Today I attended a one-day conference about Birmingham’s Big City Plan at the ICC. It was invite only although I didn’t get my invite until yesterday when it was clear that the group due to discuss the Connectivity theme valued having some expert input. Luckily my more expert colleague was there to do that and I could bluff my way through as usual. The view from the podium was that the day shouldn’t be live-blogged in case colleagues felt they couldn’t be open, so unfortunately there was little tweeting during the event itself.
There was no delegate list (or pack even) for the event but a quick glance round the room suggested that it was a mix of representatives from trade organisations, developers, community groups, universities, architects, planners and probably a lot more. Seemed to be fairly high-level, circa 300 in total. The introductions talked up the success of ‘Big City Plan’ as a brand in itself – that it had attracted attention for its ambition and was being widely discussed. Kelvin Campbell from Urban Initiatives (the consultants tasked with co-ordinating the plan) gave quite an uplifting presentation that included some interesting thinking about making some of the inner ring road into a kind of Birmingham La Rambla (so tempted to link to Las Ramblas then instead).
The day centred around a series of 16 break-out groups looking at different areas of the plan so I can only really talk about the chat in the Connectivity (cycling/walking/digital) group. The group had a fairly passionate discussion on walking (we lamented the lack of clear sign-posting and the blockages out from the centre to key areas such as the Jewellery Quarter and Highgate) and on cycling (the major arteries into the city are treacherous and the centre is difficult for bikes).
But when we got onto ‘Digital’ the passion kind of disappeared to be replaced initially by a kind of ‘so what’? It was partly (in my view at least) that as described by the plan ‘digital’ is seen as a utility service. Nothing wrong with that, surely the council has a duty to treat it that way and ensure citizens get the access they deserve. The only point of debate was, almost inevitably, that we need city centre free wi-fi. But then our friend Kelvin dropped in on our discussion and pointed out how the lack of free wi-fi had created a number of ad-hoc social media spaces around particular cafes. Kelvin’s question was is that a good thing (he thought yes) and if so, how do we institutionalise it? Could we create a equivalent of a Section 106 so that new developments were obliged to create Social Media Spaces as part of new builds. Then the discussion was suddenly fired up about social media and the connectivity it creates between individuals and businesses and the creative potential therein. I made mention of the Big City Plan translation (news to all I think) and the ability of ‘digital’ to harness expertise and make connections directly to citizens was suddenly made real.
Further, there was recognition by Kelvin that the consultation to date hadn’t had the full engagement with the social media community that it could have had and that this group could recommend a change in tack in that respect. And that’s what we did – one of the group’s actions was for the Big City Plan team to utilise social media, and thereby engage with those leading in that area, to widen the debate. So we ended up having a very positive discussion after a flat start.
A lunchtime appointment meant I actually managed to miss most of the summing up bar the one for this group. In the final slide was the bullet point ‘Twittering is Good’. As it was the last slide of the day it stayed up for quite a while during the closing speeches – point made.