Cloudbusting, Kite Flying and Star gazing

Dundee is a magnificent city that faces extraordinary challenges and last week I spent a day talking and thinking about how the creative and cultural sector can help tackle those challenges. Cloudbusting is the first in a series of national gatherings led by the creative producers, Big Sky, which seeks to answer big societal questions. This time it was part of the DCA'Blue Skies weekend. The room was made up of the private, public and third sector - businessmen, entreprenuers, artists and chief execs. This mix is not an easy one to bring together so well done Bryan Beattie!


The day launched with businessmen Ellis Watson, the CEO of the regional newspaper publisher DC Thomson, former Mirror Group boss and chief executive of Simon Cowell's entertainment company Syco. Ellis set the scene of the day by talking about looking over horizons so we can build an intellectual framework to combat poverty in Dundee. It was refreshing and almost relieving to hear someone from Ellis's background talk passionately about why the cultural and creative sector is fundamental to the days conversation.

In this case statistics are important but they do require context and balance so I'll just list a few to help you understand the reality of what Dundee faces: in different parts of the city, areas that are just a stones throw away from each other have a difference in life expectancy of 23 years.  In Dundee the absurd juxtaposition between poverty and affluence is brought into sharper focus because of the small size of the city. In Polmont young offenders institute, 73% of the young men were previously in the care system.

One more statistic for you and remember this one as you drive through dundee and see all the water front developments, and read the newspaper about the big plans for the V and A museum ... remember that currently over one quarter of households in Dundee live in poverty.

I've worked in Dundee, I lived there for five years and compared to other places I have lived and worked there is at times an absence of hope in the city. Aspiration is being bred out of people and where are the role models?

Admittedly, there are great initiatives happening throughout the city and lots of people working very hard and doing an incredible job but the net outcomes suggest it's not working. Poverty pervading in spite of  amazing efforts suggests either a lack of clear strategy or a lack of implementation of that strategy.  There can be no other reason for amazing effort and hard work not producing better results.

Jenny Marra, Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament for North East Scotland and Shadow Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, bravely admitted that all political parties are struggling with answers and ideas. This is not because of a lack of focus or a want to make things better but the stark reality that throwing money at services alone is not enough. Politicians are famously good that identifying the issues but now it's not even answers but ideas they need the most.

Jenny is working to change the labour party conference so you are not allowed to approach the podium unless you have an idea to offer because so many of the speeches identify the problems - we all know what the problems are  - it's seeking solutions that will start to change our city and change our country.

Admirably, Jenny embraced her political stance and voiced the elephant in the room - the budget implications in all of this. However, the truth is that the most successful policy since Scottish Parliament opened 13 years ago is  the smoking ban. It was a good, simple idea and it cost nothing. Unless politicians are able to be bold and imaginative lives in Scotland will not change.

Professor Nora Kearney, a friend of Snooks, then talked openly and honestly about how struck she was by the deprivation after moving to Dundee from Glasgow. Usually we can all live in our pretty houses and drive our nice cars but Dundee is very small - it's very difficult to hide from the poverty.

So what does Kite Flying have to do with all this? The potential Scotland has and where it has come from in the last decade is phenomenal and there is so much excitement around what we could do as a country. Dundee plays a big part in this with the re-generation of  the water front and V and A. Yet, Scotland is often termed as the sick man of Europe. However, if you took Dundee and Glasgow out of Scotland and stuck it out in the Atlantic the health outcomes of Scotland would be the same as the rest of Europe.

But what does poverty mean actually? GDP? Life expectancy? Slums in cambodia? How do we visualise poverty? Nora's day job shows that poverty means you are much more likely to get cancer and if you are poor you are much more likely to die of cancer even if you get diagnosed at the same stage and go through the same pathway as a wealthier person. But this is not about a disease phenomem it is about a whole host of social and cultural issues. Poverty kills. It kills life, it kills health and it kills spirit.

So how do we move to star gazing? All the evidence would suggest that we have to look at things differently and seek more  creative ways of doing things. There are already great plans in place such as the Dundee Partnership Fairness Strategy. Things like this are key drivers for change in the future because this has to be tackled collectively. It is not the responsibility of one sector or one individual or organisation.  This requires long term collaboration on a big scale. Undoubtedly, this will take at least two generations to shift. This requires significant and prolonged effort - not short term solutions.

And what about rainbow chasing? Nora believes the pot of gold does exist at the end of the rainbow in Dundee. The arts, music, sport and the cultural history that Dundee have must be harnessed. Dundee has got a fantastic heritage and we should build on that. How do we harness the creative power of the city and make it meaningful? How does Dennis The Menace influence the Fairness Strategy? The opportunities are enormous and the challenges are great but working collaboratively we can really make a difference.

Andy Milne, the CEO of SURF  talked about the 'creatification of everyone' stating the giving workers the creativity and autonomy to do things differently should be the focus of Government .

