The Big Debate: taking people out of their comfort zones

On Monday I attended The Big Debate, an event organised by Birmingham City University with The NEC Group and the Birmingham Post that tasked itself with the question “Can the Midlands’ creative industries revolutionise the UK economy?”

The question itself became less interesting to me than the reaction to the debate from the social media scene in Birmingham. That Twitter stream of reaction is stored for posterity here, and to me the themes running through it appeared to run along the lines of ‘Same old stuff’; ‘Stop talking about it and just do it already’; and ‘You don’t get it’.

I’ve experienced the same frustration myself at many media conferences. As Pete Ashton put it so well: JFDI.

But this was not a media conference: it was a conference for the people in industry who don’t get it, who can’t do it already, and to whom this is still very new stuff indeed.

Beyond the echo chamber

Listen, for example, to Thomas Dillon the “Chairman of Creative Advantage Fund, Europe’s first public venture capital fund for the creative industries,” as he says that “one of my proudest achievements was when The Pirate Bay defendents were convicted in April this year”.

As we say on the Internet: WTF?

Then look, for example, at one of the list of actions that came out of the conference itself: ‘more networking events please’.

“More?” We can’t move for meetups and unconferences in this city. Or is that just us?

The Big Debate was about moving people out of their comfort zones and mixing them up with people from other fields – and maybe exposing parts of the region’s creative industry that we aren’t used to seeing, like the Jewellery Quarter, like the industries where Facebook is banned at work.

So yes, there are people in this region who do think that the 3 Strikes concept is a good one; and clearly there are people who are not so plugged in as to be spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing which social media networking event to attend that week.

There are also, I discovered, people who feel excluded from the ‘Birmingham clique’.

And there are people in the room who have not read We Think. And there are people who think social media is a “channel” to sell things. (And if the history of Web 1.0 is any guide, it may well become that).

So getting them to listen to Charles Leadbeater (who, by the way, was a great speaker and a credit to the ambition of the organisers) say that they should make Birmingham “a home for pirates” is important.

Likewise, understanding why they might disagree with Leadbeater is important too, because if you want to persuade these people to do the right things to support creative media, then you have to make the most effective argument, which means listening.

Ultimately the whole event is an exercise of power. Use your vote – have a voice – because if you don’t, and let ignorance exercise power unchallenged, then you can’t complain when the other side does something you don’t like.


Because ultimately action will come out of The Big Debate – glacier-like, not at the pace we would like, but hopefully in the right direction. The results of the conversations, I’m told, will be used with external funding agencies to review priorities moving forward; within Birmingham City University to inform what it does; it will be used with research centres; and with meetings with Birmingham City Council.

The organisers could have been better at communicating all of this – it wasn’t clear during the event – but there it is.

Likewise, the event could have been more porous: have a Twitterfall on the big screen so those participating from afar could do so genuinely. Use facilitators to show the people on the tables who don’t use Twitter how it can be genuinely conversational and productive rather than just another channel or waste of time. Have a genuinely conversational web presence.

(That said, I got to speak to people who weren’t on Twitter, which is always useful. And a physical meeting space can be just as levelling as social media, when done right.)

That’s all for next year. For now, we throw in our opinions, and we wait for the lumbering behemoths to squint and read what has been written, and then we go off and JFDI anyway.

UPDATE: Dave Harte has written a wonderful post busting the myths propagated at the event (I particularly like no.2).

4 thoughts on “The Big Debate: taking people out of their comfort zones

  1. Alexandre Gamela

    My thoughts exactly. I had some conversations with other people about this and that is the general feeling. People don’t want pirates, they want gentle Errol Flynn-like corsairs and dwell in a artificial status that exists without really many groundbreaking results. Birmingham is the place to be, that’s true, but i think it should become the place to DO.

    By the way, you people have more conventions, meetings, meetups than doctors. I like that, but i know what people say about doctors too…

  2. Pingback: The Big Debate 2009 | Created in Birmingham

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  4. Paul Long

    A very helpful summary.

    If I may add my two-pence worth?

    There was certainly much to engage with here, both in terms of content as well as with the intentions and organisation of such events.

    Regarding the latter, one may moan and critique the coherence and possible outcomes when faced with an unanswerable question (what would have been a better one) BUT at least this constituted an attempt to deal with some big issues.

    Having been at the WMRO conference the previous week it seems to me that the magnitude of the economic and thus social-cultural impact we face in the coming year is yet to be countenanced at large in any serious fashion. The problem ain’t going to go away any time soon.

