Profile: James Dovey and the future of Llanelli
Last year I wrote a Letter from Llanelli for Nation.Cymru, acknowledging the economic decline of the town, but claiming that if we can build on its proud past while looking to the future, it can surely be great again.
Now, Llanelli is in the news for the protests and counter-protests relating to the decision to use a hotel in the town to house asylum seekers.
So, it seems a timely moment to look beyond Llanelli’s headline-making troubles and profile one of the people rising above the keyboard carping and seeking to lead positive change in the community.
My eye was caught recently by a notice for a public meeting at Llanelli library entitled, ‘The Future of Llanelli’, so I signed up and went along.
The meeting featured a short panel discussion with representatives from local businesses, the education, arts, and voluntary sectors, and Carmarthenshire County Council.
It soon became clear that one of the panellists, and easily the youngest, was the ultimate driving-force behind the event, co-hosted by 4theRegion, an organisation representing businesses and community groups across South West Wales.
Captivated by his enthusiasm and vision, I arranged with James Dovey to talk further about the striking journey that brought him to devote much of his time and energy to developing a new vision for his home town.
Town centre decay
A week later I found myself counting the empty shop units as I walked through Llanelli town centre to meet him, just as he had spoken about doing in the panel discussion at the library.
Seeing this town-centre decay led to him creating blueprint, a startup designed to support local enterprise and community-led projects.
Ffwrnes Fach is almost deserted when I arrive. The historic Zion Chapel, has been sympathetically converted to a community arts and well-being hub as part of the Theatr Ffwrnes complex, and James and I settle into the ‘nook’ — a cosy carpeted room furnished with armchairs and a standard lamp.
I ask him if he minds me recording the conversation with an app that uses AI to transcribe our speech on the fly, and this launches him into the first of many flights of inventiveness.
“Wouldn’t it be cool,” he wonders, “if you could search offline as well as on? If all your interactions were captured and stored and you could be having a conversation in the pub and someone says ‘Uncle Dai just got a new excavator’ and two years down the line you could be with someone who’s looking to borrow an excavator and you could whip your phone out and find that person.”
My intention was to find out how this young man came to be one of the main forces striving to drive positive change in Llanelli, but he fizzes with ideas so enthusiastically that the story takes a meandering, but fascinating route over the course of an hours’ conversation.
“I moved around a bit as a kid,” he tells me. “I grew up in foster care and came to Llanelli when I was about 10, spent the rest of my childhood here then left to go to London to study design.”
What looks like a fairly conventional route through school and college to university was anything but.
Only 13% of care-experienced pupils progress to higher education by age 19 compared with 45% of all other pupils (that’s English data: shockingly figures aren’t available for Wales).
With a wry smile James admits, “I’ve had quite an interesting relationship with education. I was a bit, lost, you know; came out of school and just went to college because that’s what I was meant to do. But I didn’t tend to do very well.”
He describes choosing PE because he’d done OK at GCSE then “it turned out to be basically a biology degree, then growing up in care I’d a lot of experience with social workers, so I thought let’s do sociology, and then I really just liked how things looked so I thought ‘graphic design’.
“Even though I’m super hard working I got to the end of the first year and had like a U, not even a D or an E, I may as well not have turned up. And that was my first first shock of thinking ‘Oh my brain doesn’t really work in this way. I’m not academically oriented.’”
He considered dropping out and perhaps learning a trade, but goes on to describe an epiphany hearing a spoken word poet, Suli Breaks, performing a piece on YouTube called Why I Hate School But Love Education.
“I remember watching that six times in a row, and I went back to college thinking whatever anyone tells me, I’m going to do what I love doing. I was pretty much teaching myself online at that point, learning how to design posters, learning to code.”
A combination of determined self-improvement and the encouragement of an art teacher led him to an Art and Design Foundation Course in Carmarthen.
“That just opened my mind to so many creative mediums, and I think that’s kind of where I found myself. It planted the dream in my head of going to London, and my lecturer helped me apply to few places because I wasn’t very good at writing.
“I ended up choosing Goldsmith’s because they ran a really interesting course where you weren’t boxed into a specific discipline. They’re focused a lot more on design thinking — how to build things that haven’t been built before.”
This last sentence seems to define what drives James. He delves into an account of various projects he got involved in, from the design-and-build practicalities of wood and metalwork, fashion and textiles, film and media, through to identifying large-scale real-world problems and trying to find new ways of fixing them, undaunted by their enormity.
