Local Civic Pride and the Internet

This post has been inspired by another wonderful post by Phil Kirby which has provoked quite a lot of debate in various bits of the Internet.  Phil’s point, which seems to be shared in a lot of quarters, is that the people who are paid to promote his home city are failing the place, in that they don’t seem to understand its true nature and clearly lack the insight and passion of the people who live there and care about the place.

Quite by coincidence, on the day I read Phil’s post, I also had a conversation with a regeneration officer from Leeds City Council. It was a conversation which I found quite encouraging because it suggested that this officer at least (I cannot vouch for his colleagues) was thinking about whether property-led regeneration was really effective.

Both of these experiences got me thinking about the issue of Civic Pride and the Internet. For some time now, I have been an admirer of how the bloggers, tweeters and hyperlocal journalists of Birmingham have collaborated with each other (sometimes formally and at other times randomly) to hold the politicians and administrators of the city to account, promote positive images and news stories of their local areas, and build new forms of civic infrastructure. I hesitate to single out individual initiatives, because there are so many of them, but Birmingham It’s Not Shit, Digbeth is Good, BCCDIY, Big City Plan Talk, Podnosh’s innovative use of podcasts, Help Me Investigate, and, of course, the original Social Media Surgeries, are some that stand out.

While I do not wish to be unkind about any of the many people who work hard in public agencies, it can sometimes be the case that some of the people who work in them treat what they do as “just” a job, something to be forgotten about at 5 o’clock. Often promotional work is done by agencies bought in from outside and they just don’t understand the area. On the other hand, the people who live in the place do understand it, and often feel passionate about its positive aspects, and have inside knowledge about what needs to change. The reaction to Phil Kirby’s views about Leeds suggests to me that Birmingham might not be the only city where grassroots civic pride might bloom if people who feel strongly about the place can use the Internet to express their views, find each other, and build a collaborative movement.

While there is still a long way to go, I understand that Birmingham City Council has made some tentative steps towards making positive use of this new phenomenon (I am sure those involved will correct me if I am wrong here – it may be an optimistic view). I believe that local authorities should find ways of working with movements like this to mutual benefit. While Social Media tools may be nice to play with, ultimately, I believe they should be judged on their effectiveness in enabling and empowering people to find their voices, and then find each other to work together on issues of common interest.

I hope I am right that this is the start of a real grassroots Civic Pride movement in Leeds. And I also hope that it is happening elsewhere too. I am sure there are many such movements in the country that I don’t know about.

3 thoughts on “Local Civic Pride and the Internet

  1. John

    This is a provocative post that resonates with some of my own thoughts.

    My University is grappling with the paradox of local engagement and internationalism. Are we about supporting and encouraging international research and providing educational excellence for the world’s best scholars or are we to work towards building the local community of our inner city and supporting local initiatives? Possibly we can do both. Do the employees who work within our organisation have the same passion for our City as they do for their work? Maybe it’s not important within further education but I believe that it’s vital that in local government the employees feel and behave as though they are part of their local community.

    The internet and its new tools of communication give a voice to local people and I believe that with commitment and patience these tools can be used to engage and empower local citizens. Blogs and their like cross the traditional boundaries and as we move into a world that will have less resources provide a tool for collaboration. To achieve more with fixed or fewer resources will require greater collaboration.

    If local government can find the will and the way to adopt the new technology and embrace the work of the unpaid supporters of local community then we can all continue to build pride in our towns and cities.

    A proud Mancunian.

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  3. Hi John,
    You raise some interesting points here, which chime very much with some of the thoughts we’ve been having in Leeds around how our communities are using these new technologies and what role and response the council should have in promoting or using them.

    For my two-penneth worth, i think we need to focus on what might be called ‘knowledge tools’ which individuals and local communities can use to facilitate local understanding, discussion and decision making. A great example of ‘knowledge tools’ are things like mapping and 3D modelling, access to the internet and the ability to blog and discuss things is fine, but when you’re talking about local places and problems nothing quite works as well as picture with a big ‘we’re talking about here’ arrow on it, or better yet a ‘here’s what it’d look like through your living room window if we sorted this out’ picture.

    I know if sounds simple, and in many ways it would be, but for it to work well we’re not just talking about maps and aerial pictures, we’re talking about making a lot of information available, in a lot of detail, from what are currently a lot of different sources, as well as the tools to create new new information as well… You think a street needs to be calmed or pedestrianised, fine, show me where on the map, and how you think the traffic would flow around it and i might think about it… Thinking of starting a community cricket team in the local park, show everybody else where and when you want to play to make sure you’re not spoiling anyone else’s plans, and then maybe we can use the same info get the council grass cutters to start cutting a strip of grass shorter to use a crease..

    Providing the data and info that people might want to use, AND changing council systems so they can use the info and data generated by the community all adds to the cost and complexity, and raises the big question of whether this is something the council should be doing at all.

    Of course, if the answer is yes, and we can get it right, then you won’t need local mandarins to care about the local area, or to do anywhere near as much to promote it, because the local communities will be doing it for themselves.

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