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…

Local government use of social media: laggers or leading-edge?

Why aren’t local councils in Australia leading the way in the use of social media to engage with their communities? Does this question keep you awake at night? Read on.

Two recent reports do an excellent job of analysing social media use in the Australian local government sector.

Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, Using Social Media in Local Government: 2011 Survey Report

Dialogue Consulting: Use of Social Media by Local Governments Report

Read these reports and you’ll get a picture of the current use of social media and best practice examples, as well as the perceived (but mostly unrealised) benefits of social media. These benefits include engaging with hard to reach communities, more transparent community governance, increased citizen collaboration, improved 2-way communication and information exchange, and enhanced reputation and relationship management.

The benefits seem pretty compelling for a sector whose core business is engaging with the community. You only need to have a look at the legislation governing the sector to get some pointers. Taking the Local Government Act (Victoria) as an example, you’ll see a slew of areas in the statutory objectives, role and functions of councils that could be enhanced through social media use. These include providing accessible and equitable services, transparent decision-making, fostering community cohesion, encouraging participation in civic life, and planning for and providing services and facilities for the local community.  Take accessibility as an example. A recent report by COTA Victoria showed that social media encourages social participation and reduces the isolation of older people. With an increasingly ageing population, this group is a key focus for local government. Social media could help to reach them more effectively.

According to the above reports, these significant potential benefits are being stymied by barriers such as lack of resources, lack of knowledge, and councils being risk averse. I don’t want to seem to be putting the boot into the sector, but the barriers appear surmountable to me, and are the same tired excuses you hear for any initiative not getting off the ground in any sector – a bit lame really.

To be fair, there are other sectors equally deserving of criticism for their slow uptake of social media, for example, the tertiary sector and publishing. But what sets local government apart is that they already own very visible physical spaces and infrastructure for community building and engagement. They have libraries, community health centres, council shop fronts, pedestrian malls, and public parks. They should be reinforcing these community hubs with digital real estate. It’s an incredibly powerful nexus to have both. Most companies would salivate over this level of ‘brand exposure’.

The reports above are the beginning of steps towards developing a social media index for local government. I think it’s only a matter of time until we see quality of life surveys and city livability indices including some measure of online/ social media citizen engagement to assess a city’s desirability as a place to live. Think about that and what it means to local government…

Don’t despair, there are remedies for the social media ills affecting local councils. The reports I’ve referenced suggest a number of practical and achievable steps to getting on board the social media express. I’ll leave you to explore these for yourself.

I’d like to stir the pot by adding a few of my own suggestions that are slightly more contentious.

•    Give all staff access to all social media platforms for personal and professional use. Currently only around 50% have access. Crazy! Reminds me of the days when email and internet were first around and only the librarians were allowed to have access. Yay for being a librarian.

•    Train ALL local council staff in the use of social media. Not just the communications staff, ALL staff, even the mayor and CEO. That solves your lack of knowledge barrier.

•    Decentralise social media responsibilities across the council. It’s never going to succeed if only 1 or 2 staff have responsibility. That solves your under-resourced barrier.

•    Start evaluating your social media efforts. There’s no point doing social media if you can’t measure its impact.

•    And for my most radical suggestion – reposition the communications team as a front of house service. Strategic communications and community engagement are core business to local government and should be managed as a client service, rather than a support function. Communications should sit alongside libraries in the management structure to reap the joint skills and knowledge of these two groups of staff when it comes to social media.

Food for thought… I’d love to hear your comments.

I’m attending CoM Connect – Melbourne’s Digital Strategy unconference  on the weekend. It will be fascinating to hear what comes out of this innovative event for the world’s most liveable city #comconnect