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Tales from the #VibrantSheffield Live Lab

Grant Thornton's recent Vibrant Sheffield event was exhilarating, but was it diverse enough to be a true watershed moment?

“I walked through hot coals last Friday”, he said.

“It’s been pretty stressful then, helping to organise this?”

“Four times.”

I paused…

“Wait, you actually walked through hot coals?”

“Yup. Never thought I’d do something like that.”

“Right. Blimey. So. How did you feel afterwards?”

“Amazing. Like I could do anything!”

I was in the Winter Gardens, mingling with the participants after the Grant Thornton Vibrant Sheffield ‘Live Lab’ event, which was held in the Millennium Galleries last Thursday the 12th of May. The man I was talking to was Martin Tasker, short, wiry, energetic, in his early 50s. We were drinking prosecco from flutes.

Three weeks earlier, Martin had gone to his regular meeting with his caseworker at the Job Centre and had been told there was an opportunity to join 19 others in a programme called Our Club, a social enterprise that helps long term unemployed people build their confidence to find work. He had asked her to sign him up before she had even finished explaining what it was about.

“At the first meeting, everyone was standing around with their heads down”, he said. “It’s really amazing how far we’ve come in a couple of weeks.”

The #VibrantSheffield Live Lab was the first of a series of events that are being convened by Grant Thornton across the UK, as part of their Vibrant Economy initiative. They are seeking to “stimulate ideas and actions that can create a vibrant economy – one which realises the shared potential of businesses, cities, people and communities across the UK.”

The events are being organised using principles of Appreciative Inquiry, a workshopping and engagement method designed to get stakeholders to actively participate in self-determined change. The Sheffield inquiry was framed around the question: “How can Sheffield become the creativity and innovation capital of Europe?”, and brought together over 200 people at 24 tables, each working collaboratively all day to generate, describe and communicate ideas.

Each table produced between 20 and 50 ideas, meaning there must be in the region of 700 ideas. These ideas were filtered of course, with tables voting on each other’s best 5 in order to present one key idea per table. However all the ideas were captured and they will all be made available in the Vibrant Sheffield online community set up to carry on the conversation after the event. Many of them will be very similar of course, but the most interesting ones may also be the more polarising ones – the ones that fell foul of the vote. There are certainly ideas in there that are born from perspectives I haven’t come across before, in all the years I’ve been engaged with the city and its economic policies.

Which is really why diversity is so very very important, and why it was on the minds and lips of many participants I spoke to.

On the positive side, it was a very large group of people – certainly the largest group I’ve ever seen so actively engaged in workshopping. And the creativity on display was quite special, with groups presenting, acting, making videos, even rapping about their ideas.

But while there were many women in the room, there were not enough. The table I was on for instance was entirely male, as was the table next to us. Although we were informed that great care had been taken to mix every group up, and that the two empty chairs next to me that indicated people had dropped out on the day might account for it.

What was clear though was that there were at least two important constituencies missing from the proceedings: young people and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. And this was a great shame I think – the range of ideas and debates would have been different and more diverse. I am a big believer in the concept of ‘clumsy solutions’  to complex problems and it’s very difficult to incorporate the needs and ideas of people who are unrepresented and unexpressed. It would also have been a great opportunity for capacity building and establishing relationships with youth and community leaders – something Sheffield Digital would very much like to do more of.

Finally though, while the inclusion of Our Club was perhaps tokenistic, it most definitely wasn’t perfunctory. The Our Club participants began the day expecting to help to facilitate, serve food and generally steward the event, and were understandably amazed when they were asked to sit at the tables and participate alongside the regular delegates.

Several people have subsequently described the day as a watershed moment for Sheffield.

It may well have been just that for some people who never imagined they’d be included.

UPDATE: The full list of ideas has now been published in the Vibrant Sheffield online community. I’ve converted the document to an open Google Sheet, which you can access here. I’ve made the sheet editable so people can add in tags, extra columns, etc. but please don’t abuse the privilege! Perhaps someone fancies taking this data and visualising it better..?

UPDATE 2: Dan Sumption has published an excellent account of the day as well. If anyone else posts or sees a good post, please mention it in the comments.