Unchartered Territory – Centre for Cities’ Open Source Campaigning Experiment

The Think Cities Campaign

In January 2014, the Centre for Cities – an independent, non-partisan think tank focusing on economic development and urban policy in UK cities – took its first steps into the unchartered territory of campaigning, with the launch of ‘Think Cities’. While the Centre has long been involved in the political and policy-making spheres, this was the first time we had sought to build an election campaigning platform that sits outside of our core research programme, and our own manifesto.

Think Cities was developed as a campaigning tool to raise the profile of UK cities as engines of national growth, and to make the case to national politicians that cities need to be at heart of policy-making. The ambition from the very beginning was to build a coalition of voices in support for the campaign, right across the country, so that our role could be as convenors of a debate – one that would hopefully gain enough critical mass to grow and expand outside of our own activities. While this kind of success would absolutely complement and support our manifesto and our broader agenda, we wanted to give life to a conversation that took cities policy outside of the Westminster think tank world, to demonstrate just how central cities are to overcoming a whole host of issues throughout the UK.

Early Challenges

While this approach offers great opportunities to build a sense of consensus on the importance of cities, it has also presented some significant challenges. While we were clear from the beginning about what we wanted to achieve, there was definitely a sense of experimentation in how we were going to get there. One of our main objectives was to give cities the tools to drive the campaign from the ground-level themselves – but by stepping back, it would be difficult to set expectations about what we could hope to realise. We had also, due to resourcing constraints, decided to engage an external communications partner to assist these cities to mobilise their campaigns and engage with local press. While working with third parties could offer us fresh perspective and greater reach, it could also disconnect us from the day-to-day involvement we are used to.

Achievements so Far

The first step of the campaign was to launch an innovative website platform – thinkcities.org.uk – to gather contributions (in the form of blogs, videos, etc.) from political leaders, captains of industry, academics and commentators. This has been very successful – we have been able to bring together a wide range of voices and it has given us an enormous amount of content to share on social media. We have also discovered a strength in hosting debates around provocative topics, which we hope to use as a basis to inform a public events programme in the future.

Over the last few weeks, Think Cities has entered a second – and much bolder – phase, as influencers within four English cities have launched their own spin-off campaigns: ‘Think Bristol’, ‘Think Birmingham’, ‘Think Leeds’ and ‘Think Newcastle’. These four campaigns were introduced through local press, and were supported by the Centre at a national level through a range of blogs and social media activity, highlighting the need for cities to have greater powers to support local growth. We have given these cities the ‘open source’ tools and platforms to begin a process at the grassroots to articulate their most pressing needs and priorities – and to bring these to the attention of parties ahead of the 2015 Election. But the nature of these priorities, and how they go about developing them, and communicating them, is entirely up to them.

The Next Stage

While we hope that they, and other cities, will drive these campaigns through to the end, our role is to empower them to raise their voices – but not to prescribe a course of action. This is a tricky line to tread, but one that could promise great rewards, because the arguments for cities to gain greater agency over shaping their future are much more powerful when they come from the people who live and lead within them. We will be helping to foster debate at a local level by hosting events in a range of cities, large and small, which we hope will help encourage leaders, the business community and the public to take ownership of their campaigns.

There is a huge opportunity for cities to capitalise on the momentum that has been building over the last few months, as cities have steadily risen up the political agenda. Throughout June and July, each of the major political parties has come out and made pledges to empower cities one way or another, and the publishing of the long-awaited Adonis Growth Review and the CLG Select Committee Report into devolution have further contributed to the sense of a bipartisan concord. That said, given Think Cities was intended to be a ‘big picture’ awareness-raising initiative, to catapult cities onto the political agenda, and cities are now received an unexpected level of attention, it is easy to come to the conclusion that people are already ‘Thinking Cities’. We know, however, that it is vital to maintain the momentum generated to date – there is still a long way to go before these words turn into action, and much more work to be done from all sides to help policy-makers to get there.

Against our original ambitions, Think Cities has gotten off to a promising start. But with our second phase underway, and as we stride towards party conferences, it is time to look ahead and decide where we should take the campaign and its platforms. In this spirit, we wanted to reach out to an audience of peers, for your comments and suggestions about how to maximise the impact of the campaign:

  1. How do we disseminate and package the content we have already pulled together on the Think Cities website to maximum effect, as well continue to innovate in how we build this coalition of voices?
  1. How can we best get the balance right between ensuring cities make the most of the Think Cities platform to advocate for their needs, while also giving their campaigns the space needed to evolve organically?
  1. How do we keep momentum going beyond the media and political interest in cities policy over the past few months, and shift the focus beyond the rhetoric of devolution, to the measures required to make it a reality?

We would really welcome WonkCommers’ thoughts on how best to tackle these challenges, and to make the most of the opportunities we have already built – so please get in touch with your comments, critiques and advice.

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Posted in Opinion
One comment on “Unchartered Territory – Centre for Cities’ Open Source Campaigning Experiment
  1. Hans Gutbrod says:

    I am not particularly knowledgeable in the area you talk about, but I would think that a classical design strategy could be useful. Describe your best and worst days of interactions in the job, think who is behind it, and then create 5-7 key characters that define your opportunities and risks. Your communication strategy needs to work for those groups.

    In some of your sentences above, you talk about relatively abstract issues, often in nouns. The key is to make this work for your core groups, and turn this into “sustained verbs”. I know this sounds a bit pat, but it’s the kind of approach I would take.

    Good luck! The project sounds very interesting!

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