third largest birth group in Leicester. Do you think Leicester's cultural agenda reflects this properly?

6. Why is civic pride so lacking in Leicester and what will you do about it?

7. What would you do to encourage equality for all road users rather than priority for cars?

8. Do you think faith schools lead to more or less social harmony?

9. What will you do to end the "yes to anything" approach to urban planning?

10. Leicester aspires to retain graduates from our two universities. Why then are we allowing undergraduates to become increasingly isolated in 'student ghettos' surrounding the universities?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

How to Rate a Mayor?

I've just been following an interesting Twitter conversation thread between local politicians and Leicester Mercury reporters about how the elected Mayor's salary should be set. It struck me that almost any salary figure you pluck out of thin air will seem arbitrary because there aren't many comparable roles and being a politician is just altogether 'different' from other jobs.

What seems right to me is that the Mayor should give value for money and one way of assessing this would be some fundamental Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure against.

So class, for your homework I would like you to suggest suitable KPIs for the Mayor of a large diverse city. You have until May 5th to hand in your work. Here are some suggestions:-
  • School results
  • Rates/tax receipts
  • Life expectancy of citizens
  • Average travel time to work

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Turning Off Traffic Lights

A chap called Martin Cassini is trying to convince councils that the secret to saving our roads from pollution, gridlock and accidents is to turn off traffic lights. Sounds crazy? Have a look at his piece on BBC Newsnight from a couple of years ago:-
(watch the report video clip)

After a small but successful pilot at a junction in Portishead he came within a whisker of getting Bristol City Council to trial this but they lost their nerve yet this sort of thing has been shown to work in a number of European towns and cities.

This idea may not be a panacea but any potential reduction in congestion, pollution, accidents, fuel consumption, roadside paraphernalia and daft cycle lanes has got to be worth exploring. What's particularly compelling about this is that it avoids the knee-jerk and hypocritical 'war on motorists' which much of current green transport rhetoric seems to involve. Instead, all road users are treated as equals.

Could 'Environment City' Leicester be the place to properly pioneer this, perhaps under the auspices of a bold new elected Mayor?

More details of Martin Cassini's campaign here:-!/FiTRoads