TEDx Macclesfield event: Building community; strengthening places

community place
Photo: Simon Brown

By Chloe Steadman,

Over recent years, TED talks have become something of a global phenomenon; showcasing the work of the brightest brains from all over the World through their series of short, powerful presentations covering a whole host of topics. On 28th April 2018, Macclesfield, in North West England and close to IPM headquarters, hosted their own TEDx event to showcase just some of the forward-thinking ideas, research, and experiences from those with personal connections to the town. In TED’s spirit of ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’, TEDx Macclesfield connects people with a shared link to Macclesfield to spark conversations, share ideas, and help to collectively make positive changes to the town at a local level. The event was organised by Lynne Jones and Jude D’Souza with help from enthusiastic local volunteers. Jones explained the importance of holding such a renowned event in the town:

Macclesfield (as perhaps any town) is grappling with a number of big issues – town centre regeneration, mental health service provision, local governance and democracy, supporting start-up businesses, and of course Brexit – but there are fewer public forums where real engagement can take place and ideas can be shared locally… The more of us who put something in, however small, the greater the sense connection and the stronger the community becomes. The danger is that we are living in silos more than ever, not hearing from those who hold different views…”

This event was about dismantling such silos, and creating a platform for cultivating a network of local people with a shared passion for making Macclesfield a more thriving place to live, work, and dwell. The event was a complete sell-out, with an audience of 100 local people gathering in Townley Street Chapel- a community hub in Macclesfield. Although the speakers covered a diverse range of topics, the presentations were threaded together by the common theme of how collaboration is key– something which is integral for generating any place’s vitality and viability.

Emmanuel Botwe’s talk- How to change a community with one simple question– drew on his experiences as the Head Teacher of Tytherington School in Macclesfield. He opened up about how his own life was once turned around by a teacher asking him ‘how are you doing?’ In his presentation, he explained how he now seeks to connect with teachers, parents, and pupils at his school through asking simple questions. In using this approach, he has transformed the culture, aspirations, and achievements of the school through building personal connections; importantly fostering the future generations of Macclesfield.

In her presentation- Curbing supermarket abuses: Is punishment the answer?– Christine Tacon, who lives in Macclesfield, spoke about how the 10 largest grocery retailers treat their suppliers- which is crucial given there is still a lot of farming industry around Macclesfield. Drawing on her role as the UK’s first Groceries Code Adjudicator, she discussed how she appeals to the industry’s natural competitive spirit to inspire grocery retailers to treat their suppliers more fairly, which leads to better results for consumers, retailers, and, most importantly, the suppliers.

Although she is a Canadian writer, performer, and perpetual student, like the other presenters, Clay Nikiforuk also has a connection to Macclesfield (her first UK home) through running the monthly stand-up comedy night Macc Laughs in the town in 2017. In her talk- Rethinking the story of mental illness– which combined humour with poignancy, Clay told a story about her personal experiences with mental health struggles. Through being so open about her own experiences, her talk was vital for not only encouraging more open and honest discussions about mental health in society more generally, but also within Macclesfield more specifically given mental health provision is under threat in the town.

Tying in nicely with Macclesfield’s roots as being a hub of the silk trade and an important centre for the global cotton industry, Kate Fletcher, a Professor at the University of the Arts, London, delivered the talk Usership: Fashion beyond consumerism. Kate spoke about her 20-year research career which has helped shape the field of fashion and sustainability- or ‘slow fashion’ as she has coined it. She argued that there is more fun and satisfaction in usage than in the purchasing of clothing- a key facet of this slow fashion approach.

Championing the message of how it is people who make places, Professor Cathy Parker, Chair of the Institute of Place Management, Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, and now a local resident of Macclesfield, spoke about Why some towns thrive and others don’t. Drawing insight from her research into UK town centres, Cathy identified some of the reasons why they have lost vitality and viability lately. Whilst Macclesfield is often criticised as a town centre, the audience learned that the problems facing the town are not unique, and that the answers were unlikely to lie in more retail development.

