Firstly, the bad news. By whichever metric you choose, Liverpool is in trouble. Our economy is shrinking. Over the past half decade the Office of National Statistics (ONS) records a drop of 0.8%, while every other core city has seen significant growth.
Our population, relative to other cities, is shrinking. Ten years ago, Liverpool’s population – at 441,900 – was larger than Manchester’s 422,900.
Our Council is Disconnected to the Real Story
Time and again, our Council shows how blindsided it is with what’s really happening – and fails to capitalise on what may just be the most brilliant route out of our situation. Demolish the houses and scatter the community, it says of the Granby Four Streets, just before they scoop the Turner Prize. Get into bed with Geraud, it decides, just as the ground-up localism food movement takes off everywhere else. Silence the nightclubs, it demands, as the Kazimier’s finale makes national press. Destroy Hope Street with ho-hum student flats, it approves, just after it wins best Street at the Civic Awards. Let the speculators and the investors build, it concludes, after the world wakes up to the fact that that model is over.
Cities are here to stay. But things are about to get interesting. Now, real questions are being asked: is growth, in and of itself, a good thing? And how big can they be before the current model eats itself? Already, the world’s megacities are witnessing power outages, water shortages and gridlocked roads. Yet, increasingly, the world’s cities are engaged in a breathless race towards some hyper-shiny vision of a sleek, monotonous metropolis, with monorails and malls, and villages in the sky.
But soon, a city will emerge that will break the mould. Because this model is broken in every possible sense. The pursuit of more has proved hollow. Urgently we need to find something to replace it. The vast problems of global pollution, the single minded pursuit of profit, and the social inequality that always follows. Within our own city the poverty gap is obscene, yet still we lionise the ‘Liverpool Look’ – the gaudy tat dripping down the padded walls of our new hotels. It’s insane. And, whatsmore, it’s unsustainable.
Time For a New Model of What a City Could Be?
Could Liverpool be that city? The city that rewrote the rulebook? The city that said ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’? We think it could.
Because here’s the good news. Something extraordinary is happening in Liverpool. Almost as if a fundamental law of physics is being enacted: as an equal and opposite reaction to the paucity of vision from our leaders, there are industrious, inventive and passionate people engaged in real change. Sure, not speculative flats thrown up overnight offering a 7% yield to pension funds. But schemes and start-ups appropriate for a city with an 800 year old history. New businesses, CICs and social enterprises with a viable future – delivering products and services that we need, and want.
SevenStreets believes that real jobs come from a feedback loop between customers and businesses. We are the true job creators, not Amazon barns and Sainsbury’s sheds. And, yes, it takes time to grow and nurture a good job. But, boy, is it worth it.
The world is changing. Just look at the scandal of zero hours contracts, chain restaurants’ tipping furore, the rise of ‘tax shaming’ the multinationals. People are realising that big corporations don’t offer the panacea we thought they did. So why should our cities continue to carat-dangle incentive schemes and prime plots to fabricated Chinese investors?
Burned out by McJobs, more of us are willing to risk entrepreneurship, crowdfunding and collaboration as a viable alternative, creating wealth for themselves – and wealth that, crucially, circulates in the local economy. That’s why Bold Street has seen over 30 new businesses start up in the past couple of years. It’s why Independent Liverpool seized the moment so successfully. It’s why Homebaked keeps the home fires of Anfield burning, and why Engage invites the world’s best urban thinkers here for their seminars.
The City Needs to Connect Stronger, and Deeper, With Us
Increasingly, people are tapping into a new source of energy. Why we give a damn about the future of Lime Street, of libraries, and of our green spaces. Because we’re all, more than ever before, aware of what we stand to lose if we continue on this path. We stand to lose the city. Look at what we’ve lost already, and project forward what we stand to lose if we don’t, now, say enough.
Liverpool’s creative sector is resurgent. Moreover it is resilient. We know how to magic up inspirational co-working hubs, art, virtual race tracks, smart technology, biennials and festivals. And we have the warehouses, the infrastructure, the talent and the drive to punch persuasively above our weight. What could we have done with Millennium House? With St Andrew’s Church? With the streets and history we’ve wiped from the map? If we were only given the keys, rather than them going to another identikit hotel or student castle. Heck, let the city’s creative communities run a hotel: imagine how amazing that would be. No padded headboard required.
