This weekend Good For Nothing held an event called WildThing for documenatary makers Green Lions. Green Lions are working on a film in the mold of Hugh Fearnley (autocorrects to furtively) Whittingstall’s Fish Fight and Chicken Run: campaign TV about bringing kids back to nature. “Do our children have Nature Deficit Disorder?” asks the protagonist, David Bond, in the teaser video on their website. Good For Nothing provided Tea, a tent and about 40 people to try and crack the problem of marketing nature to kids.

I wanted to go, but illness prevented me. I did manage to make it along to the presentation at the end to see what the teams came up with. As ever the amount of work that had been put in was incredible, as ever if you’d wanted to hire the people that willingly volunteered their time on their freelance rate it would have cost a fortune. In two days apps had been published, treehouses built, and amazing “sizzle” tapes for ideas had been shot and edited.

Having never been to a hack day except as a participant, looking in on proceedings was enlightening and not in a wholly good way. I say this as someone who wants to give up my weekends to good causes and frequently bangs the drum for hack days: there was a sense that the process was, ultimately, more about the participants than the kids they were ostensibly trying to help. The hackday format is an amazing thing, but it still seems to me there is _something_ missing which might help it convert from conceptual into concrete more effectively. Discussing this with the participants they felt the same: is it about the culture clash between introvert developers and extrovert ideas people? Or is it a case of getting the skills mix right? Or about refining the briefs?

The whole thing was had a strangely anachronistic New Labour flavor to it. Fitting since we were in walking distance of the Granita Restaurant. We even had a debate about about hunting – was skinning a rabbit all part of the countryside experience, or an aberration in our utopian bucolic past? And the debate about whether competition is ok – should the game apps have competition as an element, or is everyone a winner?

Most of all though, I was uncertain of the premise. David Bond has notionally appointed himself the Marketing Executive of Nature, and briefed the Good For Nothing crew to rebrand the countryside to make it accessible. What could be more Blair era than approaching the untamed wilderness from a marketing perspective?

I like to think of nature as something that sticks two fingers up at human aspirations, particularly ones as flimsy as marketing. The whole point of the outdoors is it’s implacable indifference to what you might want it to be. The more distance we can put between the email, excel and meetings and the great outdoors the better.

In fairness to the teams, most of them addressed this point, and there were plenty of behavioral insights deeper than my idle thoughts.

On a final note, I grew up in the country side and had a field at the bottom of my garden and I was bloody envious of people who didn’t. There was only one person of a similar age to me within walking distance and we didn’t get on. I did have endless fun building rope slides and driving a knackered car round the field, and my experiences have given me a practical understanding of mechanics and electrics that I deeply value. If you live in the countryside there is nothing to do apart from disassemble every electrical item in the house.

I also got very lonely and longed for other kids to play with, and later a pub that wasn’t a 20 minute drive away. There’s a reason the countryside causes incest. In one primary school near me all the children were ginger. Let’s keep this in perspective, for every Islington Dad promising to teach his kids the different types of bird song there is a 14 year old kid disassembling shotgun cartridges and inhaling deodorant out of a sock because there’s bugger all else to do. As they say, the grass is always greener….

 

This weekend I went to a “think/hack/do” event organised by Good For Nothing. The objective of the event was to help Lambeth Borough Council in its ambition to become a “cooperative council” – one that seeks deeper cooperation with residents.

In local government there seems to be quite a lot of apologising. There are shared assumptions, held by council workers and the public alike, that a) The council is the most inefficient organisation imaginable b) Every decision it makes will be the wrong one, in at least nearly everyone’s opinion c) They have absolutely no idea about technology, and should abandon all of their intuitions and listen to certified geeks as soon as they touch a computer. Everything you say has to be preceded by excoriating yourself for having the temerity to be white, middle class and literate. But Lambeth Council doesn’t have so much to apologise for – the more that I learned about what the council does the more respect I had for it – it does a lot.

I was part of a team that took on a brief to make all parks work as well as the best ones (ie. Brockwell Park  – whose major advantage is a very active community group). The first thing we did was gather some opinions, including  interviewing people on the streets and leaving marker pen and board at four locations overnight.

What I took from our research was this: local government is completely paradoxical. Councils are genuinely deeply motivated to make life great for residents, and have an admirable commitment to inclusivity . They have money, power, control over infrastructure and time.  Despite this residents frequently regard them as malign, and the decisions taken do sometimes look perverse.

This is one little gem we turned up: a turfed public space that the council had spent money digging up and making lumpy to prevent kids playing football. Sounds stupid, but it seems it was done at the residents’ request – apparently windows were getting broken by flying footballs.  No doubt the locals reserved the right to blame the council for the lack of facilities for young people.

Another seemingly trifling concern which preoccupies the council is ensuring there is no surface that a homeless person might use to comfortably sleep on. Our entire urban landscape is designed not for our amenity, but to “design out” a vulnerable demographic. On the other hand, mitigating the impact of street drinking and rough sleeping on the community is obviously a connected issue – and one frequently mentioned to councilors.

I spoke to a 70 year old man in a cafe and gave him my laptop to do a survey on (who was instantly two finger scrolling his way around the page – he obviously owned a Mac, confounding expectations).  At the time we were exploring the idea that parks are seen as hostile because of the amount special regulation around them – every park in Lambeth has a board with 45 by-laws at its entrance. However, we soon found that a lot of people wanted the regulations – that’s why they got there in first place.

What’s I found fascinating about the challenge the council faces was that it isn’t, at least exclusively, a lack of money.  The problem is one of finding out what the community wants – all of the community – not the “sharp-elbowed middle classes”, as we unfairly referred to them.

Three disposable thoughts that came to me during the process:

  • This is not rational ignorance. Unlike national politics, in local debate there is a good chance your voice will be heard. Moreover, rather than abstract national politics you will be changing actual things that really affect you – traffic, crime etc.
  • However, it’s also the case that although many people would benefit from interacting more with their council, they don’t in fact have time to get informed and communicate their views. As previously mentioned, only those sharp-elbowed middle class have the time and skills to do this.  Deliberative democracy, where randomly selected representative groups of citizens are paid to spend time thinking through problems could be an answer. Jury service for the local council essentially.
  • Publicly funded organsiations often seem reticent about promoting themselves. When I was at the BBC, there was a constant refrain that we should “do less and promote more”, but we still found ourselves building brilliant web products that no one ever heard of because the budget for marketing didn’t exist.  All of us at the hack day were pretty clued into what happens in Lambeth, but we were constantly saying  “What about x” only to have the Ian from the parks department say that it already existed.Hackney Council did an advertising campaign at bus stops a while back – but it was completely generic “We’ve refurbished 20 playgrounds this year” etc. Perhaps they could do adverts asking the public about the three issues closest to that bus stop – with a number to text.My limited experience of council-culture gave the impression they aren’t naturally going to bang their own drum.

Finally, isn’t this a lovely example of online conversation around a shared space? The design of the Clapham Common Skate Park was discussed extensively on Facebook, on page set up by the council. It’s still a busy page with lots of people chatting about it.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clapham-Common-Skate-Park/144717115599888