Monthly Archives: February 2012

@me.com?

This piece is ,as they say, very much a ‘game of two halves’, one half empty, one half full.

I am thoroughly enjoying life as a freelance consultant and , joy of joys!’  am even bringing in some income from the kind of work I hoped to attract when I stepped off the conveyor belt.

I meet talented, intelligent, stimulating people with innovative ideas and incredible passion.I attend events that inspire and motivate..I am even getting used to the idea that for much of the time I won’t be paid! And that networking or becoming connected is how to grow the business.

However, I also have this nagging feeling that can turn into a worry -not the kind to wake me up at four in the morning and force me to watch reruns of la liga matches to banish it!

But enough of a worry to sometimes make me stop and think.

What do I think?

Well, in the world in which I now move, many of the entrepreneurs, consultants, freelancers and kindred spirits used to make a living in what I now call the ‘Blair’ world, that public and semi public sector that came into being on the back of the cash injected into the British  economy after 1997 via national,regional and local spending programmes and other NGO initiatives.

They were the Class of ’97 who truly wanted to tackle structural inequality , bring back life to our ailing cities and towns ,create a vital and connected cultural scene which was not all about elite events in the capital cities  and show that the best of the public sector was at least as good if not better than anything the private sector could offer.

Many of them were  not funded from within the the ‘mainstream’, so not surprisingly,as the austerity cuts bite they find themselves  out of work, starved of funds and ignored by Whitehall.

This coming together of the  Class of 97 (not all of whom are old enough to have been with the  ‘programme’ since 97) can be seen in two ways.

Looking into the glass half full, we can perhaps see this as  a real opportunity to harness the talents and skills of some of the countries brightest and best to work alongside local people, formal government structures and private business to find new and radical ways of tackling many of the problems we face.Freed of the constraints of public sector bureaucracy,forever filling in forms for the next funding round and twisting and turning to align with the latest ‘bright idea’ from some Whitehall think tank, these people can develop their own unique, dynamic and often local approaches that connect with the real lives of people.They come to rely less upon funds than the release of latent energies and talents.

At the risk of being controversial, I might say that this is a burgeoning and necessary growth of the Big Society – informal,intuitive,networked,energetic and passionate.

Business cards mount up, emails to Jane and John @me.com take the place of  emails previously sent to council@gov.uk.

If you want to see how these new entrepreneurs work, you have to go not further than the pages of linked- in, very much the medium of choice for all of us .

But then I see the glass empty out.I notice that most of those linked-in entries and retweets are nothing more than some form of online Reuters or AP news bulletin alerting us to information that we either don’t need or previously lived without.

HR companies and others selling often idiosyncratic ideas and products swamp the medium so that sorting the wheat from the chaff becomes laborious to the point of potential disengagement. Online entires are increasingly  designed to say ‘ hi, its me, look at me ‘ in a world where grabbing attention and indulging in self promotion is believed to be a  necessary precondition of finding work.

Then I begin to notice that many of these entrepreneurs lack money – simple wages and income for either themselves or their projects.

And then I start to think maybe this is the  beginning of a new bubble of the dotcom variety.

Government tells us to start up on our own rather than wait for somebody else to create the job.(ignoring the appalling failure rates of new start ups ).We all congregate in our coffee shop huddles and more formal workshops fueling our own self belief  and reinforcing our sense of purpose and destiny. Mostly we find that we are not in sympathy with what the Government is doing and we are still committed to the same ideas and beliefs that sustained us as the Class of 97.So we are oppositional entrepreneurs – mostly very polite, often circumspect in our opposition and not to be confused with naked political activism (although we may support that at times).

I am one of these people and wonder where all this activity is going? Are we the @me.com generation that will find out that in the end  one’s livelihood still very much depends upon the fortunes of the big beasts of the formal economy, both private and public ?And that this new and brave show of spirit and endeavour will be shoved aside as the real agenda is revealed to be a drive to establish ‘business as usual’ ?

Then the @me.com bubble will burst and be revealed, as was the dotcom bubble, as being built upon sands that were shifting in the opposite direction, although at the time we could not see that?

But I want to finish on a positive note.. Maybe the route to a more sustainable. ethical economy and society that can coexist with the market   is through harnessing the talents of the many people that I meet who are not motivated by the size of their financial bonus but by a desire to contribute.

I have written before about the need for the idea of ‘contribution’ to become part and parcel of what it is to be a citizen.Sure, we all want to make a living;many of us have children and other dependents to care for and enjoy  the pleasures that money can often bring. But how we build an economy and society to make that opportunity available for all ,wherever they live, may not be a question that can be answered simply by the actions of Government and the ‘big beasts’.

Maybe its by harnessing the energies of the growing number of  @me.coms   that new approaches and ideas will emerge that can begin to suggest fresh ways of tackling seemingly insurmounttable problems? So rather than  the bubble bursting, it gains altitude and recognition for the important social phenomenon that it could be.

As for me, I’ll keep blogging,posting, networking and meeting over coffee.Maybe Ill become more discerning and focused on the real opportunities rather than those that are simply aspirational. What I will be doing is spending as much time as I can working with committed economic and social entrepreneurs .

On contribution and respect

‘Silicon London is first choice of base for Google, Facebook and other tech giants

The capital’s young workforce and wealth of start-ups are behind last year’s doubling in demand for office space for IT firms’

The Guardian 02/02/2012 

The Notts-Derby coalfield,the Lace triangle,Crewe loco works, coal in the valleys,shipping on the Tyne and Clyde,pots in the Potteries,cars in the midlands, specialist light engineering in Birmingham,cotton in Manchester, fishing in Hull, Terrys and Rowntree in York……….the economic roll call of honour that formed the backbone of this country even in my lifetime.Learnt by rote for what was then Geography GCE.Places, people, industry,productivity,culture and respect.

Recently I happened to see some of the films made by the Government during the Second World War about life in Britain and watched for the umpteenth time the GPO film unit shorts, including ‘the Night Mail’.

What struck me as a theme running through was that in spite of the received pronunciation of the narrators  and the obvious London perspective on the world (every other place but the capital is ‘somewhere else’) there was clear respect to be accorded to the workers of the English regions for the contribution they made to the national economy.It was clearly understood that the lives of the comfortably off in the South East of England could not be sustained without the toil and graft of  those living elsewhere.Naturally this respect did not extend to anything like sympathy for their politics or culture, but however grudging it might have been, there was a real sense that unlike today ‘we were all in it together’ in a very real and inter connected way.

Those in the regions were not seen as ‘dependant ‘ (either on welfare or public subsidy)  .People living in proud towns like Bolton,Gateshead, Walsall and Hartlepool  had authentic,productive and meaningful lives of their own, however tough the conditions in which they lived. They could hold their heads high in the   publicly recognised knowledge that their contribution was valued.

So to today and the headline story that begins this article.Most if not all coverage of exciting,valid new economic activity focuses on the South East ; stories to do with industry elsewhere focus on contracts lost (Bombardier,BAE) and asset stripping takeovers (Cadbury).There is no  sense that what people are doing in their day to day working lives in Middlesbrough or Kilmarnock is in any way linked to the fortunes of those savvy hip entrepreneurs huddled over their americanos in cafes around Old Street.Their eyes are on each other and their counterparts in the US and China.They may have grown up in  Knowsley or Cumbernauld, but have migrated to make their contribution  to the global economy in the only place in the UK that is recognised as counting – London.

And for those who choose to live in far flung Bury and Consett, what do they make of their lives within this hyped up, M25 centric world they now live in? What do they see as their contribution to this new world economy?