We’re not saying we want a city full of cocktail bars, artisan bakers or vintage festivals. But these people have already proved their mettle. They are our raw materials. They have conjured up something from nothing. And this is an infinitely transferable skill. A skill that’s way more useful than a life spent being paid by the public purse. People determined to make something of themselves, better their communities, create a social infrastructure that’s built on what we need now, not on some artists’ impression of how we’ll live in a vague, Sci-Fi future.
Not every city can be Shanghai, or even Manchester. Not every city should be. But every city that stands a shot at survival needs to be distinctive. Make us a city that is inherently different, and then we become a much easier sell. When you become a place that people want to live in, it’s a sure bet that you become a place where people want to invest in. And with every new development that pushes us – and our culture – out of the picture, that future looks ever more uncertain.
We think it’s time for a change. We think collaboration – true, sleeves-rolled-up, honest collaboration – is the only way forward.
In his new year message, Joe Anderson says that ‘Liverpool has a long, proud, tradition of protest for social change, but we are at our best when we ARE the social change. Liverpool is famous around the world not for complaining about things, but for changing things.’
Fine words. But, Joe, but no one complains more than you. We should know. And, also, what’s your definition of change? Because, if it’s New Wolstenholme Square (pic r), we’ll pass, thanks. That looks like our definition of ‘more of the same’.
So how can we work together when you block anyone who disagrees with you on Twitter? How can we effect change when you surround yourself with yes people? How can we start a dialogue when you refuse to listen?
So, What Happens Now?
Maybe, just maybe, the answers to our problems have been here all along – that DoES Liverpool could have helped map out a smarter broadband provision than the millions wasted on BT, that our local food heroes could have created a better market offer than Geraud’s sorry sheds, that the Kazimier collective could have imagined a brighter future for Wolstenholme Square, that the Liverpool Lantern Co could have engineered our own Giants instead of us importing them, that our gaming community could have been given the breaks we were so keen to give to Sony. That Granby and Homebaked could work with the fractured communities that encircle our city, and give them hope.
But all of this takes time. And money. But not much money. We’ve spent over £40,000 on awards ceremonies in the past couple of years. For what? A big night out and some bad press. Imagine how many startups that could have seeded?
In smart cities, the rise of collaboration is unstoppable. Cities mature enough to admit that their politicians don’t hold all the answers. Many people have figured out that it doesn’t make any sense to work in silos, when it’s never been easier to pull together. What sense does it make to turn your back on the thousands of people in our city who want to be part of the change?
Collaborative economy concepts are being implemented right now. Sharing, helping, learning, opening up. We are not passive consumers. We are citizens. And we, not transient public servants, hold the keys to our future.
Over in the States, MIT’s Dayna Cunningham believes in the power of listening. With big problems – like ours – the solution requires out-of-the-Town-Hall-box thinking. “We consider people from different social positions as colleagues,” she says. “Poor people actually are experts on problems, from illness to dealing with life without money. Yet in a bad economy, no one asks them how they make ends meet, often because they’ve been told what they think doesn’t matter.” Does that sound like a story close to home, to you?
Her Community Innovators Lab now works with community organizations – with people at the margins “because they offer tremendous insight,” she says, adding that the lab casts the poor not only as those with problems but as inventors of creative approaches.
“We have people—from soccer moms to police chiefs to kids in hoodies—whose life experiences are counterintuitive, whose life truths are opposite, and we put them together around the table and get them to co-create solutions.”
Guess what? We haven’t got the answer. But here’s what SevenStreets suggests: Liverpool does the same. Sets up a parliament of the people, for the people. No one can hold a light to our creativity, so why is no-one talking to us? We might never be an economic powerhouse again. But is that so bad? Surely our goal is to live in a city that functions better, that cares for its citizens, that offers opportunities for all. A city that’s generous and tolerant. That connects with itself at a deeper level than retweets of sunsets. A city that knows where it’s going.
Because, make no mistake, we’re all connected like never before. And if we don’t work together, we’ll continue to fall apart.
Main image: Jeff Wong