We watched a short video from the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland, Dr Harry Burns who talked about the biology associated with being poor and he reminded us all that it never says cause of death: poor housing or cause of death: poor on any birth certificate.

Chris van der Kuyl, the CEO of Bright Solid talked honestly and openly about the public sector fixation on controlling everything and reminded the audience that days of IT teams being in control are coming to a sharp and swift end.

"If you think someone in Silicon Valley is going to come up with the tech that will solve the problems in Dundee you are wrong. The solutions have to come from here - from us - from Dundee's people"

Artist, Jacqueline Donachie brought waves of raw emotion into the room by sharing her families battle with Muscular Dystrophy. She believes we deserve beauty in all areas of life. Why isn't the doctors surgery as nice as a hair salon?  I believe the same 'levels of service' are deserved in in all areas of life. Why does dining in my local restaurant make me smile and always deliver yet the national health service make me feel stupid and fail to understand my needs?

One shocking thing Jacqueline told us was that she met with a group of world class academics who have been researching the disease for twenty years but (and this beggars belief!) had never, once, ever met someone with Muscular Dystrophy.

Liz from Fablevision introduced us to their work to bring communities together through Govan Thegither. Alan Lyddiard talked about his previous projects with the homeless and challenged the audience to think about what would happen if the homeless could curate an exhibition at the V and A and think about the people outside the room who don't agree with us. Peter Kelly from the Poverty Alliance asked who's poverty is it anyway? One problem is how middle class people perceive the problem in the first place.

  • 38% of people think poverty is an inevitable part of modern society
  • 19% structural injustice
  • 28% think it's laziness and lack of will power
  • 79% of people think poverty is governments job

How can we tackle this?

  • Real life stories delivered by real people
  • Practical alternatives to current approaches
  • Realise poverty and inequality are equal  ( this has implications for how we talk about the wider system )

There are two key documents from Government out there The Community Led Regeneration and the Community Empowerment Renewal Bill ( will come out at the end of September and is currently being consulted on ) But as Nora rightly asks "Why do we need a bill so we can talk to each other?"

We must debunk this myth of scarcity. The money is there - it's a question of where we put it. Of course Cloudbusting was full of  'haves' - what are we all personally going to give up for the 'have nots'?  If you are preaching equality - how do you preach it in your daily life? Do you go to the shops and use the churches and play parks in the deprived areas near you? What would happen if we all did that....

And yes all of what I heard at Cloudbusting made sense but the reality is that currently systems stop us acting upon fresh ideas. This is our focus at Snook - how to work inside the systems and find solutions from a stance of humility, with no agenda and no pre determined answers.  Our focus in on helping people to articulate their own solutions.

 As journalist Lesley Riddoch says  "We need to stop trying to do the wrong things righter" because this is too big to ignore but small enough to tackle. The most important and vital tool we have is the attitude and desire to re-think things so we can make an even more profound difference. Projects and processes with limited outcomes are perhaps just the wrong things to be doing and we need to say this confidently. We must be confident to think wide, deep and look far and be unashamedly and ludicrously ambitious for our future. We need to be bold.

P.S Lovely to catch up with Gillian Easson and thanks for the newspaper picture above! great to see Hazel White and Liz Gardiner and meet new, curious people!

being a patient

I am obsessed with service, to borrow a phrase from Richard I think I am as close as it gets to being a service junkie. This means that  I spend my days devouring every tweet, article and policy about the health service, patient experience and the role design can play in that. In the early hours of Thursday morning I woke up with unbearable pains in my stomach. To cut a long story short, I phoned the NHS 24 hour help line twice, on the second phone call they referred me to the out of hours GP, who then referred me to casualty who then took me to a ward.  They kept me in for two nights and I had an ultra sound scan, blood tests, all kinds of other bodily tests ( ! ) and the conclusion is they think I had an infection in my appendix that has sorted itself out.

I have never been a patient before so there were many things that I noticed, appreciated, felt could be better, even when poorly those " design lenses " picked up detail and feeling.

It was the absence of communication that increased my anxiety. The taxi driver drove us to the hospital in silence - which made me think of Barry Schwartz's talk on our loss of wisdom and the way he describes the role of a hospital janitor. I've just moved into a new flat and had no idea where we were, if he had let me know we were only five minutes away it would have made the journey a little easier.

When I arrived I was asked to put a gown on, and my first instinct was why? Then being moved to the surgical ward, my first thought was does this mean I am going to have surgery.

And at shower time... where was I meant to go? are there towels and shampoo in there? well I didn't want to ask, what if they thought I was treating the place like a hotel! Alice, in the bed next to me filled me in , there is only hair mousse ( or moss as she called it ) so I asked another long haired lady for some shampoo ... the nurse gave me a towel.

