My #ukgc12

Friday marked the start of UK GovCamp 2012. Or #ukgc12 as it swiftly became known.

I say “start”, because this year’s event was a two-day affair. Friday was held in the traditional unconference manner, no pre-arranged agenda, just enthusiasm, energy and bright people discussing things close to their hearts. Saturday was marketed as a “Doing Things” day, with more focus on doing than talking.

I could only attend the former, my second such event, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Reclaiming the High Street

After the introductions and formalities, I attended a session about rejuvenating the High Street. It was fascinating. Lots of revolutionary stuff going on down in Herne Hill by all accounts, individuals and traders getting together to reclaim ownership of the area’s activities from the council.

So many people talk of their sadness at the shops that are closing on the High Street. While that is indeed sad, it’s something that has to be embraced. The world has moved on. First, out of town shopping centres drew shoppers away from the High Street. Next, the internet came along to remove some of the remaining shoppers. While High Street shopping is still going on, it’s no longer sufficient to support the numbers of businesses that were there ten, twenty years ago. And that’s just fine.

When people talk of the High Street, most people immediately think of shops. They don’t immediately think of restaurants, libraries, community centres, youth clubs, gyms, coffee shops, art galleries and the like.

The High Street needs to become the place you go to do stuff that you can’t do on the internet – most of that list, if you will, and then some. There are lots of things that can’t be done online, and the High Street needs to fill that gap, rather than trying to compete. Yes, there will always be a need for physical shops. But people shouldn’t look for Woolworths to be replaced by a similar shop.

Intranets

On next to a session about intranets and their place in the workplace. Lots of debate as to whether they should be social or functional, and about people’s appetite to help their colleagues.

What I’ve always found odd about intranets is that there tends to be one of them in an organisation. Outside the firewall, I go to the BBC for my news, Google to find things, Facebook for community, Twitter for lively debate and insight, etc. But if I want to do stuff within my workplace, there’s one place to go: http://intranet.

It’s not quite like that nowadays. Systems spring up, collaboration tools are introduced. But in the main, there’s the ethos that everything you need as an employee lives under one roof, which still strikes me as odd and likely contributes to the difficulty organisations have in engaging with their employees.

Communities

Next, to communities. The session was billed as discussing the way in which communities could be brought closer together through technology, led by the delightful and super-intelligent Ingrid Koehler. The 45-minute session was ten minutes old before I realised that we were talking about online communities (professions, like-minded individuals etc.) as opposed to neighbourhoods.

This is not because I’m stupid. (That factor is responsible for many other things, but wasn’t relevant in this instance.) It’s because many of the issues that prevent geographically grouped people (neighbourhoods) from getting together online are equally relevant to bringing together geographically disparate people with a common interest or occupation.

In each case, there is the impetus to create and manage a community; and the impetus for the community to engage. It’s a very delicate circle that is easily broken. Without content of interest, the users won’t bother. Without users, the management of the community will flounder and content will suffer.

And then I had to leave to pick up my daughter from school, returning with her a couple of hours later to introduce her to the wonder that is GovCamp. And to allow her to pick up her very own t-shirt and name badge. She loved the technology and was blown away by all the people.

As for me, I didn’t have the same connection as last year, not having worked in government for almost a year. The sense of common purpose that GovCamp brings about is powerful and addictive. I felt ever so slightly removed from proceedings. Nonetheless, it was great to meet some old faces, to discuss things with some frighteningly intelligent people, and to be welcomed into such a thriving and warm community.

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