Dundee Learning Journey: Sat 29th Aug 2009

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Okay – sitting at your computer at 03:45 starting a blog post is not normal; I accept that.  It’s usually a sign that something’s wrong; but not on the morning of Sunday 30th August 2009.  No – the reason I was sat typing up notes wasn’t because anything was wrong, but rather that my brain was buzzing with inspiration.

You see, I’d just spent the previous day travelling around Dundee with the Go Dundee team on what they call a “Learning Journey“, and as a result I was still amped with the sheer positive enthusiasm of all the projects I had been newly introduced to around my adopted home city.

The Learning Journey idea is simple: pick a theme; hire a bus; fill it with people who want to learn about their city; have the bus take them to visit various interesting projects; and finally bring them all back to a place where they can reflect and discuss what they’ve learned.

The result?  A whole bunch of people who know a bit more about the city they live and/or work in, and infected by the enthusiasm of the projects they’ve seen – hopefully encouraging them to find ways of making a positive difference when they return to their own part of the community.

Details of Go Dundee and the Learning Journey can be found on their website, but I wanted to share some of my personal reflections from what was a truly inspirational day. 

The theme of the journey was “Risk, Regeneration & Reflection”.

The Cairn Centre

First up, Stewart Murdoch welcomed us to the Learning Journey on behalf of Go Dundee and introduced us to Ingrid Hainey of the Cairn Centre. This is the headquarters of CAIRscotland, an organisation that helps those who have succumbed to the problems associated with high-risk lifestyles, such as those associated with drink and alcohol.  I could literally throw a stone at their front door from my office window in Denki Towers, yet I had no idea what facilities they had or what work they are doing.  It was great to finally get inside and learn about their work.

The things that struck me most were: 1) How keen they were to expand the part they play in preventing people falling in to difficulties in the first place (something my strategic brain tells me has to be more efficient than tackling symptoms), but how difficult that is to achieve due to the overwhelming demand for support services aimed at those already in difficulty, and; 2) That they identified the UK’s Benefits System – and the disability allowance system in particular – as a barrier to helping people improve their lives by getting back in to work.  Something that will be no surprise to anyone who’s read Tim Harford‘s excellent book “The Logic Of Life

Hillcrest Housing Association

After a short and highly entertaining bus journey thanks to our supremely bossy Dundee Clippies (courtesy of Dundee’s Repertory Theatre!) we arrived at Upper Dens Mill where Graeme Keillor of Hillcrest Housing Association explained how they pioneered regenerating derelict jute mills as high-quality city centre social housing back in the 1980s.  He talked us through the risks the organisation faced when it staked £10m on making its first mill regeneration a success.  This was an investment with the potential to end Hillcrest if it hadn’t worked, but the fact we’d just driven past another half-dozen regenerated mills to get to Upper Dens Mill suggested it had been very, very successful.  A great example of how two big problems could be tackled with one well considered stone and a little creative thinking – how do we encourage people to move back to the city centre, and what do we do with these large derlict mills we have all over the place?  Hmmm… let me think… Like so many great ideas, it seems perfectly obvious in hindsight.

Morgan Academy

Next stop, after a short quiz about Dundee – where I was able to wow the rest of the bus by correctly naming 1878 and 1966 as the dates the first rail and road bridges were opened across the River Tay (and then promptly blew it by not remembering when the second rail bridge was opened… 1887 fact fans) – was Morgan Academy.  This was probably the first time I’d set foot inside a school since leaving Dunfermline High for the last time in 1990.  We were met by Stephen Shaw, the rector of Morgan Academy who showed us around the impressive building and explained the history behind its rennovation after it was completely gutted by fire in 2001.  Fortunately the building was insured.  This enabled it to be rebuilt and resulted in what must surely be one of the most impressive blends of traditional and modern schooling there is anywhere.

The highlight for me was hearing how the school addressed the issue of litter within a communal space where pupils gather during breaks.  It’s a familiar issue, but the solution chosen was inspired.  They identified that by linking the right to use the space with the responsibility to pick up litter when asked (whether or not they’d been responsible for dropping it in the first place) the pupils’ behaviour changed dramatically. Suddenly littering went from being a significant concern to being almost eradicated, and wherever there was litter it could be quickly tackled without confrontation, because pupils had already agreed it was reasonable for them to be asked to pick up litter that wasn’t their own before they had the right to use the space. 

