Birmingham: Despite the headlines, the race has not yet been won

Irony fully intended.

Irony fully intended.

It’s been brilliant seeing the good press about Birmingham that has flooded in over recent months. Having discovered and championed so much about my home city of Birmingham that I never expected since moving back a few years ago, it’s so refreshing to finally see some of that getting some well-deserved exposure and Birmingham becoming known as more than the city of ‘that accent’. The Economist, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, GQ… so many of the nationals are at it. Even The Rough Guide got in there, and The New Yorker were there a while ago.

It feels like the tide is turning for the City, and it feels like it’s about time. It’s exciting, and I feel proud of how far our city has come.

But the race is not won yet. Amidst the deserved championing of great things that have sprung up in the city (and the stuff that’s been around for years), it’d be easy to be forgiven for overlooking some key facts about Birmingham.

1 in 3 children live in poverty1, 40% of children are overweight or obese2, there are huge numbers of children waiting to be adopted3, infant mortality is around 60% worse than the national average4, we have a youth unemployment rate that is scary amongst the city with Europe’s highest population of young people5… the list can and does go on.

Despite the headlines and the hype, we cannot truly be proud of Birmingham whilst these facts remain true.

Yes, ALL big cities face these huge challenges of inequality. The mega-cities probably have it much worse in many respects; head to Mumbai or Rio and the imbalances are impossible to ignore.

But it is not enough to shrug these shameful statistics off as a necessary fact. We do not have to accept the world as it is. We do not have to accept the city as it is.

And here’s the thing: I believe that Birmingham has the ingredients of what it takes to really turn the dial on these truths.

For a city the size of London to seriously challenge these statistics is really very difficult. For starters, it’s not really one city – it’s a collection of boroughs which are mini-entities within themselves, governed separately for better or worse.

Birmingham, on the other hand, is of a very specific size: populous enough to be a large city with all the problems that brings, but small enough to have the potential to be connected in a way that huge cities could never dream of.

Spend enough time trying something out in Brum, and you’ll find that the city’s circles of ‘influence’ – in its many forms – are actually very dense and relatively connected. To reach practically anyone within these circles it can often feel like there’s just 2 degrees of separation or less – as long as you have an ‘in’ to some part of the network to begin with (which is the subject of a separate post altogether).

It’s what Jim Clifton (Gallup CEO) terms ‘local tribal leadership’ – the local CEOs, philanthropists, people with influence in some way – people with a deep emotional investment in their cities.

We have tribes and local tribal leaders in abundance in Birmingham. Examples are easily found in tech, creative, professional services, makers, media to name just a few. These tribes are the product of years of steady, focussed and, most importantly, self-directed work. These tribes have formed not as a result of any government initiative or money-injected directive, they’ve formed because of the drive and energy of people willing to love and work for the city they have chosen to call their own.

So we have these ingredients, these exciting interconnected ingredients, and with a few small changes, it feels like the opportunity is present and the time is right to have a genuine leap at making serious change.

The past month has been a whopping great testament to that, through the launch of a Kickstarter to support the creation of a new Impact Hub in Birmingham – the first in the UK outside of London, joining 60+ other Hubs around the world.

I met up with friend and co-founder of the ImpactHub Birmingham Immy at Euston Station just a few days after the campaign went live, before she caught the last train back to Brum. Having seen various tech crowdfunding campaigns recently who clearly had ‘gamed the process’ – i.e. bunged in a chunk of their own money as an anonymous donor to get the ball rolling – I asked Immy if this was what they were planning to do. After all, £50K was a pretty ambitious target. She laughed and replied, “No! We’ve got nothing left to pour in – we’ve spent all our savings getting it this far in the first place! If this thing happens it will happen because people want it to.”

And pound by pound, the money rolled in. People from all backgrounds – some obvious, others not at all – rallied around and got behind this thing.

Some didn’t even really understand quite what it was, but they didn’t care. They called friends, and said, “Something good is happening. Get the hell involved.” They took that leap of faith for the sole reason that they believe in Birmingham. They believe in this city, and they believe in now. They believe in people brave enough to put themselves out there and say, “I am going to do something. I might not know exactly how to do it, but I am going to do something, and I am going to do it now. Because sitting on my arse is no longer an option.”

Seeing these hundreds of people committing serious energy – and, yes, serious cash – to social change (or social innovation or call it whatever you like) has been an enormous symbol of hope for me about this city. It makes me genuinely optimistic of the chance that together we actually might be able to significantly turn the dial on Birmingham’s problems.

Impact Hub Birmingham have got a few pounds left to go on the Kickstarter. Back it if you haven’t already, if you like.

And then? Let’s get to work – together – in creating a city that’s even better than the headlines. A city we can truly be proud of.

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