I have a new job. I’m off (on long-term secondment actually) to work for Digital Birmingham as their Economic Development Manager. As part of my interview I had to do five minutes on how I would put Birmingham on the digital map. It was five minutes without PowerPoint so I wrote a speech which I thought I’d reproduce here (and no, I don’t quite answer the question but I do talk about buses a lot and yes, I added the embedded links afterwards):
“Birmingham feels strangely exciting at the moment. I say strangely because as someone who’s lived here all of his life, ‘exciting’ is a status that Birmingham has only occasionally reached the giddy heights of. But there is one time when I remember Birmingham reached a frenzy, when an event affected everyone in the city. No, I’m not talking about the double whammy of the G8 and the Eurovision in 1998 but rather, about the now almost legendary decision by the city council in the early 1980s to introduce 2 pence bus fares for under 16s. What halcyon days they were. That long-held dream of going all the way round on the number 11 bus could now be made a reality. The question of what to do on a weekend now had a simple answer – get on a bus and stay on it, see where it took you. It was a decision that mobilised a generation of idle youth. It took us to town and back every Saturday and left us plenty of change for space invaders and a cup of tea in the café on the sixth floor of Lewis’s.
In his article on youth culture from 1981, Gary Clarke actually makes reference to Birmingham’s 2p bus fares. He notes it caused uproar amongst the population, everyone was talking about it. He describes the moral panic caused by this mobilisation. To quote him: “Birmingham youths have created new meaning from the conventional activities of shopping and public transport”. But what’s this got to do with Digital you’re asking? The quote’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a better summation of how I spent my teenage years. Secondly, I suspect that is how we’ll be talking 20 years down the line about the digital tools we’re seeing now. That is, as conventional activities.
Actually you’re probably thinking what’s all this got to do with buses? Well, the most exciting blogger in Birmingham right now is a Bus Driver. TWMDriver has his own blog as well as a Twitter account where you can leave him a question about life on the buses. Also, Jon Bounds, author of the Birmingham Its Not Shit blog, wants us all to spend the 11th of the 11th this year on the 11 route, leaving at 11am. He wants an army of Brummie bloggers out there, talking about it, recording it, photographing it. Why? Because it’s there I suppose and because blogging connects you to people and once in a while can actually mobilise them to do something they may not have thought about doing otherwise.
And I think that’s what I feel is exciting at the moment. There’s seems to be a developing, lively social media ‘scene’ going on and some of us have cottoned on to the fact that it’s cheap bus fare time out there in the digital age. More than cheap actually, most of the tools are free. But, what drove us onto the buses in the 1980s wasn’t just the reduction in fares. That facilitated the pre-existing desire we had to discover, to meet, to share. To spend afternoons in Virgin records flicking through magazines we were never going to buy. Digital technologies aren’t the driver of change – they’re an enabler of change.
So what excites me about this social media landscape is how it seems to be bringing citizens together and connecting them on a whole range of topics. I’d agree that at first glance it seems to be a social space partly occupied by a few ‘usual suspects’ in the creative industries. Yet if you dig deeper, you’ll find a rich seem of bloggers talking about where they live (Vale Mail), their work (a blog dedicated to Night Working in the City), or their interests (myself and others wittering on about our allotments). There are opinion leaders out there of course and what I think Digital Birmingham should be is one of them.
Using my Birmingham Post blog I’ve already written about how those with influence can make use of Social Media to start a genuine debate about the city – to develop, if you like, a Birmingham Digital School of Thought. There is a lot of influence to be gained in this city by being part of the digital discussion. Bloggers have a developing cultural capital that planners and decision-makers are beginning to take notice of. Power comes from what you’re saying as well as what you’re doing – it comes from being a part of the discussion.
We’re potentially heading for an economic downturn and if digital technologies can help us through the worst of the impact of such a downturn – by creating ‘digital’ jobs in the creative industries or in medical technologies or in serious games – then we need to speak up now to ensure those with the money, as well as the power, are listening to us and heed our guidance. What growth there is in the economy is in those and other hi-tech industries – the evidence is out there, let’s ensure we understand it and that it influences change.
So for Digital Birmingham its about exerting your influence by contributing to the debate. Be someone, or something, with a view, a position, a take on things. Digital isn’t a box to tick or a target to reach, it’s not a league table…. It’s a bus. The driver, as I’ve mentioned, is already part of the action. I believe Digital Birmingham can be a powerful body to exert the kind of influence that will mobilise our citizens to get on the Digital bus, stay on it and, as we did on the number 11, go round and round just for the hell of it. Birmingham needs a 2p fare for the Digital age and Digital Birmingham could be the body to make that happen.”
Job starts in September. Nicely evocative bus pic by Pete Asthon