On hipsters, melancholy and the digital future

Over the weekend the City of Melbourne (CoM) ran the #comconnect unconference. There were around 150 artists, techies, public servants, gamers, community leaders, thinkers, designers, researchers, urbanists and makers gathered to generate ideas, raise challenges, propose solutions, build collaborations and cultivate projects to help CoM to kick start their digital strategy planning.

It is great to see a local council getting such a high level of participation and engagement at the inception of their strategy, rather than consulting when the creative thinking is finished and a strategy document is already drafted. Think of it as uber-brainstorming.

There were up to 6 concurrent sessions running over 4 time-slots over the 2 days, introduced by ‘lighting talks’ by experts, and summed up with plenary sessions. We (the attendees) designed the agenda at the start of each of the two days, opening up the floor for ideas to emerge and develop organically. Sessions were chaired by whoever proposed the idea. Session outcomes were captured online via Google docs. This is a pretty innovative approach to planning for a local council – both the level of engagement and the format.

The agenda was a smorgasbord of digital centered topics such as: future work in the digital age, knowledge sharing for a sustainable Melbourne, the self-aware city, emerging role of government, encouraging digital incubators, open data, sharing the agenda in decision-making, future-ready content, art & technology, who’s in the hood, digital play in the city, using games for positive change, making feedback easy, social cohesion, digital public libraries, digital inclusion through policy, future of civic engagement, data visualization, and experience mapping.

My vote for the session with the best title was ‘NBN WTF?’

Notes from the sessions are online with further summary reports to come.

To get an idea of the flavour and themes of the discussions, check out the word cloud generated from the Google docs summaries.

Word Cloud from CoMConnect

With so many sessions running at once I always felt like I was missing out on some other interesting conversation happening somewhere I wasn’t, but I began to see consistent themes and parallel discussions emerging and a coming-together of ideas. The organisers did an impressive job of facilitating and synthesising.

There was an amazing amount of energy and passion in the room from a bunch of people giving up their weekend to help CoM shape the digital future. The event has generated a lot of buzz for CoM, both amongst the people there on the day, and also via social media. The hashtag #comconnect has generated over 1.3m impressions and reached an online audience of over 153 000 people.

Some of the themes that emerged for me from the unconference were the:

  • Need to support digital spaces/ communities with physical spaces and face-to-face events.
  • Importance of government not starting a raft of initiatives from scratch when there are great community projects already happening that could be supported and strengthened by government.
  • Power of citizen and government collaboration and connection to solve ‘wicked problems’.
  • Exciting possibilities of new ways of working that the digital age offers *jargon alert* – co-working, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, microniches, gamification, data visualisation, collective action, and social enterprise & entrepreneurship.

The experience of the event mirrored the experience of the digital age itself. I made connections to new people, heard and generated new ideas to mull over and walked away feeling deluged with information.

The weekend left me with these questions:

  • How will CoM synthesise and use these crowdsourced ideas to generate a cohesive (and achievable) strategy?
  • How will CoM engage unconference attendees in further development of the ideas generated over the 2 days? And more importantly, how will they engage the broader community?
  • How will CoM cater to the digital poor and digitally illiterate in the execution of their strategy?
  • Can 150 hipsters effectively represent the diverse needs and views of CoM residents, workers and visitors?

The weekend also left me with a melancholy feeling. 150 people spent a whole weekend trying to figure out ways we could connect and communicate better with our fellow humans, with digital technology as the enabler. The overarching theme was bringing the village back to the city. In becoming urbanized, have we become so disconnected from each other that we have to deliberately construct and orchestrate our community?

I guess so…