This weekend saw the first conversation cafe organised by ‘Be The Change Cambridge’, a project headed up by Anne Bailey, Anthony Carpen, David Cleevely and Alessandra Caggiano.
The event was very well attended, although billed as being a smaller gathering. Around 50 people choose to spend a Saturday afternoon discussing how we can make Cambridge an even better place to live in – with many attendees representing organisations based in the city.
It was great to see so many organisations brought together in such a fashion, and its not something that happens enough in the city. A number of broad themes emerged from the initial exercise:
- Arts and culture
- Green spaces
- Growing up in Cambridge
- Improving local government (was has evolved from the topic ‘developing a unitary authority’ which I think is much improved and contains fewer assumptions)
We broke out into small groups to discuss these themes and to start identifying issues we’d like to see addressed by the project, before each group presented back to politicians who had joined us specifically for this purposes. It was great to see Vicky Ford (Conservative MEP for the East of England), Julian Huppert (Lib Dem MP for Cambridge) and Lewis Herbert (Labour leader of Cambridge Council) all attending, and all listening to people.
But I’m going to throw down two challenges, as Be The Change moves forwards.
Firstly a challenge to the organisers and other attendees. Can you make sure such events engage a wider number of interested citizens and residents of Cambridge? While it’s an incredible feat to bring together so many of the organisations in the city, the project has the potential to reach beyond that to others. Many of those who were attending the first event already have their own specific campaigns or activities they’d like to see improved in Cambridge, but it would be incredibly valuable to hear more from individuals who don’t already have these ideas, who also use the facilities, live in the space and would be impacted by any ideas created from Be The Change Cambridge. Similarly it would also be good to have better representation from businesses. It might be a question of messaging, focussing on specifically reaching those who aren’t already engaged locally, or perhaps running smaller events in specific locations (conversations in cafes just after the school run?).
My second challenge is to all the politicians who attended. To reach the projects full potential will require a commitment from politicians from all the political parties representing Cambridge. Will Cambridge’s politicians work together on many of the issues raised, and to be willing to not just listen to citizens,but to also take their thoughts on board? And it would be great to hear such commitments from political figures who were present. This isn’t limited to Vicky. Julian and Lewis (although certainly includes them), but also all the parliamentary candidates and councillors who also joined us. The project will likely generate some thought provoking, and indeed challenging, ideas and questions. I don’t know if anyone yet can see what the specific outcomes or requests of the project might be, but having the politicians clearly stating intent to work together will be nothing but beneficial.
With 6 substantive issues and an underlying process theme, it was a productive afternoon. Whether the politicians and other organisations in Cambridge are able to address the challenges that came out of it, and each work to help make Cambridge greater than the sum of its parts on an ongoing basis remains to be seen. But I certainly hope they can.