I spent a terrific couple of hours today talking to Paul Slatter and Nick Booth from Birmingham Community Empowerment Network about .... well, on reflection, it was mostly about talking. There was more to it than that ... we did social networks, podcasts, storytelling and lots more ... but the basic issue was how to help people talk to each other.
Nick is a former BBC TV and radio producer who has moved from the high-end of media to the basics of helping people record conversations and put them on the Net. You can find his work at Podnosh. Paul made the contact because we had known each other from the time a few years back when he worked for People for Action, a network for housing and regeneration organisations. We shared an interest in how you could use technology to do good stuff at local level.
Anyway, we kicked off by sharing perceptions on what worked when you wanted to help people make a difference in their lives and those of others ... be active citizens in the jargon. We concluded that public meetings and committees could be a barrier, and people wanted mostly to get help for their projects and share their experiences with others. You can, of course, complement face-to-face conversations with web pages, emails and so on ... but that doesn't come naturally to many people. On the other hand sitting down and having a chat is pretty natural and people are amazed and excited when they find that podcasting enables them to broadcast their conversations very easily.
The real spark in the conversation for me came when Nick said that he was working with trainees for community radio, and encouraging them to do interviews with people who they were a uneasy about talking to. Maybe an official, someone from a different faith group, older, younger - whatever. Facing that bit of discomfort and overcoming it could build people's confidence, but it could also help develop a new relationship that would not otherwise be formed.
Since there is a lot of concern these days about community cohesion, developing local social networks and generally finding ways to re-establish community ties this seemed like something that would be fun, fruitful and low-cost. There seemed to be a good link to the ideas Kevin Harris and I had been developing with Stephen Clayton and Chris Baker just up the road in Birmingham, at Castle Vale. We are visiting in a couple of weeks, so I expect good things to happen in Birmingham.
Paul made a few reference in our conversation to The Lunar Society, a gathering place for 18th century luminaries like Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood.
Centred on Birmingham, it started ideas which had (and still have) a significant effect on the development of both the city and the country as a whole. Science, Industry, Medicine and Transport were influenced by its members, who met to exchange information about experiments in the work-place, scientific discoveries and commercial opportunities.
Aha - conversations again. Apparently the society is still promoting cross-boundary networking, albeit with a membership limited to 300. I get the sense that Paul and Nick want to use relatively simple technolologies to spread those conversations out a bit.
Podthought: What we should have done was record some of our conversation, of course. Sounds like an excuse for a bit of Skypecasting.