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February 25, 2006 || 11:42 am
Boring conferences

I was forced to spend a day this week, as an experiment in whether it was a useful thing to do more often, at a terrifically dull conference at Earl's Court. Two things struck me:

a) What a rip-off! at around £250 per delegate, someone is making a lot of money. All to watch a few big-wigs give the same old speech as they always give, answer a couple of questions and then run off before you get the chance to buttonhole them yourselves or network at all; and then hear a lot of non-big-wigs ramble on with bad powerpoints about their latest fantastically awful projects; partake of crap catering; half-heartedly try to network despite the total lack of interesting people there or a decent way to meet them; and wander around a load of crap stands telling you nothing at all.

b) Everyone always says the same thing. Its voting for apple-pie and motherhood - we all want 'sustainable' 'communities', 'design quality', economic 'diversity', 'creativity', 'partnership working', etc., etc. Why is that all that people talk about, whether big-wig or not, at these things? What we actually need to be taught or at least discussing is how to get there. And that's where everyone will suddenly find that they either haven't a clue or disagree violently with each other. Is the first step in the process to send out a questionnaire to every local citizen or to employ a large economic consultant to do a needs assessment? Is it to meet with an official from the ODPM, or the local council, or DEFRA, or the local soup kitchen? How, in practical steps, do you actually work in partnership so that you get creative results and not another bland talking shop? Is 'design quality' about nautically-themed apartment blocks or Dutch minimalism, design codes, young architects or established volume contractors? Who decides?

These are the questions that we desperately need answers to - many answers as there is no one solution. There are brains out there who have been working on these things. Why, rather than presenting yet another lookalike 'strategy' for 'double devolution' (this weeks buzzword) or worse, can't they present the nuts and bolts of what they actually did during the last three years of their 'project', how it worked in detail. Then, maybe the boring officer-level types who attend these conferences might at least be able to learn something useful.

The problem is, of course, that most of these people have actually done nothing at all. They've written the strategies but not yet carried them out. And they keep avoiding carrying them out by commissioning yet more reports, studies, business plans, scared of making the leap into actually doing something radical so watering down the lofty rhetoric by the mundanity of the detail. What a waste of public money. How great for the consultancy industry (though, sadly not for consultants like us who keep the radicalism in and try to act as though things might actually happen, scaring off risk-averse clients) and what a massive tragedy for our citizens.

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