The first of four Birmingham ‘urban labs’ was held on 19 March 2018 at the Women’s Enterprise Hub located between Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook, at the heart of our anchor neighbourhood.
This first lab comes at the point in the research when we have worked with our local partners, Birmingham City Council’s Neighbourhood Support and Development Unit and Citizens UK: Birmingham, to select our neighbourhood and to identify, recruit and conduct initial interviews with a cohort of intermediaries. The lab provided an opportunity to bring our intermediaries together, along with our partners and wider stakeholders from the neighbourhood and the city.
The lab began with a lively conversation in response to the short animation based on our pilot research: ‘five ways to make a difference’. Participants recognised the different practices of ‘enduring’, ‘struggling’, ‘organising’, ‘facilitating’ and ‘trailblazing’ and how they drew upon and combined these practices in their day-to-day roles as intermediaries. Many saw greater visibility for this kind of practice as a key outcome from this project. Others challenged the focus on individuals instead emphasising that we can only understand individuals by understanding their context: how individuals fit within the ‘ecology’ of the neighbourhood. Focusing on individuals and issues was also argued by some to avoid bigger questions about ‘why’ this work was necessary and the broader structural and systemic change that may be necessary to ‘make a difference’. Others challenged the dominance of ‘work’ in the conversation, which was seen to marginalise both those who contributed to the neighbourhood in different ways and others for whom being an intermediary was a ‘way of being’ and ‘not just a job’.
To ensure the SmartUrbI research is relevant and practical, the idea of ‘co-enquiry’ was introduced to the lab. Seeing SmartUrbI as a ‘co-enquiry’ allows the questions and priorities of lab participants to be part of the broader research. Through a brief deliberative and iterative process involving generation and clustering of key themes, three priorities for co-enquiry were identified: “inequalities in power, resources and voice”, “trust, connecting, relationship, networks, conversation” and “linking with the big picture/system; having a vision”. These themes will now be picked up in the first round of fieldwork and the next lab.
Based on our evaluation and informal conversations, participants valued the opportunity to network, make new connections and renew old ones. One participant reflected that they felt ‘energised and privileged to be part of the research’.
The evaluation also gave feedback to build on in the next lab, notably hearing more about the practice of different people in the room, their connections to the neighbourhood and roles in the research. Within the group, there was a demand, as the research progresses to think about how to connect what’s going on in the anchor neighbourhood and the ‘SmartUrbI’ project with what’s happening at city level and beyond.
Our next Birmingham lab will be held on Wednesday 5 June 2018.