The Monday just gone I attended Age Camp in Leeds. Some takeaway thoughts.

It is worth disclosing up front I attended the event voluntarily in every sense. I was made aware of it by someone who thought I’d find it interesting. I wasn’t paid to attend. I gave up a day of work. As I effectively work for myself I gave a day’s work in every sense. I’m totally cool with all of that. There’s no agenda here.

What attracted me: The idea of the event, bringing together Leeds residents, service providers, and “technologists” for some sort of symposium. Excellent. The unconference format was a neat choice to explore together. And being promoted and driven by public services gave it some positive credence, and reach I’d hope.

There was an impressive turnout, in terms of numbers. It’s always gratifying to see healthy support in numbers. The balance of the participants on the day didn’t feel right though. It was great to see an event where “older” people were attendance - and framed as the possible benefactors of this all day session. But for the main it felt like the older people were in the minority, amongst people from various public sector departments with a sprinkling of designer/technologists (like myself). The mix felt good, the quantities of the ingredients not so.

Was the way the event was “promoted”, using Eventbrite to “register”, using language like “rich tradition” to describe it, barriers?

In the pre-start coffee and mingle there was an nervousness in the room, an uncertainty to what was going to happen, what people were going to contribute, how. And not just from the “older people”.

The way the event started didn’t help. Setting up the day should be so people shouldn’t be afraid, they should be really clear on structure. A brief intro using the word acronyms, jargon, and “unconference” - what does that all actually mean to people in attendance? The language of the intro didn’t play to the audience. Being open is hard for a lot of people. Sharing is hard. Especially in an unfamiliar format, flying in the face of the commonly accepted definition of “tradition”. Could there have been something at the beginning to help foster this?

Mick Ward followed that intro with a little talk that was neat and excellent. It described the state of play out there in the world. It was a great scene setter for the wider picture. As a piece of talking it resonated, highly relational. Dylan Roberts added in his take as “the councils’s CIO” (“What is a ‘CIO’?”).

Then the audience were asked for things of interest to shape the day. Some interesting topics/focuses for the sessions were mooted. Could this have been even more precise, raised some more precise issues, and afforded the opportunity for some really tight discussion?

Throughout the day I spoke to the older people in attendance about how they were getting on. Several said they wished they’d had a think before the day, and knowing how the day would be formed would have made them do that - they may have had an idea, they came up with an idea on the spot that morning — but saying it out loud? They wanted to make sure they had worked that through so they said it “right”, “writing it down”. Of course limited feedback from the attendees there, but a worthwhile consideration.

There were some great moments in the sessions.

In the first session I attended there was some interesting talk of the concept of “getting older” versus “getting old” versus “being old”. Dignity. Who knows “best”? Just because you are “old” doesn’t mean you are dysfunctional.

Later on was a great discussion about capability - and even why a person should be dismissive of “digital takeover”. Dignity was a great theme, not dismissing just because someone was “old” they couldn’t. Great example: “I have a bus pass because I have passed the age I get one. But I have a car. I can still drive. I am capable of driving. I enjoy driving.”

There were some fascinating chats about how digital could enhance, through speed, convenience, but in relevant circumstances.

Matt Edgar’s offer to do a “walk, look around, and talk”: a great idea, making you look around, and could’ve been better attended. Could it have actually been a good “intro” to get people thinking about looking around as well as inside themselves?

The balance of the discussion in the sessions wavered, through a lack of light governance and structure. A number slipped well off-topic, something a designated “facilitator” (less a chairperson, more someone who just keeps the conversation on track) in each session would have helped. (Aside: several people said they “stepped up” to be ‘unofficial’ facilitators but more through necessity.) One session, devoid of any “Leeds residents” felt like it was “the staff” grilling “their bosses”. When there were “Leeds residents” the groups should have made sure they could share, even if inviting them to contribute with questions.

On several occasions the session ended with the oldest person/people having left with suggestions along the line “No wonder no-one is listening to them [older people]”. The point of the session: Everyone has a view to be heard, and we should have been accepting not dismissing. When people share there should be an expectancy that they will be sharing a very personal opinion. It matters to them. This again seemed to have been a “rule” laid down: listen, take away, don’t put down. A priming to listen to everyone should have been clear.

To balance that I heard someone with a council lanyard say how “great it was to be able to talk to people we work for in this kind of forum - it’s why I have stayed in the council”. Top marks to the chap with a Libraries lanyard as well who really wanted to understand. And I know there were others.

(If this sounds like I am being dismissive about the strong turnout from public service providers I am not. That was excellent. Just there needed to be an agreed capacity to listen rather than gesticulate.)

At the day’s end, the team running the event drew upon the audience to share their key points. With the number of sessions (four rooms, four times, so something like 16 possible sessions) it didn’t feel the variety of those sessions was represented in the summary sheet — especially given nearly half the attendees had already gone. Could a “facilitator” for each session have provided a couple of points as an initial bedrock for the end of day summary?

I attended the day mindful of “Our goal is to understand the small steps we need to take in order to address the big issues!” I wouldn’t expect to go and leave with a big leap, but with the outcomes the value of the sharing seems debatable. With such a small number of“residents” to input on the day how valuable was the input? As a thought, what if this sort of event was held somewhere where there’s a critical mass of “residents” in the first place? As Trude, in her eighties, in the very first session said to me: “I am lucky to be here. I can make it. There are other how cannot. But they can still think and talk.”

If I had to summarise, Age Camp was enlightening and had the potential given the facilities, support, those gathered to bring some real insight, and the (apologies for the jargon) unconference format. I am sure there was something gleaned. At the least the value of listening to service users, current or potential?

For me? Not enough “service users” to listen to, not enough structure to ensure there was listening. In the usually inviting unconference structure it felt a missed opportunity. But that was my experience. I hope if you attended you didn’t feel the same, and you felt it will help make some steps forward. That Leeds is willing to try this way of doing things is a step forward itself.