Place Community
Photo: Simon Brown

Matthew Baqueriza-Jackson, who grew up in Macclesfield and is a long-term supporter of Macclesfield Town Football Club, drew on his experiences in his recently departed role as the Deputy CEO of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies in his talk Changing spending, changing lives. Furthering the theme of town regeneration, Matthew discussed how a model he has designed to keep more money circulating in the local economy is transforming Preston and its people. Whilst he admitted in his talk that procurement is not the sexiest of subjects, it is something all local authorities and public services can use to strengthen the economies they are in- even Macclesfield.

In their presentation We need to talk about nature, Sarah Bird and Rowan Hoban who set up the multi-award winning Just So Festival in 2009, are Directors of Wild Rumpus, and both live with their families in Macclesfield, stressed the importance of nature. They produce popular large-scale events outside, so wondered why they were working in a windowless office. Their speech explained how they have now moved their operations to the Cheshire woodlands, where they work out of a horse-box and a tree house. So, with all the amazing countryside around Macclesfield, there are loads of opportunities for businesses to be benefiting from the transformative and restorative powers of nature.

Finally, Mathieu Isidro, a science communicator who now calls Macclesfield home, told the story of how he became engaged in astronomy in his presentation How the world is coming together to build a time machine. He spoke about how, through the Square Kilometer Array, he is witnessing a move towards ‘citizen science’. Stressing how collaboration is vital, Mathieu discussed how there are many technical challenges involved in building the world’s largest radio telescope; but when people come together, it becomes achievable.

community place
Photo: Simon Brown

Whilst TEDx’s popularity has swept the world, local community and connections remain at the heart of what they are about. In a world where for many of us the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives, recent decades have seen a decline in traditional community, and people in the UK are feeling more disconnected than ever. Whilst TED talks aim to spread ideas across the globe, TEDx events are designed to facilitate and nurture connections between local people. As co-organiser Lynne Jones noted:

Another way to make an impact is to facilitate connections and conversations – which is as simple as a long break in the event, with a space on the lanyard to write ‘I’m interested in’, plus an open invitation to move onto the pub opposite for lunchtime drinks… We also created social environments for the speakers to get to know each other – and the feedback is that they want to stay in touch”.

And working together, these people, along with audience members, local volunteers, and other local stakeholders, can have a real impact on strengthening Macclesfield using a collaborative place-making approach. As Professor Cathy Parker explains:

Selecting speakers, who live locally, showed just how much talent there is in the town. The audience, again, were all local people, so they will embed this new thinking locally. Having such an exciting event in the town makes more connections between people and builds the capacity for the town, as a whole, to develop… The more opportunities from people to network, collaborate and be inspired, the more this will strengthen the town… People make places”.

Co-organiser, Jude D’Souza, similarly observed how a selection of audience tickets were especially reserved for younger people, whose voices are sometimes neglected when it comes to community engagement, and how the speakers’ presentations have:

… Opened minds and changed perspectives… From those realising how hostile an environment we create for those quietly suffering with mental health issues, to those now grasping the wider impact of where they spend their money; from the office worker who will have their next meeting outdoors, to the person who will opt to adapt that jacket rather than throw it away. Even the people who will take a moment today to simply ask a colleague how their day is going…”

Over recent years, people in the town have been working hard to bring more ideas and creativity to the town, with initiatives such as the Macclesfield Barnaby FestivalArtSpace, and Make it Macclesfield helping to enhance the town’s identity, arts and culture offer, and civic pride. But improvements can always be made to strengthen a place’s vitality and viability. And this TEDx event proved to be another integral stepping stone on the path towards building a stronger and more active local community in Macclesfield. As our recent research into high street change has shown, people don’t just live, work, and shop in places; but they are also vital to creating, revitalising, and changing those very places.