    Interestingly, and given the focus of solutions offered or explored in The Big Debate, creative industries just did not figure in any meaningful manner at this earlier event. Let alone the sometimes solipsistic worldview one sometimes encounters online. Not that such perspectives are confined to those on Twitter etc.

    Those of us who attended were spread across tables with people that most of us had never met before or had no communication with via other means – e.g. Twitter. As always, this makes for interesting, if frustrating, encounters. One gains an insight into a raft of areas and activities, private and public organisations, CEOs for mega-companies as well as humble SMEs and sole-traders.

    This brought home to me how poorly (impossible perhaps) communication can be between these entities and individuals, particularly as it pertains to understanding the work and sectors each of us work in.

    I cannot excuse myself or the groups I might be taken to represent (HE Pedagogues/researchers) but the understanding of education expressed on my table as well as in some speakers comments was problematic to say the least.

    Of course, I’m bound to say this having had to put up with the old canard about the uselessness of ‘media studies’ trotted out by one of the ‘innovators’ on stage and then endorsed around the table; rather like the rattle of a stick in a swill-bucket as Orwell had it in another context. Can’t we pick on, oh, say, History for a change? No skills for new media there, no ‘creativity’ etc.

    Forgetting about the subject area which doesn’t need defending from me, the issue seemed to come back to distinctions between a Gradgrind-utlitarian vision of education as skills training (for what exactly?), or something more holistic and, dare I say it, creative in its orientation. Or at least there would have been that division had I heard more about the latter concept. For ten years we’ve heard a lot about skills for the creative economy in tandem with the boosterist claims about this sector but you know, in the US, there is no compatible discourse or structure for compensating for a perceived lack or planning for competition in this area. And the US outperforms us on all counts.

    One idea which I did recognise was that Universities look impenetrable from the outside. This is fair enough, in spite of many of us inside opening doors, reaching out to industry and communities etc. Complaints that not enough students connect with the ‘real world’ (partly repeated again in Mandelson’s initiative this week) are not born out in my experience although one wonders about the sector as a whole or indeed, any one institution.

    This brings me to a connected point about the disparity between calls to ‘do something fast’ and the nature of institutions and organisations such as universities, councils et al. For the latter, slow-movement is partly due to the democratic process and accountability. When an entity has billions of our money, caution is appreciable, if frustrating. It doesn’t always impact in any noticeable manner either when spread over time. Yet, when you face a £15bn GDP gap, the solution is likely to take some time.

    Given the political, economic & social matters that we have to face up to, you know, these did not emerge in any cogent way at the Big Debate it seemed to me.

    However hostile people may be to hearing from someone who is pro-copyright and punishment for pirates et al, they need to be heard and engaged with. While CL was better than I’ve heard him on other occasions, the issue of making a home for pirates needs exploration and clarification. One of the reasons Pirate Bay operators were prosecuted was that they operate in a country subject to its own laws and subscription to WTO regulation, not to mention close-attention from the US.

    Cities like Birmingham and places like the West Midlands are not independent states (well, Kingstanding might be) and these realities need addressing, not ignoring or dismissal as if simple irritants. Just think about the struggle facing Cameron over EU law and Tory plans for a revivified “Great” Britain. Maybe complex, maybe boring (to some), the legal, the economic, the planning et al are where the solutions lie, just as much as they might do in ‘innovation’.

    Interestingly, perceptions of change & action (or lack of it) in evidence at the Big Debate, as well as the mention of networks here raises a final issue about the day.

    Now this is not meant to be complacent in any way, but across the room many commentators seemed to characterise the city (there is no ‘city’ as an entity, merely workers, doers, creatives, teachers, citizens, children et al) as needing to mobilise and ‘do something’. But as any fule kno, there is lots of activity at the moment.

    I think Dave Harte might have corrected this negative impression on the day, or it might have been Joni Mitchell in ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. However, there are lots of good things happening in the city, successes and failures, in lots of different sectors and areas, not always joined up, not always in need of joining up.

    Once one gets over the idealist desire to see the world remade in one’s own image or desired design and looks for empirical evidence, things look different. We’re not in utopia, far from it BUT networks matter. We might need more of ’em, not less.

    As Chris Bilton has written (, it is hard to identify or directly nurture the ‘creativity’ of the creative industries but by attending to the loose affiliations and connections that make for creative contexts, productive things can happen and be directed and harvested.

    More communication, more debate – online and face-to-face, is what will lead us to summat; or the summit.


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