In this way pupils’ rights were balanced by corresponding pupils’ responsibilities – so, for example, pupils have the right not to be bullied as you might expect.  But that right is balanced by a responsibility not to bully others.  It might appear simple or obvious, but it makes the link explicit and reinforces understanding of why choosing not to bully is in their own self-interest.  

It seems such an obvious and necessary balance – one without the other is unstable and potentially counterproductive, and this made me consider the implications for wider society.  We are used to hearing a lot about human rights, but far less about human responsibilities and that’s something I personally believe needs addressed.  For example, as I see it, having the right to freely express opinions is only appropriate if it is also supported by the responsibility not to prevent others from freely expressing their opinions – however repugnant or offensive we may find them.  Accepting one without the other makes no sense to me, and yet it still seems to be norm in all too many public debates.  It would do me no harm to be reminded that the rights I enjoy as a human being come with corresponding responsibilities that society expects of me.  

In a similar vein I also noticed Morgan Academy’s “school rules” displayed with an explanation of why each rule is necessary.  Again, this seems like a good principle – we could learn a lot from extrapolating these approaches in other areas of our communities besides schools.  After all, the days when we could content ourselves with the notion that learning stops when we leave school are now long, long gone.

Baxter Park Pavilion

After being waved off from the steps of Morgan Academy we made our way through Baxter Park to the recently renovated Baxter Park Pavilion.  It’s a really beautiful setting and I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that although I’ve lived in and around Dundee for over 15 years, this was my first visit to Baxter Park.   So now I finally appreciate what I’ve been missing all these years.  We were treated to two presentations relating to risk.  The first by Dr Stuart Waiton of Abertay University put forward research findings that show the elimination of risk from people’s lives has serious negative consequences, both for individuals and society as a whole.  There’s a reason risk and reward are so closely linked, and removing one also endangers removing the other.

I know from my own life that my biggest rewards have come directly from the biggest risks I’ve taken – calculated though they may have been.  I appreciate that most of the legislation we now have in place has been put there in order to remove unnecessary risk, but it was clear from listening to the presentations and watching all the nodding around the room that I’m not the only one who believes we currently have the balance wrong in our society.  Childhood is a time for taking risks – for exploring dangers and learning to protect ourselves.  It is precisely the value of that feeling of immortality children possess for a limited time, because it’s important we fall down at a time in our lives while there are more likely to be people or organisations there to catch us, and time for us to learn and change our behaviours.  

Personally I see this as analogous to planting and growing trees – strong supports and guards provide significant benefits for young trees, but unless the process of removing the supports and guards is very carefully managed they will fall over in the first strong wind.  We simply substitute a natural problem for one of our own making – we have not actually solved anything.  We need to focus on helping people to grow stronger roots, not compensate by putting ever stronger supports in place as current thinking and policy seems to suggest.

On the way back to the bus we met Penny the white terrier puppy and her owner.  Penny was only 8 weeks old and heart-breakingly cute.  She stopped with us while we listened to latest Dundee band “Vile” playing a few of their songs – another great young band with tons of potential.  Good luck guys!

Dundee International Women’s Centre

Then it was back on the bus and off to Dundee International Women’s Centre.  This was a major revelation because I had almost no appreciation or understanding of what this might be.  In practice it was exactly what the name suggested – a focal point for women from other countries who come to Dundee and need support.  That support can be anything from help with learning to speak Dundonian through to child care provision and skills training to help them in to employment.  The stories of the women the centre had helped were truly inspirational, but I particularly enjoyed hearing one anecdote.

Pervin Ahmad, who runs the centre, mentioned that she often found the impetus for women getting together wasn’t the “help” on offer at the centre at all.  That was frequently the pretence they used to justify coming along, but more often than not it seems the primary motivation for women coming to the centre initially is to meet other people and, most importantly, to have fun.  This fits perfectly with my own experiences with designing interactive games.  It’s always about the fun.  People are preprogrammed to seek out fun, and so whatever result you want to achieve the secret is to put the fun first and the learning, meaning or benefits second.

