How I learned to stop worrying and love the jam

A lightning talk at Service Design in Government

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There’s a growing interest in hacks and jam events in the public sector. Over the past months in Leeds alone, we’ve seen events around open government data, mental health, cycling and public transport.

Great stuff can happen at these events, yet they can also be unfulfilling for participants and organisers alike. After all the pizza-fuelled excitement of the weekend, everyone gets back to their day jobs and wonders what, if anything, has changed?

I’ve felt that sense of disappointment myself. As co-organiser of events under the Service Design Leeds banner, I’ve tried to fix it in various ways. I want to share the conclusion I’ve come to about what hacks and jams are for, and how to make them work.

It’s easy to see the reasons why these events are so popular – but I think they’re often the wrong reasons.

People in the public sector are hungry for ideas – they’ve always wanted to make things better for the people they serve, but now they have to do so with diminished resources and less central support.

These diminished resources make shortcuts and quick fixes very tempting. One of my collaborators jokes about the magical thinking surrounding startup pixies – mythical creatures who just appear and solve problems overnight in return for beer and pizza.

The pixies don’t exist. And even if they did, they couldn’t solve anything overnight because that’s just not long enough to engage with real users, to gain their trust and understand their concerns. Co-creating service with users is a long-term relationship not a one-night stand.

Yes there may be rare examples of hack day projects that go on to greater things – projects like Snook’s MyPolice. But the strike rate is far too low to justify the enormous amount of time and effort that everyone else puts in, often for free.

The true value in hacks and jams doesn’t come from the ideas and projects they generate. It comes down to the social capital we create, and new ways of doing things that we practice by working together for the first time.

My favourite definition of innovation is a throwaway line by Bruno Latour that “a project is considered innovative when the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

Much of life in large organisations (in the private sector too) consists of doing the same things we did yesterday, with the same people in the same building. We can improve those things incrementally with six sigma and process improvement, but to be truly innovative we need to join forces with others from outside our bubble.

The best hacks and jams foster innovation by pressing together groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to collaborate. Even if that exact group never works together again, they all gain from the exposure to different perspectives and priorities in an egalitarian setting. So it matters who takes part in the event. 90 percent of the effort goes into getting the right people in the room.

Group forming and negotiation takes time and emotional energy. It’s not uncommon to see furrowed brows and tense discussions in jams. But this is all part of the important work of forging new understandings between strangers. The jam should be a safe space for that to happen.

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Meanwhile, the artificial time constraint in a jam forces people to work at a pace that they may not be used to. If you care greatly about the quality and reliability of the insights from your event, this will always be a source of pain.

But I prefer to turn that on its head (again in a safe, low-stakes environment). I urge jammers to start making a prototype before they know what it is, and to take it out of the building and test it with users before they think it’s finished. They’re invariable surprised by how much they could make in so little time, and by how little they needed to show users to get a good reaction. I want them to bottle that feeling and take it back to the office.

So when I look at the attendee list we have for the Leeds GovJam in a couple of weeks’ time, I’m excited by the possibilities.

We’re not going to solve the problems of the public sector overnight.

But we are going to see people working creatively together from our local authorities, central government departments, the NHS and third sector – a luxury they rarely have.

And we’re going to see what happens if, for just 48 hours, we focus on making something happen and involving users at a radically earlier stage than has been the habit in the public sector for so many years.

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One last thing: we’re doing it midweek. The unspoken message behind weekend hack events is that this stuff is an optional extra. If we really believe in innovation as part of an organisation’s core purpose then people deserve to do it during their normal working week.

Leeds GovJam is on Tuesday 3 and Wednesday 4 June. Find out more at leedsgovjam.wordpress.com

A found Leeds litany, raw notes from an afternoon walk

Red brick, air con units and recycling bins

Way back in June, as part of Andrew Wilson’s wonderful HannaH Festival, a group of citizens fanned out from Wharf Street Chambers into the summer drizzle clutching maps to four quarters of our city. We briefed participants to look for evidence of Leeds’ past, present and future. On returning to base we shared what everyone had found as photos and sticky notes spread out in a giant timeline on the wall.

As organiser, I committed to take the collective findings and weave them together into some kind of essay, as part of the Stories in their place series that emerges sporadically from this blog. Now it is winter, nearly six months to the day since our walk, and all I have are these damned PostIts. The promised essay will follow, with grand sweeping themes. But not yet.

Sticky notes on wall at Wharf Street

So by way of a down payment I offer you the raw notes, transcribed from the PostIts and ordered roughly as we stuck them on the wall at Wharf Street.

Like a medieval bestiary, ontography can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence. — Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing

Here is the list, a found Leeds litany. Make of it what you will.