“In my third year, I started looking at broken systems, one being education, one being social services. Two things I’m very passionate about because of my own experience, and because I saw my brother learning software in school that hadn’t been used in industry for years.
“I realised the problem is that learning is stuck in these schools with very little interaction with the outside world. So, I started designing a new model for education.”
Of course, one undergraduate can’t turn around the education system alone, but James isn’t one for letting the overwhelming scale of a problem put him off.
“I started creating these experiences,” he says, “bringing in industry professionals to run workshops, basically bridging that gap between education and industry. There was a couple of young people I took up to Shoreditch to work with a software engineer and learn how to code.”
The same vision for addressing big problems by applying small-scale practical solutions was applied to the children’s care system. He recalls being taken into care when he was around four years old.
“I’ve got a brother and sister,” he tells me, “and we were split up for a while and brought back together at different points. It’s hard to be understood as a kid and when you’re ripped out of someone’s home and just put in another home with some strangers— trying to have that conversation with this other stranger that’s driving you there, it’s very difficult, it’s very hard.”
For once, James pauses, clearly reflecting on the vulnerability and voicelessness he felt as a child.
“I just remember thinking, from a design point of view, this could be better, you know? Bethan James, who was Corporate Parenting manager really inspired me, and empowered me to follow my dreams, so I spent a few weeks there just studying how social services work and understanding the processes.
“At the end I came to the realisation that they spend about 70% of their time writing about their job rather than actually doing it. And they all hate that, you know? They want to be out speaking to kids, making a difference. I thought, surely technology can help with this.
“At the time I was really getting into coding, and building websites and apps, so I linked up with the software developer who had mentored the kids I took to London and we started building an app centred around reducing the paper work and creating a new way for young people to communicate with social services in a way they were comfortable with, and that removed the need for duplication with case recording.
“Because it can be quite difficult to open up about something. Maybe you’re not ready to talk right now when the social worker has their little time slot. So there was a secure messaging system we built in.
“I was just trying to improve things in any way I could , and I thought if I can do this for Carmarthenshire I can do it for other places in Wales, so I basically gatecrashed this all Wales heads of service meeting, and said; ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea to to improve things, would anyone else be interested?’
“So Rhondda CynonTaf, Bridgend, Merthyr, were interested in working with me to see if we could build something to serve the rest of the regions across Wales. And that was really my first taste of user-centred design.”
James’s enthusiasm for improving the practicalities of social work and therefore the experience of children in care drives him further into the details of this project, but I want to get round to how he’s ended up back in Llanelli, looking to drive improvements in the town.
This requires a detour through a fascinating period after completing his degree when he lived in a former police station in London under the innovative ‘guardianship’ model, which uses vacant properties to provide affordable, flexible and shared living space for key workers, entrepreneurs and artists to live, work and create, at the same time protecting the otherwise vacant buildings from squatters, anti-social behaviour and vandalism.
“We were there for just under two years, and it was a really special moment in my life. I was the head guardian, being the port of call between the residents and the company.
“I ran events there, and we built things like a kick-boxing gym, and a studio where the police officers used to workout where we had yoga sessions. We made a cinema room, and games room and built desks for a co-working space because a lot of people worked from home.
“That was my first inspiration for being obsessed by space and the possibilities for using otherwise disused and run down places when businesses have failed, or landlords aren’t even in the country and don’t care about the area. I thought, ‘Wow, you can actually make great use of space with very little to be honest, just with creative collective input.’”
James spins off into another set of recollections about working with artists who had taken over the old Central Saint Martin’s building in Holborn, trialling his modular education ideas, and running workshops and exhibitions.
“My friend, Merritt Moore, who is a quantum physicist and ballerina, was looking at the relationship between movement and robotics and we worked together with Boano Prišmontas and a few other collaborators on a piece called Loading… for an exhibition in Piccadilly Circus.”
It sounds a dizzyingly exciting life for a young man with such vision and creativity. So there’s an obvious question: “I can see all of that working in the likes of Holborn and Shoreditch,” I suggest, “but how can somebody even as enthusiastic as you think that any of that can transplant here to Llanelli? What’s brought you back?”
The further stories that surge from James in response to this question could easily double the length of this article but what connects them all is, well: connections.
“A few things brought me back, to be honest,” he muses, “but the main thing is my birth mum was sick; she had cancer so I came back to look after her.
