A Cambridge local history social innovation challenge for university students

One of the features of the local history community in and around Cambridge is the older age profile compared with other communities of interest. This inevitably raises significant challenges when it comes to sustaining that interest and having continuity with future generations – even more so in the face of a decade of austerity in local government, where historically much program and grant funding has come from.

Above – My Q to Cambridgeshire County Council on 18 July 2017, the Council confirming that funding for the archives service is at its statutory minimum.

It’s all the more interesting given that Cambridge has risen into the top ten in the country for heritage in a recent report published by The RSA Charity – Pride in Place – The RSA’s Heritage Index 2020.

Above – Cambridge moving into the top ten. The five themes that emerged in the RSA’s report are also worth looking at:

  1. Citizen led heritage is increasingly providing opportunity for inclusive heritage activities
  2. Financial support for heritage is under strain, but is essential to realising potential
  3. New heritage assets mean heritage potential is continually evolving
  4. Parks, open spaces, landscapes and natural environment assets are more important than ever
  5. The Heritage Index can be a catalyst for change as we look to the future

At the same time, those of you who follow what happens in our local councils might want to read the report Community Paradigm by New Local – formerly the NLGN/New Local Government Network.

The Cambridge Hub – enabling Cambridge’s students to volunteer on social projects in and around our city

I’ve worked with & supported a number of Cambridge Hub projects over the past few years – here’s a write up from one town-gown workshop from 2014. One of the most successful projects to emerge from the meetings and workshops in the middle of the last decade was Volunteer for Cambridge. In my early video-making days I interviewed a number of participants at the first event in 2015.

Above – a video medley from Volunteer for Cambridge 2015.

As Cambridge City Council has confirmed, the 2020 event has been postponed due to the Corona Virus outbreak, with the aim to restart what had become successful annual events hosted by the city council at The Guildhall, organised by students, populated by charities and voluntary groups across our city, and attended by the people that make up our city as well.

The Cambridge Hub’s Social Innovation Programme

The pitch to potential student participants is here. This is the sort of programme that every higher education institute across the land should be running – with the support of their local council and voluntary services network. What it enables is for local charities and voluntary groups to pitch real life problems and challenges to teams of students who then undertake to solve said challenges. Quite often these will be things that hard-pressed organisations have neither the skills nor the capacity to take on themselves. For the students it is an opportunity to take on a challenge that might be similar to something they might later face in the workplace, and enables them to acquire skills they cannot easily learn in the classroom or laboratory. Finally it gets students working across the town-gown divide over a period of time.

Organisations that have benefited from work by the students include that local careers powerhouse Form the Future, and the local branch of The Equality Trust, The Cambridge Commons which regularly produces well-researched reports on the social and economic challenges the people of Cambridge face. The latter were behind the Imagine 2027 series in 2017/18 which featured hard-hitting presentations by prominent social researchers on what the near future might be like.

One of the things many local organisations can struggle with is collecting evidence bases when trying to inform bid and new projects. For example how can a small charity find out which social media platform is most suitable for what it does? A suitable challenge might involve designing and delivering a project where the team of students interviews all those involved with the charity (from donors to service users) to gain the evidence base, while at the same time doing a literature review from experts in the field of social media and the voluntary sector to find out what the experts say about which platforms to use and how.

The social innovation programme and local history

We are still in the very early stage of this term’s programme, so I’m not going to go into detail about who is involved and what we discussed. I’m also acutely aware that with my own list of ideas in recent times, there is a risk that I simply put one of my past ideas on the table and challenge the students to make it happen. Such as building a new 2,500+ capacity concert hall.

For that reason – and also the CV19 restrictions amongst other things, I’ve taken a very flexible approach that puts the participants in control of shaping and defining the challenge before going about solving it. It also means bringing together materials and sources they can then work on, using and developing the skills they told me they wanted to improve in the course of this project. For some this has been things like data analysis – so I need to look at what data sets they can work with where their analysis can provide the city with insights we’ve perhaps overlooked in the past. For others there is presentational, public speaking, and interviewing. Mindful of CV19 restrictions, this means for my part facilitating the contact between the participants and practitioners in the fields of local heritage and local government.

Cambridge local heritage and local government people – would you like to be interviewed by the participants on the Cambridge Hub’s Lost Cambridge challenge?

If so, drop me an email (antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com) – ***Thank you*** to those of you who have already got back to me as being willing and able!

One of the important benefits for the students is that they get introduced to local people and organisations who live and work in the areas that their challenge is set within. My hope and intention is that the challenge won’t be the end of things, and that as many of the participants as possible will choose to stay in contact with the people and organisations they have been introduced to.

The participants are from a range of subjects & disciplines, both undergraduate and postgraduate. Collectively they are at the scoping stage, doing background reading and video-watching of presentations that I filmed a range of people and organisations delivering over the years. (So some of them may already be familiar with you by the time they interview you – having seen you on Youtube!)

As an output, in my challenge briefing for the participants I stated that at a minimum they would need to produce a brochure containing their proposal for a local history project. Beyond that there will also be an online presentation – again given the CV19 restrictions, with questions to the participants coming from volunteers and interested people who can provide both encouragement and also scrutiny of the brochure and their presentations. You’ll be pleased to know that building a new concert hall for Cambridge is not a requirement of this challenge!

Cambridge and county charities interested in setting your own challenges for participating students

Two cohorts run every academic year. The next one will commence in January 2021, which should give you enough time to prepare a suitable brief. If you are interested, please contact either Isobel or Susana who are listed at Cambridge Hub Staff Support (scroll down for their contact details).

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