  • East Bar stone outside the Minster
  • Kirkgate oldest street in Leeds
  • Failing since Briggate was built
  • Black Prince statue – political message
  • Public art – Victorian and Current
  • First White Cloth Hall
  • Railway through the end of the 2nd White Cloth Hall
  • Hunslet industrial history
  • Victorian attention to detail
  • Doors big for big cargo
  • Foundation of Leeds United
  • Bricked up windows and doors
  • Leeds brick
  • Bricks made locally
  • Old Dock
  • Printworks
  • 1990s riverside development
  • Back alleys
  • Narrow lanes
  • Clarence Dock
  • The Armouries
  • A long way from anywhere
  • Failed shopping centre
  • How many people actually live here
  • Crown Hotel and blue building
  • Development Corporation
  • De-industrialisation
  • Shiny buildings with social problems
  • Hotel with unexpected consequences
  • Market – Traditional shopping vs Trinity
  • A city of shopping
  • Poundland, Poundworld, Poundstretcher
  • Pile of bricks that was Tetley’s
  • Tetley’s now a car park
  • Green spaces
  • Parasitic balconies in the canal
  • Stagnant lagoon
  • Seedy places of innovation
  • Modern sheds in compounds
  • Locks on Millenium Bridge
  • Asda grocery collection point
  • Plans for a park
  • Digital agency in an old industrial building
  • The new college
  • Salem Church of big data
  • Cheap spaces – Berlinification
  • Bins and recycling
  • Hipster urban regeneration
  • Corn Exchange and building next door – tiling
  • Retro – what is old
  • Trinity Church – arts centre
  • Basinghall Street – service street

Thanks to all the walkshoppers, whose names can be found on the Eventbrite page.

The definite article, or lines written on the opening of a former brewery headquarters as contemporary art gallery

These past few years have been tough on Tetley’s disembodied headquarters.

First came the loss of the purpose for which it was built in the depths of 1930s depression – a human-scale head office for a family firm. The directors’ boardroom was relegated to an outpost of the Carlsberg empire. Lutheran rectitude became the order of the day in the by-all-accounts once riotous in-house bar.

In time the booze stopped flowing altogether. They closed the brewery and levelled the surrounding buildings, which had cosseted the headquarters from the elements and perfumed it with their distinctive whiff. Whether you loved or loathed it, South Leeds will never smell the same again.

Standing alone, lacking a flashy boom-time facade, the headquarters building was denied heritage status by English Heritage on myopic grounds, apparently based only on photographs:

“Technological innovation and machinery: it has no special interest in terms of technological innovation or machinery.

Wider industrial context, regional factors and an integrated site: these are linked and can be dealt with together. While the brewing industry was of importance in Yorkshire, and Tetley’s a major brewer, the region was not pre-eminent nationally. More significantly, the headquarters building is a small part of a much larger complex, and one that has already been judged not to be of special interest in a national context and not recommended for designation. In terms of industrial process, those parts of the site that were involved in the physical brewing would potentially have been of greater interest than the offices.

Architectural interest: the building is, as the applicants suggest, solid 1930s. The same architects were responsible for some of the buildings on the north side of Eastgate in Leeds, and there are similarities in both materials and style. The Eastgate buildings were based on designs earlier drawn up by Sir Reginald Blomfield and were already rather old-fashioned by the time they were executed. The surviving original internal features are attractive but not unusual, with the possible exception of the lift which has good contemporary styling including sun-burst motif decoration.”

Thus did the protectors of our heritage abandon a Leeds landmark, distinctive rooftop lettering and all. They left its fate to the whim of the self-same cold-blooded multi-national executives who had just ended 189 years of mass-scale brewing in our city. They might as well have ground every last brick to dust for a few more £3 a day parking bays.

But then it turned out those Danes had a soft side. They had been here before, as it were, with Carlsberg’s own factory turned cultural quarter on the edge of Copenhagen. Tetley’s headquarters had the fortune to fall into the hands of the persuasive, entrepreneurial artists who created and ran Project Space Leeds. Doubly lucky, this happened just as the impetus ran out on pointless, statement regeneration, new-build modernism. The artists could see things the bean counters and bureaucrats had missed.

That this building still stands, with much of its relatively understated interior intact, is testament to the place’s quiet strength of character, born of a solid sense of purpose and multi-generational commitment to the business. Despite all the indignities, it demanded a future as well as a past. That future begins today as The Tetley.

The Tetley. #thetetley. Roll that around for a bit and savour the de rigeur hashtag. For the first time in its four score years this place bears the mark of a lone survivor: its own definite article.

PSL and their architects have taken advantage of the site’s unlisted status to insert a massive new wall down the middle of the building. But they have also done the hard and unglamorous work required to open up the internal stairwell and the lift that even English Heritage had to grudgingly admit showed some merit. They have cleaned the place up, but not too much.