“Before that, I was thinking, I could travel the world, I could work from anywhere, but Bethan James got in touch again when she was seconded as the Head of Rhydygors, a special school in Carmarthen, and gave me the opportunity to work with the kids to build a digi-lab as there weren’t any creative digital pathways for these kids.
“I stepped into one room and some kid was smashing the place up. I thought, ‘this is crazy!’ until I understood that the work they were trying to push on him, he was having none of it.
“Next day I came in and saw him playing on the iMac and I could see he was moving some files round. He’d hacked into the source files of this game and he was changing the music to things he wanted to listen to, and manipulating the artwork in Photoshop to customise it, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God. This kid’s a genius. He’s eleven years old. How does he know how to do this?’ And nobody had noticed.”
Story after story unfolds of the potential and creative talent of children left behind by mainstream education blossoming when their interests are tapped into and they find a reason for learning, before he eventually winds back to my question about the relevance of his ideas to the development of Llanelli.
“I ended up being at the school about a year, but I was living in Llanelli, and going through town,” he says, “just observing and listening. Speaking to friends, family, strangers; just hearing their thoughts on the town centre, like: ‘It’s really depressing seeing all these empty shops with for sale signs,’ or ‘my kids have nothing to do,’ or ‘town used to be thriving, now it’s closed down.’
“All these problems I kept hearing over and over again. I started counting the empty spaces in town and when I got to twenty-four empty units just in the centre, I thought, this is nuts, this is a really big problem.
“We need to start thinking about how we can solve this, and that is where blueprint as a project was born. I didn’t know what it was going to be then, but I wanted to bring the town together to design the town, if that makes sense? “Because we all live here, we all want different things out of it, but if anything’s going to come here and last it needs to serve the people.”
Start the conversation
Then James is off again, bubbling with ideas for the empty spaces that blight the town. He tells me of a friend who lives in Llanelli but drives to Crosshands every day because office space in Llanelli is unaffordable.
“Ridiculous, right? So, number one is co-working space. So, I’m thinking, ‘How can I support businesses? How can I inspire people to shop local? I started asking myself these questions. I started designing solutions around them.
“And that’s when I got in touch with 4theregion, saying ‘I’ve got these ideas, but I want to involve everyone in the town; I want to start the conversation of what are we going to do about this? Because a lot of negative stuff is shared, but it’s because we struggle to share the positive stories.”
The meeting at the library was an impressive start.
“I was blown away by the people who turned up,” he tells me, “because this was just an idea four weeks ago and all of a sudden we’ve got all these organisations in the room. But it’s just the beginning.
“There’s a lot of people who weren’t part of that conversation. There weren’t many young people there. There are other organisations representing different sectors and minorities.
“That event was just a way of starting to get to know everyone, to reach out to people who know people, who know other people; and the more people I can get introduced to, the more corners I can reach, the more voices I can champion and put forward.
“Because I think a lot can be done with very little if you have people coming together around an idea, and that’s something I want to try and facilitate, but I can’t do it alone, obviously.”
And he’s off again, as I start to wind the interview up, telling me about some of the ideas that he’s already starting to develop with others as part of blueprint, and about the next phase of collaboration that will take the themes that emerged from the first meeting and move them forward at the next meeting in June.
“We want local organisations to come and host these pathways: green spaces, the arts, culture and creativity, nightlife, transport, heritage, enterprise and business support, vacant shops and pop-ups.
“How do we dig deeper into those themes? How do we create a network of people to start delivering on projects to try and solve some of these? There’s a lot already going on here, but it’s thinking about how we work together.”
We continue talking as we leave the quiet of the ‘nook’ for the main space of Ffwrnes Fach.
From the quiet of an hour ago, it is now a hubbub of noise and activity as people gather for one of the many activities run here by the arts, health, social and wellbeing enterprise, People Speak Up.
It’s a vibrant reminder that there is indeed far more to Llanelli than post-industrial decline.
James’s concluding words give me renewed optimism, as I emerge into Llanelli, this town I have made my home and grown to love.
“Everyone in this town has something to give,” he says, “no matter how small they think that may be. It’s just unpacking that and trying to connect the dots. I think if we can do that, we can have the future we want.”
The next joint blueprint and 4theregion public meeting is at Llanelli Library on Friday 16th June from 12-2pm. Anyone who lives or works in the town is welcome to come along. Entry is free and you can reserve a place here.
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