We’re ready for the challenges that the new age of austerity will bring us – but are our citizens? That’s the issue we’ve been exploring this week in Coventry as we piloted the first ever mass online conversation held across a city – the CovJam.
IBM, who developed the concept of a jam as a way of crowdsourcing new ideas, has run jams for multi-national organisations across the world, but had never done one for a city. Innovation and new ways of engaging citizens is close to our hearts in Coventry and we welcomed the invitation to give it a go.
So this week we invited people to join us for online discussions on five key themes that we know are important to Coventry people, including ‘Sent to Coventry’ exploring what we really want to be known for and ‘Aspiring Coventry’ challenging just how visionary we are as a city. Once logged in Jammers could pick a theme and join a discussion thread facilitated by a Council or partner organisation volunteer.
But the CovJam was much more than just a bulletin board or Facebook page. Invited VIPs, including design guru Wayne Hemingway, leading academics, the local newspaper editor and BBC station manager, dropped in during the event to add their views and ideas to the conversations, we had quick polls on a number of topics and facilitators kept the conversation flowing with new ideas and questions to prompt debate.
Over the three days fierce discussions about our city and its citizens divided opinion – and brought people together. The first day’s Jam saw hundreds of people log on and talk with passion. Jammers disagreed about many things over the course of the day - our ring road, the kind of shops we wanted in the city centre and green spaces in Coventry.
The discussion about the city’s ambition (or lack of it) was so challenging it made the local paper the next day.
Over the course of the event the CovJam developed into a thoughtful series of conversations about practical ways forward. One discussion has already led to action – the launch of a #lovecov thread on Twitter where people are telling the world what’s special about our city.
We explored the relationship between the state and the individual – dipping into the Big Society challenge – with some useful debates between council employees, the voluntary sector and elected members about the personalisation agenda and the role of the third sector. And while these conversations are ones we’ve been having for months within our partner organisations, the opportunity to explore them in a public arena where anyone can join in has felt like something new for us all.
IBM is now using sophisticated software to analyse all the conversations and identify key themes and issues arising from the Jam. We’ll be sharing the results widely and looking at ways of developing good ideas; Jammers have voted for their favourite low cost ideas and we’ll be aiming to turn these into reality as quickly as possible.
But this is just the beginning for us. Honest conversations with our citizens have never been more important, and the CovJam has shown us we can do this with a wide range of people – residents, experts, our own employees, businesses and students – when and where it suits them (from their homes, offices, in coffee shops or in the park and at any time of the day or night), rather than when it suits us.
They can talk about just about anything they want (within the broad but Coventry focused key themes), rather than be confined to specific issues we’ve chosen. And - perhaps most important of all - we’ve encouraged our own staff to have frank and brave conversations about the things that count in Coventry with the people who pay their wages.
And we’ve all enjoyed the experience of this world first city-wide jam.
Martin Reeves is chief executive of Coventry City Council