The Cambridge Hub’s Social Innovation Programme for students – and town groups

What happens when you put together [via Zoom of course] a group of undergraduates from various Cambridge colleges with local historians, councillors, and community activists?

It sounds almost cliche to say it but I’ve been struggling to work out how Cambridge can take its local history profile up ‘to the next level’ so to speak. Even more so in the face of the biggest public health crisis Cambridge has faced for over a century. (To say nothing of the country or the world).

Innovating in a crisis when you’re not allowed to meet up with anyone, and when the places you would normally meet up in are closed down by law.

Well I couldn’t do it. So I signed up to the Cambridge Hub’s Social Innovation Programme to see if some of the audiences local history groups need to engage with (i.e. students & young people) could come up with some ideas.

The Cambridge Hub and their Social Innovation Programme

Cambridge is only one of a handful of cities that has a student hub. Essentially they are student-led groups offering practical volunteering, skilled placements, project incubation and events. Not for slouches, the employed staff are often graduates and former volunteers themselves, and have quickly gained that rare familiarity of the opaque systems and processes of Cambridge University institutions, alongside a familiarity with a host of town groups and organisations.

The Social Innovation Programme is something that groups of students take part in to assist a local charity, group, organisation, network or collective. It’s a two-way thing – the more you put into it time and effort-wise, the more you get out of it. This is particularly the case for the town side organisations. It’s easy to forget that for some of the first year undergraduates, they will be just out of school – and this year’s cohort will have had to have gone through the distressing experience of the A-levels fiasco. Furthermore, all of them will have seen many of the activities familiar to previous generations of students closed down due to the restrictions caused by the pandemic.

The programme itself is set up to mirror a commission that a management consultancy might receive. A time-limited piece of work that involves a team getting out and about to research what the problems and issues are, and working as a team to come up with solutions to present to the commissioning organisation in response. The commissioning organisation being a town-based group who provides amongst other things an easy-to-access individual/s to guide the students through the task. That task is a real life challenge that the organisation faces that it might otherwise not have the staff, volunteers, or resources to undertake itself. For example coming up with a new engagement strategy aimed at new audiences, or a report recommending which social media platforms their organisation could use (and which ones to avoid).

A Lost Cambridge challenge?

Actually they are coming up with their own name – I gave them as much freedom as they needed on scoping their challenge. The aim I gave them was to come up with something that would get more people of their generation (and younger generations compared to what many local history communities are generally) interested in Cambridge’s local history – and to put their proposals into a brochure that they might be asked to submit to potential sponsors or funding organisations. Specific outcome (An idea that might generate local interest in new audiences), and a specific output (the brochure). I very specifically excluded the actual delivery – not least because of the short time frame (one term) in the face of the huge restrictions they faced. Furthermore, I wanted them to spend more time engaging with some willing volunteers from across Cambridge town, covering local government, local business, local heritage, and volunteering generally. Thank you to all of you that took part!

Briefing the ‘community experts’

I don’t know if previous projects had done a similar approach or whether they kept contacts to within their own network. I took the view that the city is their (the students’) resource – let’s pick some people! This meant providing brief descriptions of the people who had agreed to be contacted, and guiding them through the sorts of things they could ask – and also the questions that might be put to them requiring research in advance. With enough people and institutions stepping forward, they all got the chance to have at least one extended 1-2-1 conversation with someone from ‘town’ who they might otherwise not have had the chance to talk to. Bear in mind it’s very easy for an undergraduate to go through their university years here hardly setting foot outside Cambridge’s central core.

“They were all so friendly! I thought they’d be reserved or hostile!”

….was the reaction of the student group to the community experts. The other striking reaction from them was asking why the University authorities didn’t publicise any of the local history to them as students – in particular the achievements in social progress and civic improvement that many Cambridge graduates over the centuries had contributed towards. (Or even the past atrocities committed by University authorities – such as the Spinning House. Which remains unfinished business!)

Opportunities for Cambridge town groups

What differentiates this programme from other forms of volunteering that the Hub offers to students is this one has much firmer parameters – for example there is a very specific deadline at which point the student groups must present their reports. It’s not like spending one afternoon every week during term time in a charity shop or taking a reading class at a local primary school.

Previous town groups have commissioned teams of students to design questionnaires and surveys for group members to fill out, and for the students to analyse and report findings. One of the most straight forward commissions of late might involve working out which social media platform to focus on based on what current members use. Alternatively it might be the one that potential future members find popular.

Testing a concept – is the SIP suitable for local charities and community groups?

Absolutely yes! That’s not to say it’s plain sailing for both sides – especially in the lockdown! We’ve been floored by poor internet connections more than once. It’s also important not to go in with huge expectations because the students are Cambridge students. For a start the programme is also available for students at one of my old stomping grounds, Anglia Ruskin University. What a group of half a dozen undergraduates can achieve in one term is not a blueprint to demolish all the ugly 1960s buildings and replace them with Neo-Edwardian Baroque masterpieces. As a town group, you are inviting students to influence your thinking by providing you with evidence bases and constructive criticism to your decision-making processes in a specific area (that you could not provide for yourself). You are also providing them with a real life challenge that the classroom cannot teach them.

“Real life challenge?”

Yes – this is not a simulation. One of the first challenges the students commented on was the huge amount of information that was out there from the websites, books, and reading lists I had provided. I mentioned that job interviews will ask them how they prioritise their work. In this case, which are the pieces of essential reading, and which are the ones that they decide they won’t have time for. Others things such as someone not getting back to them on an issue with a deadline looming, or perhaps one conversation opening up a new opportunity that they had not thought of before. Again, remember that most if not all of the students will not have had experience of doing this sort of work for an outside organisation.

Possible commissions for other Cambridge organisations?

One of the things Cambridge (town, gown, & surrounding villages) faces is how to emerge from the massive hit we’ve all taken from the Corona Virus (and the essential collective responses). Furthermore, what are the issues that will still be around that have not gone away? (The River Cam’s ecological crisis for example).

Some that I’ve come up with that others may wish to explore include:

  • Proposals for a Cambridge University town-gown society, enabling students to learn both about local history and getting involved in proposals for the future of Greater Cambridge – (supported by Cambridge Past, Present, & Future?)
  • Proposals for a Cambridge Late Starters Orchestra/Collective (similar to the East London LSO, and the Mary Ward Centre in London).
  • Proposals for a Freshers Fair-style event for local sports clubs on the lookout for new members, to activity clubs that get people out, about, and active (such as local walking groups) as a means to improve the health of our city.
  • Proposals for a permanent commemoration to the women who made modern Cambridge – mindful of the centenaries of Eva Hartree’s mayoralty (in 2024), equalisation of Votes for women, (2028), Florence Ada Keynes’ mayoralty (2032), and The Guildhall (2039).
  • Proposals for neighbourhood outreach for the reopening of individual arts venues – such as The Junction in Cambridge. (Prior to lockdown, a community meeting in Coleridge ward indicated that local residents did not receive publicity/invitations to events even though the Junction sits in the ward.)
  • A Public Art audit of Cambridge – listing what is there, and sites suitable for future pieces of public art.
  • A Public Art survey for Cambridge – researching what other towns and cities have created/commissioned, then running a questionnaire across the city to find out what people like and don’t like.

Food for thought?

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