30 November 2013

Compass Conference 2013 - Change: How?

Compass promised that this year's conference would be different, and it was.

Instead of being at the comfortable Institute of Education in the centre of London it was at the edgier and more industrial Oval Space in Cambridge Heath, Tower Hamlets. The location was one of the things that attracted me to the event as I like going to new places.

The big difference though was the structure of the day with more interactive sessions included at the expense of the standard panels, though these were still included.

Despite the remote location (and that's the view of somebody who lives in London) I was able to get there not long after registration opened at 9am. The 26 bus took me there directly from Waterloo along roads unfamiliar to me once we got past Liverpool Street station.

The venue had two main spaces, the large Oval Space itself that was used for the plenary and main sessions and the smaller Pickle Factory across the road for the other sessions. There were also some small spaces for stalls and escaping from it all. Overall we could just about fit in to the spaces but it was often cramped and I stood for some of the sessions.

We opened (a little late) in the Oval Space with three commentators responding to questions first from the host and then from the audience. Essentially this was a panel session with the panellists standing among us rather than sitting on a separate stage. I think that it worked well despite one of the panellists commentating on how scary the experience was for him.

The theme of that session was about the differing roles of campaigning organisations (like Occupy and Greenpeace) and elected politicians. Somebody said that you need the campaign groups to identify the problem and to build a solution (because they are on the ground and know what needs to be done) and then you need to politicians to implement the changes (because only they have the power to do so), but even if that is a fair representation of who things work today I am pretty certain that it is not the best way for things to work. Perhaps we should move to a more devolved system where campaigners could have knowledge and power.

We then had a short talk on the need for new models of (political) leadership that are based on collaboration rather than command and control. I have been reading this stuff for ages through work and I am still not convinced that we have a working model. Command and control works very well at times (e.g. the military and, to be honest, most organisations) and we need a predictable framework which says what is needed in each type of organisation.

The next session was more ambitious, interactive and did not work for me.

The aim was to fill the room with conversations (which it did) but it took too long to get there and was a bit shambolic when it did. People were asked to suggest topics for the conversations and then an elaborate process was followed to allocate the conversations to spaces and to restructure the spaces for group conversations.

People were asked to find move between the conversations as they liked.

I like the basic idea but doing it all on the day took too long and we ended up with some similar sounding topics. I would like to see something similar done next year but the topics should be submitted beforehand (to save the time it takes to find and announce 40 topics) and then they could be marked out clearly within the space (so that we can all find the conversations that we are interested in).

I failed to find the conversation that I was most keen on and the other interesting ones looked too cramped to join so I gave this session a miss and just stood at the side watching proceeding and trying to catch up with my note taking.

For the next session I headed across the road to the Pickle Factory for a panel discussion on some forgotten heroes who had made a difference and who could be useful examples for us to build on.

On reflection, this was the session that I found the most useful judging by the number of notes that I took. This is them.
  • An organisation's tacit knowledge lies with its workers.
  • Spencer - give land back to the people and organise at the parish level.
  • Inequality arises from theft of the land.
  • Hope comes through meeting, not meetings.
  • Combine labour value and land value, Marx and Spence (the weakest joke of the day).
The reason that I found this section so instructive is because it highlighted the need to land reform as well as labour reform. The Labour Party, working with the Unions, has done a lot on labour reform over the last hundred years or so but has not touched land reform and until this happens power will remain entrenched in the establishment that owns most of it.

Then it was time for lunch and my photography tour of the area.

After lunch it was back to the Pickle Factory for some stand-up comedy in a room so full that I had to stand-up for it behind the bar where I could not see it either. That was actually OK and I quite liked the session.

That was followed by a session on meditation which did not quite do enough to convince me to give it a go. I know that it works for many people but I am not one of them.

We then had a World Cafe session on lessons that we could learn from failure. Five people with a tale to tell sparked conversations of ten minutes each giving us time for two conversions each in the thirty minute session.

Again I liked the concept but some of the detail let it down. At ten minutes each conversation was too short and in the two that I joined we spent most of the time listening to the facilitator introduce the session and that left scant time for a conversation. And with a dozen or more people in each group I did not get to join in on either one, which is very unlike me at a debate.

For the final session we all went back to the Oval Space for, well, a panel session. I missed the start of this as the sessions across the road had run late so I am not sure what the theme was and what I caught was interesting but unstructured. It was also more intellectual, and hence less practicable, than the other sessions.

The only note I made was about the idea of creating platforms (or enables) for the Good Society that enable communities to implement their own local solutions, much like there are models for opening shops or banks.

It was a full, busy, varied and interesting day. Yes some things did not work as well as they could have done and I doubt that we actually found many new ways of implementing the change that needs to be made but there is always a great vibe when lots of people with the same interest work together. I left there feeling very positive and that is all that I wanted from the day.

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