Back in July we held a focus group as part of the ongoing ‘Governance’ work package for the project. We had a great attendance, from organisations including Cornerhouse, Creative Concern, Salford City Council, Brighter Sound, Islington Mill, 42nd Street, Writing Lives, Z-Arts, PalmerSquared, TiPP, Let’s Go Global, BBC, Unconvention, Mancuniverse and the University of Salford. Many people already knew each other, but as it was the first time the project had brought them together, an initial ice-breaker from Karen let everyone introduce themselves and share their reasons for attending.

We focussed mainly on exploring current operating contexts and issues of connectivity and community engagement in Greater Manchester’s creative economy. Having invited participants from SURF’s ‘sister’ project on urban sustainability, the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform, funded by Mistra Urban Futures, we were also able to have a broader discussion about the discourse, policy and practice of the creative city and the relationship between creative and cultural organisations and the sustainability, in all its guises, of the city-region as a whole.

Karen asked the groups to choose a framework – either PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal, Ethical / Environmental) or SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and then three groups split up for discussion. One group emphasised the overall context and state of working within Greater Manchester. One group discussed ‘sustainability’ – though they made the persuasive point that siloing the debate on sustainability into a ‘special interest’ is a central part of the problem in integrating aspects of the urban agenda.

A broad ranging discussion ensued from which a number of themes emerged. Participants noted a series of strengths within the current operating context linked to the diversity and variety of creative organisations in the city. They noted that Greater Manchester is more connected now than it was five years ago and working better with different communities. However, this brings challenges as well as opportunities in terms of managing complexity, keeping track of who is doing what and smoothing the flows of knowledge in the sector.

The strength of leadership and brand were cited as success factors by some. However, others noted that reputation can create complacency and a gap between strategy and implementation. The distinct context of Greater Manchester was a factor here, with differences between the 10 local boroughs, uncertainties about how to engage and shape the emerging city-regional governance structures and ensure that the voices of multiple diverse creative and cultural organisations working with communities can be heard and valued. New forms of leadership were seen as necessary, which involve, engage and respect community interests, rather than the current ‘drawbridge mentality’.

Unsurprisingly, a strong economic imperative shaped the current priorities of different participants. Phrases included the need to ‘stay ahead’, overcome ‘project by project funding’, be more ‘commercially minded’ or ‘savvy’ and develop new economic models. Yet equally important was the articulation of different kinds of non-economic values – social, wellbeing, sustainability – which characterised cultural organisations engaged in addressing in meeting social and environmental aims. The passions, beliefs and commitment of individuals were widely acknowledged, but caution was also called for: ‘you shouldn’t build a system on the assumption of free labour’.

Looking forward, participants expressed the need for courage to adapt to changing circumstances, especially as the financial and political landscape is being reshaped in the context of cuts, austerity and local authorities’ defaulting to minimum statutory provisions. This ‘courage’ included joining up audiences and seeing the cultural sector as taking the lead, being brave enough to alter or even reject existing partnerships. Key themes included ‘cultural democracy’ and the ‘democratisation of talent’, as well as celebrating success through the sharing of good practices. Universities were seen to have an increasing role to play in the creative urban economy – good news for Laura Ager, whose PhD focuses on those issues; and a challenge for universities to think through what their role and value beyond the economic might be.

Participants were interested in making different arguments about cultural value – including the wellbeing agenda – and in learning from models overseas. South America was referenced by some as a country to watch for grassroots innovations. Our has started to create a context for this international learning through commissioning scoping papers – one of which is about Medellin in Colombia from Theresa Bean. You can see Phil’s summary presentation on from the recent Project Continuity Day here.

Overall, community engagement was seen to be facilitated in Greater Manchester’s cultural and creative sectors through collaboration, openness and partnerships, along with strong community and voluntary sector networks, innovation and activism. Yet participants were clear that the public sector needs to better recognise, understand and value the third sector as equals, with greater access to discussions at a senior level, via a range of media – not just technology; such as community summits or peoples’ assemblies.

Lunch and networking finished the session – along with an opportunity to look over the posters that had been produced for the Connected Communities programme summit which had taken place in Edinburgh in July.

This was the first focus group of the project and we were really grateful to everyone for coming, giving their time and expertise. Another focus group is planned for the end of the ‘Governance’ work package. Going by the quality and reach of discussions so far, we are really looking forward to it.