Ten steps to running your own Ideas Farm

A fortnight ago, fifty people turned up to the Wellington Ideas Farm to talk about projects they thought could brighten up the town. It went down really well, and as we speak new projects are sprouting up out of the ground to prove it. The Ideas Farm isn’t about complaining or asking the council to do stuff or generating long wishlists of things that will never actually happen. It’s about people getting together and growing their own ideas.

Since the event, a few people from other areas have emailed me to ask how they could go about organising something similar – so here’s my attempt at boiling it down into ten steps…

BEFORE THE DAY…

1. Collecting: a month or so before the workshop itself, start asking people for their ideas for improving the town. In Wellington, a couple of members of the town partnership set up a gazebo in the Market Square over two days and asked passers-by to write their ideas on post-it notes to stick on a display board. A town or parish council could be the ones to do this or, better still, a community group, or just a handful of residents with no official status. In those two sessions we collected almost 200 separate comments. This is helpful firstly because it starts to get local people thinking and talking about the ideas farm – not only those who you catch in the street, but through press coverage a wider constituency as well. It’s also helpful becasue it gives you, the organisers, a sense of where the most interest lies – four or five broad themes came out as particularly popular in Wellington.

2. Picking a venue: in a village there might be one obvious venue, such as a church hall. In a town you’ll have more choices – ideally chose somewhere that doesn’t feel too official. This space should feel friendly and informal, not too grand or daunting for people who might not be accustomed to workshop events. The room needs to be big enough for different groups to be working independently of each other, so you don’t want somewhere with a booming acoustic where people will find it hard to hear each other.

3. Promoting & inviting: make sure as many people as possible know about the workshop, and make people feel they’re contribution will be valuable – the whole point is to reach those local people who are less involved in local life, as well as those stalwarts who already do a lot. In truth, you don’t just want to collect ideas – you want to collect people and their energy to power those ideas as well, growing that pool of local people who are actively involved in making things happen. So, use Facebook and Twitter, but also tap into existing local networks via newsletters, email lists etc. It’s good to get some councillors to come along too – it’s important they hear what people are interested in. If they’re good councillors, they’ll use their role to help plug those people into council time and expertise that might be able to help – without taking over!  

ON THE DAY…

4. Setting up the room: this is a workshop, not a meeting with a chair or a detailed agenda – so whatever you do, don’t lay the room out like a board meeting, or like a lecture hall. Set out tables ‘cabaret style’, so that people are sitting around tables in groups of about 6 to 8. All you need at the front of the room is a projector and screen to show some slides. Dress the room up a bit if you can – some local pictures pinned on boards around the room, for instance. Make sure there are pens and paper on the tables so people can take notes as they go.

5. Setting the scene: the workshop shouldn’t feel rule-bound, but there are a few key principles that people need to stick to, so the facilitator should spend a few minutes setting these out at the start. For instance: this should be a positive event – a space for discussing what we CAN do, not bemoaning the things we can’t. Another key principle is that people can’t just generate ideas for other people (e.g. the council) – ideas without people to grow them aren’t much use. So, people should focus on the practical steps they could take together for making something happen. Another way to help set the scene and inject some energy into the room is to invite a couple of people already involved in successful community projects to say a few words about what they’ve done and what’s made it work. No community is starting entirely from scratch – we all know volunteer groups doing great things already – so acknowledge that. 

6. Getting people started: if you’ve done some collecting in the weeks or months before the session, spend a few minutes showing people in the room the headline findings from that exercise. At the Wellington event, we simply showed a slide with an approximated bar chart showing the four main themes that emerged from those initial post-it note comments. When it comes to getting people to focus on something they’re interested in, start with these themes as it’s likely they’ll be of interest to these people in the room as well. Invite people to propose other topics as well – if others are also interested, they can form a group too.

7. Getting conversations underway: make it clear where in the room people should go to discuss the topic they’re interested in. Unless you’ve got a group of facilitators on hand (we didn’t in Wellington), ask groups to nominate a scribe so the main points of their conversation are captured, and hand out sheets of prompt questions to help keep conversations on track. Give groups an hour – wander round during that time to get a sense of how conversations are going and to make sure people are capturing some notes of what’s being said. After about an hour (or before if they’re running out of steam) pull people’s attention back to the front and ask each group to give a few headlines from their discussions, including what they think needs to happen next to make progress, and who needs to be involved for that to happen.

8. Keeping a record: take photos and if possible get some film or audio of the workshop as well (this might be something local students would be interested to do). At the Wellington event, for instance, we had someone with a microphone getting comments for a homemade radio programme. All this media stuff won’t feel like a priority on the day, but it’ll be helpful in showcasing and building momentum afterwards.

9. Giving people clarity about next steps: hopefully the event will have helped bring people together to share their ideas and make new connections. You want this session to be the start of something, not the end, so it’s important that momentum isn’t lost once people leave the room. Encourage people to exchange contact details within their groups so that if they want to be involved in the conversations after the session, they can. In addition, send round a list for people to add their email addresses so that you as organisers can get in touch to say thanks and to continue linking people up with each other as new ideas and new informal project groups emerge. 

AFTERMATH…

10. Keep the momentum: Remember the workshop is just the start, and if it’s been a good session, the energy and the connections between people in the room will be as important as the ideas themselves. Some projects may gather speed almost as soon as people leave the room under their own steam, but others may need some continued nurturing and prompting from a central point – be that you as the facilitator, or a parish clerk or other council officer. Don’t retreat into monthly meeting cycles and setting up committees unnecessarily – ring people, email people, see how they’re getting on and keep it as light as possible – little and often is better than allowing momentum to fade away between big meetings. Just emailing everyone who came to organise a social meet-up (eg in a local pub) a few weeks later will help keep those relationships growing and the conversations simmering.

So – it’s as easy as that. I’ve been bowled over by the response we had both at the Ideas Farm itself and in the weeks since. I’m really confident that real, tangible things will happen as a result, and it might be the way to kick-start some fantastic new proejcts in your area too. If you try it, let us know how you get on.

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