Walking in to all these things for the first time, in pain, in a strange place, was the time I needed that extra bit of reassurance. I'm sure when you work in this environment all of the time you can take for granted the normality of it, and also the pressures of being emotionally attentive to people must be tough. But an explanation of the simple things between each new experience would have made a difference.

After those first few hours though, and into the rest of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I was able to immerse myself more in to the ward. My bed was straight across from the desk so I could eavesdrop and watch all the goings on.

The staff seem like best friends, constant winks and giggles brought sunshine into the ward and I knew they were happy to be there. They come to work every day and genuinely laugh out loud, I don't think there are many people who are lucky enough to feel that way at their work.

The last experience I had with the NHS in Stoke Mandeville Hospital was horrific and inspired me to write an article on why the NHS needs service design. This experience was totally different and has inspired me to make a thank you card for all the staff in ward 16!

The NHS help line was particularly good and they helped me so much. Simple things like reassuring me they would call me back if our line got cut off and telling me they would make sure I got the attention I needed.

It's all about people, from how we communicate to how we smile. The staff in ward 16 are faced with people who are bored, stubborn, tired and anxious. Yet they see past that and go out their way to make sure you are comfortable and as at ease as you can be. The doctors really explained what was happening to my body and why and the nurses really cared. You can't buy that, or teach it. That's what I call true service.

poverty porn on my doorstep

This month the BBC aired an "observed documentary series following the dramatic and often emotional highs and lows of daily life for six different families all living in one large housing scheme in Kilmarnock" At first I was relieved when I found out the program wasn't being aired in England ! ( thank goodness - what would people think ... ?! ) but now I've had time to think about it. I have spoken to my parents and their friends, my peers and others on how they feel about it. I decided that writing this post was an important thing for me to do, for myself, my town and my family and friends who have been effected by the program. In a nutshell ( and this may sound dramatic but it's how I feel ) I am writing this for Scotland because I am proud to be Scottish. How do people who live in The Scheme find hope?

I have lived in Kilmarnock all my life.  'The Scheme" in question is an area called Onthank and I went to Primary school there for two years ( see below for evidence )

One of the most special people in my life also went to school there and was brought up in Onthank. Paul wrote this letter to the BBC and has given me the go ahead to share it with you. He puts my feelings into words far better than I could:

"Having today heard the news that the final episodes of  BBC Scotlands 'The Scheme' has been postponed until further notice I have decided to register my anger, sadness and general confusion at both the programme in question and how it has been recieved. I had been waiting until all four episodes had been aired bfore making a judgement on the series as a whole but since that may not now happen I have been compelled to write now.

I will firstly admit that had this programme been set in Irvine or Paisley or even another part of Kilmarnock I may not be writing. I have spent my whole life living in and around the Onthank area. This is without question the main reason I have taken such personal offence to the programme. However as the dust has settled on the circus I have turned my thoughts to the wider social issues raised. It deeply concerns me that a show which has unquestionably exploited vulnerable people for entertainment has been received with such pleasure by some. I think this is partly indicative of society's low expectations of entertainment. The 'freak show' mentality (see Big Brother, X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, Jeremy Kyle) is now so rife amongst young people that this exploitation is now what is essential for good entertainment.

This saddens me hugely. I believe the media and the BBC in particular have a responsibility to uphold certain standards. I find it shameful that these standards have fallen so far that in order to gain ratings the best the British Broadcasting Corporation can conjure up is to have a camera following a herion addict and editing it to make him look like a Scottish version of Mr Bean. Well, Mr Bean was a character created for television. Marvin Baird is a human being. What will happen to him in 6 months time? What will happen to the wee girl from Onthank playing with a packet of condoms and being told she is a 'mongo'? What happens to the baby Christopher Cunningham is having? What happens to my cousin? He lives with his mum and step dad who own their house and have worked all their lives on Morven Avenue. The heart of 'The Scheme'. Will his family's hard work and decent way of life be sneered at by some because of his address? The BBC certainly don't care. But to hell with them. What worries me is that the people don't.

There is deprivation in Kilmarnock. In fact when Johnnie Walkers closes its gates for the last time it will be the unemployment capital of Scotland. I work with 15-18 year olds who all have extra social and or financial difficulties. I am fighting against a current of knife crime, drugs, underage pregnancies and general social disorder. Trying to help these young people is not easy but is incredibly rewarding. Listening to their problems is part of the job. Now their problems are also mine. Not only because I get paid but because we , surely, have to at least try to help those worse off than ourselves. It is the life blood of a decent society.  How anyone can stand by laughing and pointing at real people's problems makes me despair.

So if you are part of a Scheme fanclub on facebook or have bought a t-shirt quoting good old Marvin then I ask you to stop and consider these real people and countless others like them. You can turn your TV off. They cant turn their lives off.