Stairwell and lift

At a bloggers’ preview last week I was heartened to hear director Pippa Hale talk about the way artists would be encouraged to engage with all the building’s rich heritage. The Joshua Tetley Association of former staff have been consulted and involved. Items left behind by the departing workforce will be incorporated into works of art. Among the most striking of these, giant letters from a lost rooftop lie scattered across a panelled former office.

Tetley interior with letters

There will be interventions outside The Tetley too. Mass industrialisation rendered the edges of many English cities impermeable. Gigantic works and goods yards cut off ancient rights of way. They enclosed the pre-industrial public realm and made new secret spaces that were only open to employees, and the occasional cheeky interloper. We post-industrials have a chance to reclaim that commons. The old Hunslet Lane – severed for years by Tetley’s security barriers – will re-open to pedestrians, with a little pocket of grass and promises of a bigger South Leeds park to come.

All of which will soon go to show just how wrong-headed it has been to evaluate industrial heritage like The Tetley in terms of machinery, manufacturing and stylistic merit. Like the chain of pubs administered from its offices, The Tetley was always a social place. I can’t wait to see those social qualities revived by the PSL crew and the artists they commission to work there.

The future, on foot

Andrew Wilson has Kickstartered something rather wonderful in the first HannaH Festival, which runs next week at venues across Leeds. My own contribution is a Friday afternoon stroll through the city’s past, present and future. I do hope you can join me.

Here’s the plan.

We’ll spend the first hour in small groups on the streets of Leeds collecting photographic evidence and found objects that represent the city’s past, present and future.

Meeting back at Wharf Chambers, a fantastic space in a Victorian former pork pie factory, we will discuss the material and use it to try and draw a trajectory for where Leeds, and the North as a whole, is heading. Are we going where we want to go, and what interventions could be made to change the direction of travel?

It’s a chance to try out the walkshop research technique and take a different look at the city in which we work, live and play. I’ve committed to document the walkshop findings in a short essay, and the whole group will be credited.

Why am I doing this? To find answers to questions that have bothered me for quite some time. See this post for the back story, and our New Idea of the North Tumblr for inspiration and source material.

And if after all that you still want to come for a walk, please book your place on the Eventbrite page.

Room to grow^ – 48 hours of the Global Service Jam

Leeds Service Jam

SD Leeds co-organiser Kathryn Grace and I were joined by 15 jammers in Leeds as part of the biggest ever Global Service Jam, taking place simultaneously in more than 120 cities around the world.

Thanks to Simon Zimmerman of Hebe Media, Leeds Council’s Leeds Inspired programme and James and Laura of Duke Studios for making it an absolute pleasure.

The group I was in had a relaxed yet purposeful approach to the jam. We got out on the streets early to interview potential users, heard them shoot down our first idea, pivoted, then went out again, and ended up designing a local currency for people who aren’t local to the city.

Simon East and Cassandra Stocks out testing our ideas with potential users

Other groups looked at accessibility in Leeds Market and a playful way to get children cooking healthy meals with their families.

On the Planet Jam website you can see the stuff we made, and all the other cities too.

Alternatively you can read Jane Wood’s reflections on the jam over at &Co Cultural Marketing – thanks Jane!

And if you liked that, you may also like these:

Make’Owt #3 15-16 March – The next event in the Make’Owt series, of which the Leeds Service Jam was part. This one’s led by maker Stuart Childs with the theme ‘Make Light’

Service Design Thinks and Drinks in Leeds – Our next Service Design Drinks event will be on Tuesday 23 April. Follow us on Twitter at @SDLeeds to find out more.

Gov Jam 4-6 June – The sister jam to the Global Service Jam.  We are looking at supporting a GovJam in Leeds. If you are interested please let us know.

^ that carat thing. I have no idea either, but it was part of the theme.

Five minutes, one year, two buildings, a thousand stories

Notes from my presentation at Bettakultcha, Leeds Town Hall, on Wednesday 9 January 2013.

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What an amazing venue. I could spend the next five minutes just talking about this building. I could tell you how the Leeds Corporation raised a special tax and set a budget of £35,000 to build a grand new town hall.

I could tell you how an unknown East Riding architect named Cuthbert Brodrick won the competition with his Classical Baroque design, championed by Charles Barry, architect of the Palace of Westminster.

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I could tell you how, part-way through construction, rivalry with surrounding towns spurred on the architect and his clients to add a tower and bust their budget, finally completing the structure at a cost of £125,000. But you know all that stuff, right?

I could tell you about the year construction began, 1853. A year of industrial strife in which Preston cottonworkers were locked out of their mills, inspiring novels by both Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

A year of innovation. Dr John Snow anaesthetised Queen Victoria with chloroform during the birth of her eighth child. The year Sir George Cayley’s terrified butler flew across Brompton Dale, near Sarborough, and resigned as soon as got back down to earth. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because while the great and the good of this city were signing the contract to build this town hall, a mile across town, a very different group of people were laying the foundations of another remarkable building.

