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CoM Connect – Exploring Melbourne’s Digital Future

Cities 14 August 2012 | 10.00am

On 11-12 August the City of Melbourne held CoM Connect, a public “Unconference” convened around the theme “Exploring Melbourne’s Digital Future“, as a first step towards creating a digital strategy for the city.

A range of Melbourne’s top digerati from all sectors – private enterprise, startups, freelancers, universities, interest groups, and government agencies both local and state – came together at Hub Melbourne (a downtown co-working space) to exchange ideas and advance plans for Melbourne’s digital future. Within the provided framework, they co-created an agenda based on their various passions, expertise and aspirations, and then self-organised into groups to pursue those topics and take their ideas forward. Over 150 people took part with 45 sessions being proposed and run by participants, ‘lightning talks’ from some of the city’s top digital doers, and hands-on demos from Melbourne’s cutting edge gamer, hacker and maker communities.

This ground breaking initiative was commissioned by the City of Melbourne, recognising that to maintain its enviable status among the world’s most liveable cities requires a proactive and broad-based approach to public engagement.

Here are four views on the process from Arupians who organised and attended the unconference.

David Riley – ICT, Systems Engineering & Integration, Melbourne

The City of Melbourne’s ComConnect event last weekend was my first exposure to an unconference. The City of Melbourne has significant information infrastructure and large sets of available data, the question seeking an answer was how emerging ideas and technologies can be utilised to realise the value in this data to the benefit of the City, residents and the hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to the CBD.

I watched with interest as Stuart Candy and the organising team skilfully channelled the engagement and enthusiasm of the participants into tangible and valuable outcomes for the City of Melbourne. While it could easily have gone either way, the participant run sessions produced genuine engagement and discussion. Ideas were birthed, refined and in some cases pitched within hours.

The sessions successfully provided City of Melbourne with remarkable concepts and ideas to blend into their digital strategy and they now face the challenge of capturing the energy generated in forming their digital strategy. Maybe a greater success and legacy of the event is the connections made and the groups that were formed to continue the exchange of ideas started by the event.

Over the next three years I will be working on an Australian Linkage Grant we have won with the University of Melbourne and the City of Melbourne entitled Creating a Smart City through Internet of Things. The aim of the project is to deliver smart new ways of urban monitoring using ubiquitous sensing and data analysis for city management and sustainability. I will be publishing regularly on the project.

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Stuart Candy – Foresight + Innovation

This was reportedly the first time the participant-centred Unconference or Open Space methodology has been used by the city for any purpose. The program was designed and convened by Arup Foresight + Innovation with social enterprise and facilitation partners Collabforge and Collaboratory Melbourne.

An Unconference or Open Space event enables participants to roam around taking part in – and running – sessions in accordance with their passions and expertise. What happens is up to the people in attendance. One of the principles on which OST operates is “whoever comes are the right people”. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but in practice it soon resolves into working creatively and pragmatically with the ingredients at hand. An enormous amount is accomplished in a short time once appropriate tone and expectations have been set.

A digital strategy, like most government strategy, would usually be produced behind closed doors with some consultation process bolted on after the fact. So CoM Connect represented a “bottom up” reversal of the usual sequence. As lead program designer and facilitator, it was gratifying to see the apprehensions of the client and other uninitiated melt away as they engaged in the process.

It was the first time the City has engaged the public in an Open Space forum, on any topic, but if the outstanding response to CoM Connect is anything to go by, it will not be the last. At the end of the day, the City of Melbourne’s Director of Corporate Business summed up the sentiment of the group overall: “We need to be doing more of this”.

This project stands as a great example of a highly upstream, strategic contribution (prior even to policy formulation) yet also infused with a fundamentally democratic, participatory structure. “We shape a better world” is not just about physical things. We can, and increasingly do, also shape a better world via thoughtful process design and facilitation to set the political, cultural and ideational backdrop against which more concrete physical projects take place.

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Andrew Wisdom – Australasian Cities Leader

I arrived Saturday morning in the happy position of knowing about the City of Melbourne’s aspirations for its digital strategy. I was sufficiently removed from the challenges of getting the unconference up that I could engage in the programme without being weighed down by the burden of delivery.

I left on Sunday afternoon convinced that the unconference model is a winner. While ComConnect was the first unconference Arup had run and therefore something of a prototyping exercise, its power in unlocking bottom-up potential was clearly evident. Ideas flowed, energy was generated, plans evolved.

We need to acknowledge the bravery of the City of Melbourne in hosting an event that overtly places them in an enabling rather than controlling position. They seemed comfortable with this; maybe this is because at the end of the day they retain control the content and delivery of their digital strategy. But it is very clear that a digital strategy is only tangentially about the technology and mostly about engagement and activity.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the event ended with a bazaar of ideas being entered on the website that was a nice counterpoint to the marketplace of topics that framed the Open Space conversation. I found the realisation that the City of Melbourne has only a hazy idea of the nature, scale and interactions of their stakeholder groups a really powerful moment and the determination by a group of people to work out how to map those issues an excellent outcome.

The success of the event was indicated by the willingness by our clients to hug us at the end of 12 hours of highly engaged discussion. Or maybe they were simply relieved.

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Michelle Tabet– Integrated Environments, Sydney

If there ever was something that was directly opposed to a conference, then it most certainly is the un-conference. Despite the obvious etymological relationship between the two terms that places them at polar opposites of each other in a conceptual way, the unconference experience was, in fact, a very structured, yet self-directed process. The importance of the latter seem to dawn on participants as Stuart and Mark Elliot (from Collabforge) finished explaining the not-so-complicated-yet-unusual mechanics of the two days to the 150 strong captive audience: if they didn’t invest, they would get nothing out of it. In fact, there was the very distinct possibility throughout, that the event could result in very little else than hollow discussion and black hatting.

But it did not, it resulted in lively discussions, it resulted in new relationships, it resulted in strategic insights into ways in which the City of Melbourne could understand what their role in this emerging landscape was. It was also strategically located at Hub Melbourne, one of the city’s rare co-working spaces that leverages on the social capital generated through collaboration networks.

To me, it outlined a decidedly different mode of engagement with a self-selected sample of passionate professionals, community representatives and people off the street who were intent on shaping the future of the city. The challenge to my mind is for the City: what to do with this insight? How can they usefully analyse the outputs from the unconference? What does delivery mean in a context where dozens of options were explored?

And I don’t mean to frame this in a way that sets an expectation of a certain behaviour from CoM, there is no correct answer in this context, but it will be interesting to see how, from a consultation point of view, you organise, interpret and act on crowd sourced energy and ideas.

Keep up with the City’s next steps in this area via