New Union is 5 years old - Part 2

Helping the government be more open and transparent has been a cornerstone of what we do, and ultimately we have been involved in various smart city projects, from sitting on government commissioning groups to running projects.

From a personal point of view, I have always been slightly suspect of a project when I read the words ‘smart city,’ after all, the term literally has no legal definition or meaning so the scope can be a little too wide sometimes, but above all, when small authorities feel pressured to run their own, they may look to their bigger neighbours and copy their model, which is not going to be fit for purpose - if I have been asked in the past what the term smart city is to me, I’ve always said it is whatever it needs to be to fit the city or place.

And I am wary of phrases that can be articulated in any way possible, this can really complicate already complicated outreach and to be honest, I have never found that helpful.

But, when I was approached by Sandwell Council to create a community-driven smart city project I was drawn to the idea as I thought apart from commissioning, it was a really interesting social policy experiment, iSandwell was born.

iSandwell was a massive project which span all sorts of different areas such as constant policy driver events across the region including a steering group that regularly met to ensure the lanagde is relatant and projects are on point with community needs, an extensive training program with community groups of all sizes including how to use open data and hold decision makers accountable and several rounds of funding and mentoring via an accelerator program, giving small NGOs the opportunity to run their own civic tech project along with guidance.

What we really tried to do is install a new social culture within the local third sector by giving them the skills in a safe environment to run their own digitally minded civic projects, and it worked, steering groups are still in use on writing this and Sandwell Council are regularly chased for data by small community groups.

In 2019 iSandwell was actually noticed in the UK Parliament, when the then Minister of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Margot James, said:

“As the Minister for Digital it is of great interest to hear of the work that New Union and Sandwell Council are undertaking with regard to the iSandwell project. It is clear that in the future there will be renewed focus on connectivity and ‘smart cities’, particularly with the opportunities that the rollout of 5G presents. It is also very great to hear of the different elements within iSandwell which I hope will be able to cultivate digital talent and advance the digital agenda within the local area as well as delivering the five long term outcomes that have been set out.”

Her counterpart in government on the other side of the isle, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Tom Watson, also said:

“iSandwell is very dear to me, not just because I am the local MP, but I’m the Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the former Minister who created the power of information task force which led to the creation of the Open Data Institute.

So I’ve looked at all of these projects, the work you are doing with the visually impaired community to create the digital charter, the work you are doing for digital exclusion with our Bangladeshi community, mapping out networks in Wednesbury and giving young people positive role models on social media.”

Going on to add:

“It’s great that with all these projects you are putting the citizen at the heart of policy, because I think digitisation is about emancipating people by giving them the power of their own lives and you are doing that with this project, so very many congratulations.”

Coming up with a way to put the public at the front of decisions and policy, especially those who are sometimes excluded, has been pretty much the cornerstone of New Union - making sure it’s in their own words is equally important.

All governments who want to write successful strategies understand community engagement to provide a strong evidence basis and over the years we have run many rapid prototyping type workshops to help them be as successful as possible.

These have ranged from looking at how social isolation affects the deaf community, how the visually impaired depend on technology to the barriers to eating well and the impact on food poverty, we have highlighted some of the community centric hackathons and you can read more about some of those, here.

It’s not all about digital, in 2021, we came up with the Rethink Re:Place toolkit after many conversations with local government officers who work in placemaking stated a fear of funding cuts due to much needed invested in local health in the hope to curb a ‘mental health pandemic’ post Covid-19.

During the various lockdowns, on our walks around our local areas, we started to see and discover more of where we lived. People genuinely started to feel a real sense of place and ascertaining our new connections from where they lived, some of us, really found our local identity.

We thought it was a shame to not capitalise on that new found passion for place and if urban planning projects are going to suffer, maybe tactical urbanism can step in. So originally, we designed a downloadable participative workshop that anybody could just download and run in their area.

Why tactical urbanism? Tactical urbanism consists of low-cost, temporary changes to a built environment, usually in cities and towns, intended to improve local neighbourhoods and city gathering places. Perhaps most important is that it can be done cheaply (or at no cost!), by almost anyone.

With the help of volunteers, Rethink Re:Place quickly snowballed into a campaign and virtual festival which interviewed industry leaders from all over the world offering advice, had a host of vlogs and blogs, a learning resource for children where they acted as a mayor for a day in a fictional city and a host of workshops with local government in the UK and Canada, and to finish everything off a policy hackathon with government and third sector workers from across the globe.

You can learn all about that, read the report and download the workshop for yourself by visiting here.

There is so much more I can put in this blog and it’s been a bit tricky to think of a few select projects to talk about, but if you are reading this and we have worked together over the last 5 years, I can’t thank you enough.

Finally, I’d like to shine a light on our wonderful volunteers who have joined us over the years, they have been an integral part of our success and they have made New Union such a great place to work.

We’ve been so lucky to have had the trust of so many bright, brilliant, passionate and innovative young changemakers, and I genuinely can’t be any more proud of what they achieved while they have been with us, and, I am incredibly appreciative they put the trust in us with their professional development.

It’s been a great 5 and looking back I am amazed at what we have been able to achieve. So, another 5 years? We’ll see, but what I can say is that I am still excited about what we can potentially achieve and there is still so much more to come.

Watch this space.