In 2005 I moved to Wales after a long period away. I live in the area I am from originally but feel dislocated from it. The city has changed since I was gone, some for the better some for the worse. It is both familiar and unknown to me.
I had been to a talk by John Thackara and been reading about wicked problem solving. In an attempt to find out why Newport is the way it is and to feel better connected to the city, I decided to form a think tank. The idea was to immerse a group of people in a problem (Newport) figure out what the issues might be and then try to create some solutions. I emailed people who I had met along the way who I thought might be receptive to the idea, I asked them to meet and we would take it from there.
The first meeting on the 12th June 2010 found a mixture of people from different backgrounds turn up. This wasn't how subsequent meetings panned out. The core of the group comprised completely of people working in the creative industries in some way. Why that happened? I am not sure. The intention was to be inclusive and to get input from a variety of sources.
We held a weekly meeting in pubs in the Newport city centre. The idea being to support the ailing inner city pub trade by patronising different venues in turn.
We recorded the meetings on a scroll of paper and a communal blog. The blog was also used to exchange ideas. The changes in venue meant people became curious about us drawing on a giant paper. This in turn became a (sometimes) useful conversation opener.
I got the think tank ball rolling but I can’t take full credit for the ideas generated. It was a community effort.
So what did we do?
We talked alot. We walked across the city in a series of 9 walks to see the city at ground level. We met people who were doing positive things in the city. We went to public meetings with the local police and with local traders. This was an attempt to see what was really going on.
Early ideas like guerrilla fixing the lights in the central underpasses, became obsolete as the council fixed them. The problems in Newport appeared too entrenched for a group of people with no money to tackle. So we decided to play to Newport strengths and draw people's attention to the good things in Newport.
Attracting attention to the numerous green spaces in Newport became a key concern.
Newport City Walkers came out of the group. It was a walking group open to anyone. It met in the city centre every Sunday and walked across the city to a set point and back again. The walks intersected as many green spaces as possible along a route. We were joined by a variety of people, mainly people who had seen it on the internet, but the walks were usually with a core of people from the think tank.
In an attempt to dilute the anti-social behaviour along the river we started a roller skating group to attract other people to the river area. This entailed some of the think tank learning to skate. The idea being that if we had a critical mass of people doing something social not anti-social then the balance of behaviours displayed along the river would be positive. Subsequently, the police issued anti-social behaviour orders for spaces along the river and so the river paths did become safer... but not due to our efforts or our skating presence.
We had other ideas about attracting attention to the green spaces including: films, giant balloons, bubble writing, lights, an unplugged music festival and book. Most of these ideas were explored and/or part realised.
Renew (as the think tank became named) came to an end in the summer of 2011. In truth it hasn't officially ended, but most of the members moved out of Newport within months of each other... so it came to a slow rolling stop.
Renew wasn't funded. People joined because they genuinely wanted to make a difference to their place. It maintained just over a year with the good will of those involved.
The legacy of my involvement in Renew is that I found out surprising things about the city: that people live in tented communities in its outer reaches, that people fish in the river for food, Newport is surprisingly green, there is alot of hidden but interesting activity happening in Newport. In order to do meaningful projects, think tanks such as Renew need funding support. That it is fun exchanging ideas with other people in a noodling loose way. I do a lot of walking... though my roller skates probably need some WD40.
Victoria J E. Jones