Especially when you’re hungrily sat work at 9 o’clock at night and could really murder a slice of Victoria sponge.
Last night I followed Brewcamp’s first outing to Coventry, this time organised by Kate Sahota and Karen Ramsey-Smith.
It’s a few like minded local government people in the West Midlands who want to innovate, share ideas and learn things. We speak nicely to a cafe or bar owner who has wifi to set aside some space for free, set a date, set-up an eventbrite for tickets and then come up with a few topics people want to talk about.
Looking down the list of attendees for the Coventry event the name of Sandwell Council chief executive Jan Britton stood out.
Jan has already carved something of a reputation with his blog. It’s accessible to members of the public as well as staff. It’s a great thing and you can see it here.
Unconferences like Brewcamp are great for sharing ideas and learning things. They’re informal and, heck, they make work fun. You don’t have to be an expert. You just need to turn up.
A running undercurrent debate at them is often that ‘this is great but how do we get the suits here?’
In other words, how do you get senior management?
Three things have made me think this brilliant approach is dangerously close towards making a breakthrough to the mainstream.
First, to have a first local government chief executive like Jan Britton to attend one of them is actually pretty significant. Let’s stop and think. He’s a talented man. He’s also busy. By actually coming to an unconference he’s opened up the door for others in his organisation.
And in other people’s organisations.
Second reason? The media are starting to take notice. Sarah Hartley at The Guardian ran an excellent piece on her time at localgovcamp in Birmingham. The LGC ran a two page spread on what makes things like localgovcamp work. They put some of it up online to non-subscribers. Hats off to it for covering it.
As Ken Eastwood, an assistant executive director at Barnsley, wrote of those who attended:
“In many cases they are frustrated by their lack of influence and by local government’s resistance to change and bottom up innovation. It seems clear to me that this needs to change. We need to be more agile, more adaptive and better able to encourage and nurture grass-roots, low cost creativity.”
A third reason? It’s clear also that the traditional events sector has woken up to the creative side of unconferences too. The PSCF event in Glasgow will have an informal side to it in the afternoon with masterclasses.
The SOLACE conference in October, for senior officers, will also incorporate an element of unconference creativity too.
In local government in 2011 it’s clear we need to innovate and encourage new ideas. It’s not if but how.
As the excellent Nick Hill from PCSF says, mainstream is essential otherwise you basically remain like ‘Fight Club.’
Creative commons credits:
With a cup of tea comes conversation, learning and sharing.
Over the past few months, I’ve been involved with something called Brewcamp.
This is about 20 people meeting up at the end of a working day at a cafe in Birmingham.
How did it come about?
Back in 2010 myself and a team of others – Si Whitehouse, Stuart Harrison, Mike Rawlins and Andy Mabbett – staged the unconference Hyperlocal Govcamp West Midlands.
This was a big shindig. We hired Walsall College with catering, there was 12 sessions and it all cost just over £1,000 to put on.
It dawned on us that the planning meetings were actually a sociable chance to catch-up and bounce ideas.
We looked at the idea of Teacamp in London and quite liked the idea of a meet-up between like minded people with a £0 budget and minimal organisation. All power to the Teacamp people.
There is now talk of similar events in the North of England and Derbyshire.
How does it work?
There’s three topics of about 30 minutes, a ban on powerpoint and space for questions and debate.
I’m increasingly struck how this happy accident with milk and one sugar has something more to offer than just a post-work chance to eat Victoria Sponge.
What does one look like?
Why is this a good idea?
- Because tea and cake are good.
- Because as training budgets vanish the informal offers a good alternative.
- Because it’s a chance to meet like minded people.
- Because some good work is being done by people who are just innovating.
- Because anyone can go.
A budget of zero.
A cafe. Or a pub with an owner who doesn’t mind reserving some space.
A flip or a livestream if you like. But it’s not vital.
A few people who have a case study to share or a problem they want help cracking.
A supply of tea.
And if you don’t fancy those rules you can tear them up and make your own.
Birthdays are natures way of telling you to eat more cake.
Marvellous, but what exactly does a slice of carrot cake have to say about local government?
