Morrisons: The Rose that grew from Concrete

A bright future for Hagley Road beckons?

Since moving to Birmingham in May I’ve found myself strangely fascinated by the rapid development of the new Morrisons supermarket on Hagley Road, next to the Five Ways roundabout I pass everyday on my way home from work. Today, the supermarket threw open its doors to customers for the first time. Like some Z-list celebrity, I got myself along first thing this morning to witness this momentous occasion. This is my story.

Supermarkets: the endless love affair

Readers who know me will know that I’ve got something of a soft spot for supermarkets in general and Sainsbury’s in particular. I know, I know, supermarkets are perhaps the ultimate expression of late capitalism’s empty consumerism and environmental destruction in pursuit of profit.

And yes, arguably given my first career was in local government I suppose I should care more about the undue influence supermarkets with their (allegedly) vast land banks have on the Planning system and functioning competition in this country.

Luckily, however, all of these feelings of mild unease fade away as soon as I cross the threshold an am bathed in the perpetual daylight of supermarkets’ brutally efficient lighting. Then, all of a sudden my years spent as a student trolley-wally and checkout assistant at Sainsbury’s somehow collude to make me turn a blind eye to the emptiness of modern capitalism and enjoy the rush that can only come from a trip around a supermarket with a footprint of a small developing country.

Morrisons on Hagley Road: The Rose that Grew from Concrete?

Given the soft spot I carry for supermarkets, my expectations for the new Morrisons were reasonably high. I believe it was the late Tupac Shakur who described in his poetry the rose that grew from concrete.Without wishing to reach for the pseud card so early into a post, it’s only mildly hyperbolic to suggest that as I witnessed the store’s emergence over the summer and into the autumn I believed it could very well be that rose.

While it’s fair to say I am writing this post with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Birmingham, it’s worth pointing out that Morrisons doesn’t exactly have much competition in the roses stakes. Hagley Road is, after all, (in)famous as the home of Spearmint Rhino, not to mention the most randomly laid out Tesco known to man. Still, I’m told it’s important to have hope.

First Impressions of the new Store

The hottest ticket in town: 10 minutes to go until the official opening

After queuing patiently with around 30 or so my fellow citizens I was allowed into the store at just gone 9 o’clock. First impressions of the store were good. I’d heard Morrisons knew a thing or two about how to run a deli counter but nobody had told me their fresh fruit and veg game was this strong. Forget everything you thought you knew about refrigeration, it turns out fresh vegetables should be kept at their best with a fine mist of water vapour. I don’t know if this is an environmentally friendly method but who cares when it looks this (literally) cool?

Greenery in the Mist

My sense of wonderment didn’t stop at the fresh fruit and veg area. Like a Zombie in Dawn in the Dead I shuffled along to the brightly lit counters offering all manner of freshly prepared foods. By now most of us will act faux-nonchalant at the magnificent sight of a row of freshly prepared in-store pizzas but one thing you positively can’t front on is a bar serving fresh fruit salad. Sadly, I’d already breakfasted otherwise I dare say I would have been tempted to dig deep and make a real and lasting contribution to my 5-a-day target.

Fresh fruit, fresh thinking

Sadly, my first visit to the new Morrisons was not entirely care-free. After spending too much time in the company of designers at thinkpublic I’m sorry to say I’ve become something of a font snob. And as much as I enjoyed my Monday morning visit to Morrisions, the supermarket giant’s approach to the written word cut me deep. Upon leaving the store my eyes were burned by the sight of a ‘see you later’ sign, written in a handwritten style that wouldn’t be out of place next to Comic Sans. After reading a brilliant book on the groundbreaking work of the Sainsbury’s in-house design studio, the sight of this sign made me question the concept of progress.

Sign of the Times: Had Morrisons not read Just My Type?

Moving On

With my curiosity over the new Morrisons now sated I am hoping I won’t ever feel the need to blog about a supermarket visit in this much depth again. Nevertheless, I hope my paean to Hagley Road’s renaissance has piqued your interest in the new Morrisons enough to make you want to pay a visit to the store. And if for any reason you can’t make it to Hagley Road, I’m sure there’ll be a supermarket near to you that’s equally deserving of your time and attention.

Social Media Gets Sociable in Birmingham

The Atrium Bar @ The Studio, home to Birmingham Central Social Media Surgery Photo: The Studio

 Since moving to Birmingham in May and starting in my new(ish) full-time role at Groundwork UK I’ve been what you might call a lapsed blogger. Hopefully this blog post should stop the rot and, you never know, it might be the start of something beautiful.

It may be a cliché but I’ve usually found it’s a good idea to write about what you know (hence my three-part tribute to the late, great MCA). With this in mind I’d like to share with you my  experience of volunteering at the Birmingham Central Social Media Surgery after work on Tuesday.

Social Media gets Sociable

So what’s a social media surgery, then? Social Media Surgery Plus define it as:

A social media surgery is an informal gathering of people who want to learn how to use the web to communicate, campaign or collaborate. Surgeries are deliberately relaxed. No presentations, no jargon, noone telling people what they think they should know.

Instead you will sit next to someone who understands good ways to use the internet, someone who will listen to what you do, and then show you free, useful tools. If you like what you see they can also help you set up your blog, Facebook page or Twitter account. Most social media surgeries have an event every few weeks, so you can keep coming back for help.

 I had first come across the concept of a social media surgery back in 2010 when I was working for FutureGov and was introduced to Nick Booth, Managing Director of Podnosh. Nick organised the first social media surgery for voluntary and community groups in Birmingham in October 2008 and continues to play an active role in social media surgeries held in Birmingham.

Since that first surgey in 2008 the social media concept has expanded, with Nick and his team developing the Social Media Surgery Plus website to make it easy for people to organise their own social media surgeries in local communities. Earlier this year podnosh’s work promoting community use of social media was by the Government’s Big Society Awards 2012.

Note to Self: Must Get Out More

Last month I signed on to help out at a Social Media Surgery as part of my wider efforts to feel more connected in Birmingham. Despite telling myself that in moving I would prioritise work-life balance, three months into a full-time job I feared I was becoming a bit of a work bore. Furthermore, I remembered how much I enjoyed working with and sharing my skills with other people, as I had done with Roots of Reggae in Brixton, and wanted to get back to this more positive and balanced outlook.

After signing up for the surgery, I didn’t give it much more thought until the day itself rolled around on Tuesday. Given the purposely relaxed format of a social media surgery I felt it wouldn’t do for me to be too prepared. With this in mind, I threw my personal laptop into my work bag on Tuesday morning (striking a blow for all wage slaves) and, following a day in the office, made my way to The Studio on Cannon Street.

First Impressions

Upon stepping into The Studio venue space, I was instantly transported back to my previous roles in the trendy world of social innovation. The Studio has a nicely relaxed feel, with a fresh colour scheme, a modern cafe bar area (where the surgery is held) and even the odd inspirational message printed on the walls. While the hater in me way wish to diss such flourishes, after a day spent working in a more conventional office space, I was grateful for the the humanity it signified.

Once I’d made my way to the cafe bar area I was greeted by Gavin Wray, organiser of the Central Birmingham branch of the Social Media Surgery. Gavin welcomed me to the session and thanked me for agreeing to help out. Gavin works for podnosh, assisting at social media surgeries. Gavin is also a web producer, defining, designing and managing web development. From speaking to Gavin I discovered he’d worked with some colleagues of mine at Groundwork to develop, which just shows what a small world it is.

Becoming a Social Media Surgeon

It was a fairly quiet evening by Social Media Surgery standards, with only a few people from local groups seeking advice around social media. I was asked to assist Audrey from the Birmingham Jubilee Debt Campaign. Audrey described herself as an inveterate campaigner and was something of a Social Media Surgery veteran, having attended the very first meet-up back in 2008. Back then, the Social Media Surgery had helped Audrey set-up a rather nifty looking WordPress blog to communicate the Jubilee Debt Campaign’s message in Birmingham. This evening, however, Audrey was primarily interested in getting more from her group’s Twitter account, @jdcmultifaith.

Working with another social media surgeon, Paul Slatter from the Birmingham ‘think and do tank’ the Chamberlain Forum, I started off by listening to what Audrey and her group wanted to achieve. By understanding what was important to Audrey, I could ensure that the advice I gave her was focused on supporting her group’s core mission, as opposed to merely being a digital distraction from it.

From speaking with Audrey I identified two areas where Twitter could support the work of the Birmingham Jubilee Debt Campaign. Firstly, Twitter is excellent as a listening device, allowing individuals ans organisations simply to listen in on conversations to get a better understanding of where people’s thinking is at on issues such as debt, foreign aid and the like. In turn, Audrey and her fellow campaigners could use these insights to better engage with stakeholders in order to achieve their long term goal of 100% cancellation of unpayable and unfair poor country debts.

Secondly, Paul and I suggested several ways Audrey might use Twitter to strengthen Birmingham Jubilee Debt Campaign’s support network and better communicate its message.

One suggestion for raising her group’s profile was for Audrey to start following fellow campaigners and influential people such as MPs. This would begin the process of allowing Audrey to convert people she follows into followers, who would then received her group’s messages regarding the Jubilee Debt Campaign.

Another idea was for Audrey to make use of Twitter’s hashtag feature, where people can use a # followed by the name of a particular topic or issue to connect their tweets into broader, ongoing conversations on Twitter. Responding to Audrey’s interest in Radio 4‘s ‘Thought for the Day‘ and the relevance of its speakers’ messages to the values underpinning the Jubilee Debt Campaign, I suggested Audrey should try to to send a tweet in response to Thought for the Day, linking the topic of discussion to her group’s work. By doing so, and adding in the #r4today and #tftd tags, Audrey will be able to effectively engage with the programme’s dedicated community on Twitter.

I’m pleased to say my session with Audrey seemed to go pretty well. By listening to Audrey and focusing on what  she wanted to achieve I felt my fellow surgeons and I were better able to promote sustainable change than had we simply tried to sell Audrey on the features of a particular technology. I look forward to hopefully meeting Audrey again at future Social Media Surgeries and seeing how she has gotten on with using Twitter as part of her campaigning.

Future Plans

I am glad I found the time to get along to the Social Media Surgery. I enjoyed having the chance to share my skills with passionate local people on Tuesday. Indeed, it was the existence of the Social Media Surgery as well as Birmingham’s healthy hyperlocal scene which first attracted me to the city. Looking ahead, I am excited about supporting future Social Media Surgeries and getting more connected with other communty activities going on in my new city.