Paul Montgomery Learner Engagement Assistant Widening Access and Participation"

It seems to be a hot topic for the media:

Exotic, extreme, engrossing – tune in to channel poverty

Scottish TV documentary on deprived estate has prompted police investigations, arrests and a raging media debate

Teenage star of 'The Scheme' is drug-smuggler

New BBC documentary The Scheme offers controversial look at life on Scottish housing estate

MSP hits out at ‘sleekit’ BBC over filming of The Scheme

And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, I arrived home this weekend to the headline: Marvin has been seen in Kilmarnock’s Burns Mall selling – of all things – autographed cigarettes.

Hopefully, we can use this program as a fuel for debate and conversation. These issues need to be discussed. There needs to be a national debate about this. It's not going to go away. I was also moved by Joel Kotkin on being white & poor/skint in the UK .

To echo the words of fellow Scot and author Pat Kane ...there is trouble brewing. This is a problem we have to all face together, as a nation - so where should we start?

the grit of grassroots in glasgow

I described my time at Speirs Locks as a 'day with a difference'. So what was different about it? Well, I spent the first half of my day in an old glue factory which was inspiring despite being freezing. I then 'toured a site' with an architect, something I have never done before. I spent the second half of my day in Scottish Opera, after a behind the scenes tour -  a place I would never typically find myself and I played a beautiful grand piano at the coffee break - something I would love to do every single day but rarely get the chance to...

I was part of this day as a result of the work David Barrie is carrying out as part of an innovative collaboration between Architecture Design Scotland and creative organisations based in the Speirs Lock Area of North Glasgow.

David invited Snook to be part of an international workshop into urban regeneration through culture.  The purpose of this work at Speirs Locks is to provide a framework and implementable plan that identifies what forward uses and actions should be promoted that will help Speirs Locks become a world class creative neighbourhood.

As the appointed 'visualiser' I spent the best part of the day listening and translating what I could hear into pictures. You can click the picture below and zoom in to get a flavour of the discussions.

I was also the 'voice of social innovation' (as David put it ) which was interesting as the majority of the people there were from architecture, arts, performance, planning, regeneration etc and I believe social innovation and motivation has a key role to play in any venture involving communities.

Things got really interesting when Adam, a member of the community, joined us and the conversation turned to the grits of grassroots and how we could make the most of what is already there. I asked the group to think about what we could all go and do tomorrow, that requires no funding or framework, just a thing, anything, we can do to engage with the people who live here...

The group split up into teams ; 'Wouldn't it be brilliant if?' | Touchpoints | Whales and Plankton | -Ing the thing | to explore this notion of growing the people and then growing the place whilst thinking practically and economically. The ideas that appealed to me the most were:

  • A 'social kitchen' where people go to share food, learn how to cook and prepare food and eat together.
  • A 'geek on a bike' who wears black baggy trousers who can come and set up skype for you or sign you up to twitter.
  • A 'grant writer' ( inspired by John's experience of people who sit on the side of the road in India and type letters for people on their typewriters - and something I experimented with myself in St.Andrews )

As always, the day ended with lots of questions needing answered;

* What are the demographics of the future community? * What will be the educational requirements of that community? * What jobs will be offered by the site? * What are the health and well-being needs of the future community? * How will the site contribute to and express urban identity and civic pride? * How do people socially interact on site? * What are the opportunities on offer for independent business? * What are the aspirations for micro-enterprises? * How will neighbouring communities feel that the site is beneficial to their area? * How will the site support the generation of new creative and social networks and enterprise? * What opportunities will the site offer for personal development? * What shopping facilities will it offer?

And last but not least, I made new friends : Tom Beardshaw Laura Mc Naught Gary Watt , Mhari McMullan and caught up with old ones. Definitely a day with a difference.

Photos from Tom Beardshaw

change playing in social care

For the last couple of months I have been working with Research In Practice for Adults , designing workshops that will fuel the design of  a resource for frontline staff. Self directed support is one of the main things going on in social care at the moment.  As a result there is a huge culture shift happening for all front line staff involved. RIPFA have designed a resource that practitioners can use themselves, not one that is used on them; so they can take control of what is happening to them and act.  I am running three 'Change Playing' workshops to find out how practitioners feel about change.

I will be asking them to identify something that has motivated them that they/ their organisation has done, and something that has happened with a service user that has inspired them. Fundamentally, we want this resource to improve practice and give front line staff opportunities to talk about how the feel. We are also creating a depository for people to drop their own stories in .

Over the next two weeks I am traveling to Totnes, London, Manchester and Birmingham to deliver "Change Playing". I will be working alongside Gerry Nosowska to draw upon the expertise, knowledge and insights  of front line staff to ensure this resource is the best it can be, and the most useful for them and their colleagues.

If you would like to know more about the project don't hesitate to get in touch. I will have some time in each city between trains and hotels, so if you would like to say hello just let me know.