Actually, quite a lot. So do mixtapes as a session heard at the excellent Localgovcamp Yorkshire and Humberside revealed.
Why? Two things. First, because it’s all about messing about on a project in your own time so you can learn by your mistakes.
Second, it’s about doing something in a fun, interesting, creative way.
Why Cake? As a wheeze I built a cake blog based on a rash of pictures of cake tweeted by friends from Twitter. It taught me how to crowdsource, how to use WordPress and where a decent piece of carrot cake can be found in the charming Shropshire village of Ludlow (At the Green Cafe since you were wondering. The review is here.) Stuart Harrison (@pezholio on Twitter) then raised the bar with a beer blog.
The excellent Sarah Lay picked up the baton and created a cake map. She got to know about Googlemaps as a result.
Mixtapes? Same principle. A tweet by Sarah sparked a series of blogs, a Flickr group and a Tumblr site. Why? Because mixtapes even in a digital world spark happy memories of taping the top 40 and crafting a tape to say ‘thank you!’ or even ‘actually, I quite fancy you.’
There was even a mixtape built by song contributions at the barcamp built with the help of Janet Davis (@janetedavis).
So what do cakes and tapes teach? In short, go away and experiment in your own time. You can learn. You can do fun things. Then you can transfer some of those ideas to your day job.
Amongst web developers, there is a useful saying: ‘fail forward.’ If you are going to fail, make sure you learn something about it so you can take things just that bit further next time. Messing about on a scheme allows you to do just that, risk free.
Links: Nice ideas that have emerged by messing around…
- Mixtape Flickr group: Take a picture of mixtapes. There is art here.
- Mixtape Tumblr site: where mixtapes ideas are shared.
- Cake reviews: The Twitter stream of the blog of the cake map @mmmmmmcake
- Cake blog www.mmmmmmcake.wordpress.com. Nice places to eat a slice of Victoria sponge.
- Beer blog www.mmmmmmbeer.tumblr.com Look, this is art. I HAVE to drink another pint, okay?
- The United Cakedom map: Really good if you are looking for good places to eat cake in Nova Scotia or the United Kingdom. Zoom in. Click on a tea cup and search to see if there is a good place for cakeage near you…
Get like-minded people in one place and then decide what you are going to talk about on the day. You’d be amazed at the hot house ideas that emerge.
Believe it or not the first event described by such a term was the XML Developers Conference of 1998 in Montreal in Canada.
How does an unconference – or Barcamp – work? Basically, four or five rooms are used with different subjects being discussed in each in hour long slots. Feel like saying something? Just chip in. It’s as simple as that.
They work brilliantly in and around government where there is a willingness to share ideas without being hampered by private sector hang up about competition and bottom lines.
They work well in the hyperlocal community too – Talk About Local have run excellent events – and they’ve even gravitated into the travel industry.
Some of the most exciting thinking I’ve come across has been at unconferences. It’s not exaggeration to say Localgovcamp Birmingham in 2009 utterly revolutionised the way I think and approach my job.
Elsewhere, UKgovcamp in January saw around 120 people with five rooms and eight slots. That’s 32,000 possible combinations. In other words, a lot of knowledge and conversations. Coming back from one such event in London as the train was passing through the Oxfordshire countryside one clear thought struck me.
Invariably, those who go are innovators. This is great. In local government, there is a need for these key events every few months if for nothing else than the sanity of those who blaze a trail sometimes with little support. But how do you get the message through to the 9 to 5-ers and policy makers who would also really benefit?
It’s an idea I’ve kicked around idly with a few people. Myself and Si Whitehouse mulled this over at the London Localgovcamp. I like the phrase ‘Locallocalgovcamp’ he came up with. It has the spirit of localgovcamp but it’s a lite version.
What it may be is this: A space where ideas could be kicked around in the informal, unconference style.
But crucially, there maybe an item or a hook pre-advertised that may encourage slightly less adept to come along. Besides, it’s easier to convince your boss to let you go to an event if you know you’ll get something out of it. The pitch of ‘Cheerio boss, I’m off now to drink coffee with geeks and I may just learn something’ is not as compelling as ‘Cheerio, boss, I’m going to this event to learn x and if y and z too.’