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We may be the architects of our own downfall

Just before Christmas – in keeping with the sentiments outlined in my ‘Bedford Falls’ blog post – I decided to go and do my shopping in our local town centre, Stockport.Admittedly it was a grey, wet morning and I knew in advance that in a recent survey of town centres it has the highest percentage of vacant shops in the UK.

Like many other northern UK towns and cities it once performed a vital function for its surrounding community and for some – the less mobile, the less well off and  those employed locally – maybe it still does.But that cohort of people is clearly not enough to sustain it in good health  and other social groups show no sign of returning or going to the town for the first time.

It is by and large unremarkable – scarred in places (the M60 orbital motorway cuts through it  and the Sixties were unkind to it architecturally) ; but it also has a historic market and some anchor stores that are surprising for their endurance – HMV,Waterstones ,Body Shop for example.

But it was a nevertheless a bleak experience and – coming on the heels of the Portas report – the shops that seem to have close since my last visit were just the type that Mary P was advocating towns like Stockpot needed more of : the niche ski wear specialist, the musical instrument shop.

I intended alerting my readers to the fate of towns like Stockport before now, but by coincidence I was recently able through the  course of my work to hear an eminent German academic speak about a new phenomenon – how the middle class are building virtual tunnels through cities and the consequence of their actions.And she did not mean narrow minded, devil may care turbo shoppers and hothouse parents – but people much you and me I suspect.

What is this tunnelling ? Well we get up and we have a route to school/nursery, then to work, then home , then to our favourite stores  via the internet and from time to time at out of town centres or the larger city centres.Exhausted we make our way to our favourite restaurants and pubs where we meet and spend time with people just like us.And so it goes on.

What we don’t do is work/play/relate in our local community as such – we no longer need to for much of the time and so we don’t.Maybe at various times in our life cycle we have to – our children may go to the local primary school (though many more may may not) , parent and todddler groups are usually local and of course in old age one comes to rely on the community more than one could ever guess!

If you plot all the journeys we make (and in a negative way those we no longer take) then what we see is a large cohort of the most able/mobile/resource rich in our cities making their way down spatial tunnels across and through towns and cities.And guess what ?Not only do we abandon towns like Stockport virtually en masse, but we also become what my academic termed ‘blind’ to the spaces that surround our journeys (often poorer neighbourhoods).At its most negative we may no longer care or have any interest in what happens in them as such since they are no longer part of our lives.So we also lose touch with  a traditional politics that assumes we are interested in the broader comunity we live in beyond the fulfillment of our own desires !

This is of course just a sketch and I can hear the ‘yes,buts’ lining up!

But it perhaps explains how hundreds and thousands of decisions made for very rational reasons by often very concerned and liberal individuals add up to the very social phenomena that lead to those same people all too often bemoaning the state of our towns and cites!

In line with my Jimmy Stewart riff, what I am trying to get at is that it isnt all about Tesco – it may be about as much about us!Freed from the constraints (at least for times in our lives) that previous generations faced (time/money/mobility), we begin to create a city that is segmented, if not gated in any literal sense.

In my bleaker moments I see us as the unwitting victims  of forces that tap into our very hopes,desires and wishes for ourselves and our families and turn them into behaviours that we may be faintly appalled by if we sit back and reflect.

It may be that a very new and specific form of  desire for individual fulfilment for us and our nearest and dearest is now so embedded into our psyche that we have to begin to imagine future states in which those behaviours are taken to their logical conclusion .Maybe we need one of our best authors or playwrights to show us that future as robustly as Orwell showed previous generations 1984.

Over Christmas I watched an old Doctor Who with the family in which the Daleks  were attempting to intertwine the DNA of themselves with humans to create a new creature that would be part human/part Dalek.I now worry that we are becoming like those creatures in that the forces of commercialism and consumerism have linked themselves inextricably to perfectly reasonable desires for self self-fulfilment and created a new strand of DNA (at least for the middle classes)  to the point where we no longer recall who we used to be.