Technology for engagement?

How do we create a positive vision of Localism? How do we ensure that everyone who wants a say can have a say? What role can new technologies play in answering these big questions? Add these questions to a wifi keyboard, a bank of red sofas and some deep fried nibbles and you’ve got yourself an interesting evening.

BFI by night

These questions and more were discussed last night in the lovely surrounds of the BFI at an event run by Sandbox part of the University of Central Lancashire. It was a chance to use their innovative Red system – a way of capturing, organising and interacting with responses typed by participants, all displayed in super-massive-humungo-widescreen projection.

Sandbox are also doing exciting work in Preston on Cultural Mappingusing mobile technology to look at the relationships between individuals and communities and how they locate, operate and flow through certain environments and public spaces. They hope that this framework will be useful in informing planning and  public engagement.

They use a similar approach in a project with wheelchair users, using handheld computers to record their experience of the built environment. In conjunction with the Cultural Mapping Project, it will provide city planners with a unique data layer when considering the future shape of Preston.

But we were there to talk about Localism while playing with the techno toys. A range of people from the innovation, social enterprise, policy and arts worlds were asked about what localism means to them, what are the benefits, the challenges. Perhaps a rather simple questions, and certainly a homogeneous audience in terms of outlook, but some useful ideas were thrown up nonetheless.

Two of the key challenges noted were firstly, the lack of an ‘invest to save mentality’ – how can we do things really differently if there isn’t the willingness to commit and invest in long term change? Change that is not tied to the average tenure of a local authority chief executive, or term of a politician local or national.  How does democracy transcend politics?

And  secondly, concern about how a wide range of voices can genuinely and fairly be heard and acted upon threaded throughout the discussion. It’s really interesting that when you start to talk to people about better democratic conversations, they start to play that back to you from their own perspective. So, widespread scepticism of true motivations of government, and concerns about how localism can be successful with no resource becomes a discussion about developing existing mechanisms of engagement and improving their reach, influence and ability to innovate.

I was particularly interested in two contrasting approaches. One very local and personal Spots of Time, which is about ‘having a minute’ to do something, and the positive engagement that is created on a very micro level. At the other end of the scale, Indy Johar of 00:/ is thinking about the macro concepts in the global/local economic context and socially driven sustainability. Look out for his book Compendium for the Civil Economy written in conjunction with NESTA, launching tomorrow.

This post first appeared over at

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