The idea of the local meet-up itself is not especially something new.
London digital people in government do something called ‘Tea Camp’. A 4-6pm slot in a department store cafe. Tea. Cake. Conversation. All seems dashed civilised idea. Besides, there’s a critical mass all working in a small area.
So what would an as-part-of-the-day-job West Midlands bostin social event look like?
Two hours? Two rooms? Two sessions? Or is that too short?
What do you think?
Creative commons photo credit: Barcamp: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid laughingsquid.com.
Was it a) when supermarket giant J.Sainsbury’s started tweeting us?
Was it b) when the excellent @sarahlay designed a superb google map around it?
Or perhaps c) when I loaded my two poorly children and drove to a garden centre just to photograph a piece of cake so I could write a 140 review blog post?
We sat there in the complex’s empty cafe the three of us. Joe, aged five. Libby, one, and me looking every inch the out of touch divorced dad who has no clue of what makes his children tick any more.
I’m not divorced by, the way. I just have a very tolerant wife.
“But Daddy,” said Joseph, aged five. “You don’t like gardening. Mummy says so. Can’t we go to the park? I like the park.
“No, son.” I tell the hopeful faces. “We can’t go to the park.”
“Why, Dad, why?”
“Because, Joe, They don’t sell cake there.”
I write a blog about cake. I’m quite partial to the odd slice but its never ruled my life.
was founded in August It has received 1,400 hits in eight weeks with almost 60 blog posts. It tweets @mmmmmmcake with 150 followers.
Amazingly, there have been 15 contributors so far from as far afield as Mumbai in India, Nova Scotia in Canada and Brownhills in England. They are people who love cake and enjoy the ridiculousness of pointing a camera at it in a cafe and sharing it with the world.
So why Dan, why?
It began as a wheeze. Make mistakes on your own rather than for your organisation. Besides, I wanted to better get to grips with wordpress.
Why cake? A chance remark on Twitter sparked it.
I introduced a friend new to Twitter. Silence. No followers.
“This is @sarahjpowney. She loves cake.”
Within seconds she had been welcomed on board the Twittersphere with open arms by several people.
“Cake brings people together,” @jaynehowarth enthusiastically tweeted.
She’s absolutely right.
I tweeted a picture of a cake I’d taken in Shropshire. It led to 40 hits on my flickr page in a day.
@brownhillsbob then responded with pics of his own in a kind of sponge and frosted icing arms race.
The penny dropped. This needed a blog to bring things together. From there it’s grown.
But the best bit?
It’s not actually the cake I’ve liked about doing this. It’s the enthusiasm and ideas people are having sparked by cake.
Cake really does bring people together.
The google map by @sarahlay, the Indian contributions by @rbx, the Nova Scotian contributor @halifaxcakes.
There’s a man in Sussex who blogs and photographs cakes with a skill of a baking David Bailey and zeal of a Cuban revolutionary.
Then there’s parallel blogs @mmmmmmwine and sweets and chocolate versions by the writer’s children. There’s @mmmmmm_beer by Stuart Harrison (@pezholio) and @mmmmmmcurry by Philip John.
So what lessons to learn?
Any good social media project is listening, collaboration, trial and enthusiasm to be fun.
Having something that people connect with helps. Whatever that may be. Cake or a passion for your estate, model buses or football.
Twitter has been brilliant for this. It taps into the network of social capital. Post the blog. Post the tweet signposting people to it. Marvellous.
Joe’s favourite cake is chocolate, by the way. He’s rarely happier eating it. Me? I’m partial to Mrs Slee’s flapjack.
Birthdays are nature’s way of telling you to eat more cake. So, happy birthday.
And can you send me a quick review?
Thanks to fellow cake blog contributors:
@brownhillsbob, @smartmatt, @stu_arts, George Cunningham, Clare Slee, @rbx, @englishmum, @jaynehowarth @lindasjones, @jimbosussexmtb, @sarahlay @philipjohn, @halifaxcakes, @thetalleygraph, @pezholio, @darrencaveney
And send your reviews to: