“Beers and Ideas” – Can local government be cool?

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the Future of Local Government Summit 2019 in Melbourne, organised by the Municipal Association of Victoria where CPI’s Adrian Brown delivered a keynote address exploring themes such as localism, place, and an enablement mindset for government. It is at this forum where I heard stories from a number of local governments across Australia that are experimenting successfully with the enablement mindset, and empowering their communities to deliver change.

One such place is Warrnambool, a coastal city of approximately 35,000 along the famous Great Ocean Road, in Victoria, Australia. The local government, the Warrnambool City Council was aiming to rebuild and renew the main street of the city. Naturally this meant that there would be significant impact on the retail traders and a business support plan was needed.

“There was significant resistance and fear from the traders on the main street, particularly around potential job losses or changes to business operations,” explained Helen Sheedy, the council’s Coordinator for Economic Development and Business Support.

The community certainly didn’t see the local council as cool.

Place-making activities, as the name suggests are activities which empower communities to take action in designing and refreshing their public spaces. The council aimed to promote place-making activities to contribute to the overall urban renewal of the city and to encourage community participation as part of this renewal. However, initially, the community did not understand why the renewal was required or the value of place-making in the first place.

This initial resistance from the traders were the catalyst for change. The Warrnambool City Council knew that it needed a fresh approach in order to get buy-in from the community and empower them to make a change. The result? “Beers and Ideas”!

The model for “Beers and Ideas” is very clever in its simplicity, and could potentially be recreated in any number of communities:

  • Encourage the local community to think of a place-making idea for the town that makes it a more vibrant, interesting and fun place to live;
  • Community members share their ideas, collaborating with others to refine them, and submit online;
  • The community is then invited to a “Beers and Ideas” night usually held at a local pub where all the ideas are presented and voted on; and
  • The winning idea gets the money raised as well as matched funding from the local council to bring the idea to life.

Instead of having a council employee leading the program, they appointed a well-known member of the business and creative community to be an ambassador for the initiative. In fact, they removed all references to the initiative being a council government run project. 

“The branding was critical, particularly in getting buy-in from the creative community,” Helen explains.

Their fresh approach proved to be very successful, gaining significant interest from the local community with great attendance at the Beers and Ideas nights. Only after the concept started gaining momentum did they start making the connection to the council more clear – and then, only casually.

Since its conception, five events have been held, resulting in five projects funded and implemented, that have impacted the local community in diverse ways.

The first project was a mural painted by a local artist Jimmi Buscombe which added colour to a rundown laneway. Another was a program of free family yoga promoting wellbeing across the community. Other initiatives include engaging a local primary school to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and the installation of ocean swim lanes in the local bay.

With two more “Beers and Ideas” events planned for the year, there is clearly appetite in the community to actively participate in place-making — whether they are conscious of that terminology or not.

“The resisters became the ones driving the change… and that it has made the community think about the tiny little things,” Helen notes.

“Beers and Ideas” is a simple, low-cost way of encouraging participatory decision making and — perhaps more importantly — make supporting your community “cool.” Local governments around the world, take note!

* ** Photo courtesy of Warrnambool City Council.