The area on Richmond Hill known as “the Bank” was populated in early Victorian times by Irish weavers and labourers, drawn to the city to work in factories and construction.

Their numbers were swollen in the 1840s by refugees from Ireland’s Great Famine. The Bank was a slum, with badly-built housing, poor drainage, overcrowding and disease.

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Yet in this place, the poor Catholic congregation, with their priests and an order of Oblate nuns, found the resources to replace their makeshift church with a massive cathedral-scale Gothic creation known as Mount St Mary’s. They called it the Famine Church.

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It took four years to build. In that time, workers were killed and injured in a lightning strike; the order of nuns faced financial ruin, and due to old mine-workings the foundations below the ground cost as much as the structure above.

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The church’s first architect was York-born Joseph Hansom, inventor of the horse-drawn Hansom Cab. Later additions were by  Edward Welby Pugin, whose father gave us the rich interiors of the Palace of Westminster.

In Bradford in 1858, John Ruskin asked why it was that the churches of the period were so often Gothic, while the mills and mansions were Classical. Which is more than just a question of taste.

But now you live under one school of architecture, and worship under another.
What do you mean by doing this?

Ruskin hated Classical buildings because every detail had to be specified according to the laws of proportion and precedent – that pesky golden ratio. Symmetry trumps practicality. Perfection frustrates adaptation.

If you… make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.

With Classical, it’s all big design upfront. Adding the Town Hall tower, was costly and disruptive. At St Mary’s it was natural for Pugin’s transepts to blend into Hansom’s nave. A tower was planned, but, no matter, it never got one.

Mount St Mary’s Church was in use for more than 130 years. But since 1989 it has lain empty, stripped of its contents and allowed to decay.

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A sign on the vaulted front door said, “Keep Out, Private, Danger” – a warning, a threat and a promise.
Bernard Hare, ‘Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew

The English Heritage Grade II* Listing says it is “An important building on a prominent site,” with “fine proportions and remains of important features.”

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Developers now have planning permission for “a scheme that preserves the most important parts of the buildings and creates an innovative and exciting new residential development.” I really hope it succeeds.

It’s worth reflecting on the differences between these two buildings, Leeds Town Hall and Mount St Mary’s. Both begun in the same year, but on different sides of the tracks. One Classical, the other Gothic.

One built by civic power, the other by the faith of an immigrant community. I am neither Irish nor Catholic – I was married here in the Town Hall. But both buildings have provided a stage over the years for marking our city’s countless births, marriages and deaths.

One well-maintained and in use to this day, the other neglected now for two dozen years. What do their parallel stories tell us about the kind of city we want this to be?

Thanks to Richard and Ivor for giving me yet another five minutes on the Bettakultcha stage, and to Phill Davison for the many wonderful photos of Mount St Mary’s which I used in my presentation. For more on the history of church, head over to the Leeds Civic Trust bookshop and buy a copy of Pat Gavan’s ‘Mount St Mary’s Church 1851-2000′.

Three machines made in Leeds

For my wife’s family it is the crockery. Staffordshire-raised, they can’t resist upturning plates and bowls to check their makers’ marks – Doulton, Wedgwood and what-have-you. And my own father grew up near Sheffield, so in restaurants I also study the knives and forks – David Mellor was a Noughties Brit cuisine staple.

But Leeds, well Leeds made all sorts of stuff, and much of it too big and heavy for fine dining. So here I present three machines that have recently caught my familiarity-biased eye – all of them survivors still making their marks on the world in different ways.

Thing 1. I’m loving Chris Thorpe’s series on “Preserving the past with the near future” – the story of Winifred, a Hunslet-built steam engine that has travelled to Wales, the USA and back before being recorded as part of a unique project with lasers, 3d-printers and stuff.

The work is beautiful, and so are Chris’s blog posts describing the project at the Bala Lake Railway, especially like the bit about how future generations might view the recording.

Thing 2. On the first Sunday of many months, I had my Remember The Milk app pop up a repeating reminder, if in London, to visit the Kirkaldy Testing Museum a block inland from the Tate Modern at Bankside. Last Sunday we did, and were not disappointed.

David Kirkaldy was so convinced of the need for independent testing of construction materials that he commissioned at his own expense a massive testing machine from Greenwood and Batley of Armley.

Kirkaldy's testing machine - Wikimedia Commons

The machine served for 99 years through three generations of a family business, crushing, pulling and bending metal girders, concrete beams and much more – literally testing to destruction. Now it is cared for by knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. You should visit too.

Thing 3. At the back of my mind since our summer holiday in Scotland, this…

… a Leeds-built John Fowler & Co. steamroller upcycled into play equipment in a park at Aberfeldy. I guess there must be a few of these in playgrounds around the world. With a bit of imagination, you can flatten anything.