Women using the centre wanted to have a laugh.  But by having the vision to realise this, the centre was able to build on the fun the women were having and use it as the basis from which to provide help and training.  They allowed the relationships to form first, without which many of the women might not have stuck with the training later.  

They found that most women wanted to learn cooking and childcare skills, and so made these the central function of their building: a working kitchen and a working creche.  Creche facilities are already self-funding, and the quality of the food (which I was able to sample as they were providing our lunch) was amazing: so much so that we decided to use them for our catering at Denki recently.  I’m happy to report that the quality of the food was no fluke, so it’s very likely the catering facilities will be self-funding before much longer too!

The last bus trip of the day took us back towards the city centre and a photo call just along from the Dundee Science Centre.  Most importantly though our Dundee Clippies relented and let everyone head upstairs on the bus – something we’d all been desperate to do since the start of the day.  Even after getting on for 40 years of travelling by bus, double-deckers still have the ability to evoke my inner-child.  I’m never quite sure why; perhaps it’s that they enable me to see everyday situations from unusual perspectives, I don’t really know, I just know it does and I love it!

Alliance Trust

The next visit was to the new Alliance Trust building; already affectionately dubbed “The Dundee Stock Exchange” due to the real-time stock-price ticker that adorns its façade.  We were given a warm welcome by Communications Manager Jane Holligan and her team and then shown around their spectacular new offices before being introduced to their Chief Economist Shona Dobbie, who provided a fascinating presentation explaining how 2008’s financial crisis came about and, most importantly, why the Alliance Trust were comparatively unharmed by it – the short answer is a priority on long-term growth rather than short-term profiteering in case you’re interested.  Clearly a company after my own heart.

But what I want to know more than anything is this: how come after working in Dundee all these years, and running a business for the last ten of them could I have failed to realise this company was founded and headquartered in Dundee?  Why was the only FTSE100 company headquartered in Dundee completely invisible to me?  I viewed their sponsorship of the local airport and their new building as an invasion, albeit a welcome one, of some London City firm rather than a celebration of Dundee business success.  My visit totally changed that perception.  Alliance Trust are surely one of the jewels in Dundee’s business landscape – a beacon linking what the city achieved in the past to where it can go in the future.  I am now looking forward to learning a lot more about this company and sharing it with those, like myself, who might not be familiar with them; because their story is truly remarkable within the Dundee business landscape.

Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre (DCA)

Our last stop on the journey was a short walk away: Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre.  The DCA’s director, Clive Gillman, had been with us all day as a participant on the journey, so he took centre stage at this point and provided a brief overview of the purpose of the building.  The point he made that stuck with me most was that the DCA is a building that is simultaneously unnecessary and yet utterly indespensible.  It is the facilitation hub that any city with creative ambitions requires.  It is a lens through which the creativity of a whole city can be focused in a way that is virtually impossible without such a building.  I clearly remember life in Dundee pre-Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre, and from my perspective I believe the DCA has been the most visible sign of Dundee’s commitment to a creative economy and cultural regeneration in the last decade.

And Beyond…

With the day’s journey finally complete, all that was left was the reflection, which started in the meeting room upstairs and continued through the evening in the bar downstairs.  It’s a rare day I get to have such great conversations with so many positively passionate people, but that’s what the Dundee Learning Journey delivered for me.  As someone with a lifelong passion for learning, there really was no better way for me to spend a Saturday in August, and I would encourage anyone around Dundee with a similar passion to look out for the next Learning Journey when it takes place, or to create a Learning Journey for your own area if one doesn’t already exist.

In conclusion then, if I had to take only one thing away from the day it would be this:  In any community there is a small percentage of people doing awesome things despite the apparent constraints and limitations they face.  We need to find these people and empower them if we are to deliver positive change in a world of limited resources.

Thank you to all the wonderful people I met on the Journey, all those who took time out of their bank holiday weekend to tell me about your organisations, and especially those who dreamed it all up and made it all happen.  You all inspired me in different ways and led to my insomnia that evening!

Colin.

PS: All the photos for this piece were provided courtesy of Go Dundee member Joe Lafferty.  Be sure to check out his blog.