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May 4

My ‘lightbulb moment’ at the Power of Place event

Policy

Power of Place

Anna Middlemiss, Deputy Director of Public Health at Wakefield Council, attended the Power of Place event on 25 April – here’s what she thought of the event.

On the journey home from Sheffield I’m reflecting on a very inspiring and productive day (at the Power of Place event). It was memorable for a number of reasons, all of them positive. However, it wasn’t until I was describing the event over dinner that night to my partner that the lightbulb of realisation illuminated a key element of the conference I’d completely failed to consciously register at the time. It wasn’t about something that later stood out because it happened, or was there, it was exactly the opposite – it wasn’t there and it didn’t happen.

What was it? I’ll come to that later, for now let me share some of the things that stood out.

This was a conference for everyone – a real mixed bag of people taking part, a broad range of backgrounds, a wealth of experience, multiple perspectives. Everyone brought something to the table and the World Café format coupled with a variety of stimulating questions resulted in some genuinely fascinating discussion, debate and sharing. A thread in a book I read recently was that in many cultures the wisdom of elders is passed on through storytelling and ritual but we can lose this in our ‘modern’ society as there are often no structures to facilitate such dialogue. The conference created the environment for it to happen. Although the participants weren’t necessarily my ‘elders’ in the strictest definition of the word – by age – they were older and wiser in terms of their experience and knowledge.

Power of Place event

For example, I discovered how Lorna, an engineering graduate, was implementing engineering theory whilst doing community development, how in Paul’s city they had completely redesigned commissioning processes to challenge traditional power structures, and how Toby believed that data only worked effectively when it was a driver for learning and development and not performance management. It was these engaging conversations that undoubtedly resulted in my later moment of epiphany. Someone would tell their story and then someone else would chip in with some observation or insight about how such an approach had worked for them or, if it hadn’t, what got in the way. Someone else would suggest a contrasting approach and this would be explored. The experience was subtle, fluid, organic and productive. That, for me at least, was the primary benefit of the event. Although I don’t think it was made explicit, I’m sure it was intentional and it worked very well.

The ‘moment’ I mentioned at the beginning? I’ve been to a considerable number of conferences over the years, events that seem to follow the same familiar format. This one didn’t. It might not have the same significance for you but for me it was the fact that there’d been no PowerPoint and ‘expert’ presentation. That’s right, not one or more ‘experts’ standing elevated before the audience, sharing models and theories about how to do it, the path to guaranteed success, back dropped by a slide deck of inspiring images, or less than inspiring images of tables, graphs and statistics. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been inspired by speakers from time to time, but no matter how great the presentation or the speaker essentially it’s a monologue. It implies that the person delivering the presentation is the expert, that they are there to speak and I am there to listen. All too often what we get (and possible what we hope and pray for) is an expert and a set of slides which implies there is a straightforward formula for success and if you simply replicate what you see in your own area of work or interest then you have it cracked. Of course rarely is this true as solutions to knotty problems, health and social problems being a prime example, are rarely straightforward or simple. Often in fact they’re what are referred to as wicked problems – difficult, incomplete, contradictory and shifting. Ambiguous even. Such problems need shared minds and shared perspectives, shared conversations, people who contribute an ability to shift the perception of problems and with that an ability to contribute solutions from outside the usual domains, people who can sit with what’s presented and join up the dots in new ways. This was present in abundance.

I found the event to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking I have ever attended or, to be more accurate, participated in. At the very core of the conference was engagement, connection, participation and collaboration, shared experience, expertise. All the buzz words we hear so much about but which we fail to understand fully without experiencing them ourselves.

You can find more discussion of the event at #powerofplace and read Locality’s briefing paper on place-based working here.

This event was a joint initiative between the following:

Power of Place Orgs

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