Where is our ambition for community-led tech?

Clamp squeezing a wallet with cash

A few months ago I shared the Bennett Institute’s ground-breaking synthesis of research on Community Infrastructure. Making the case for investment in spaces and places that enable people to meet across distinct lines in communities of place. That – they argue – have more impact on the economics and wellbeing of communities than large scale, politically attractive infrastructure projects.

Over the summer I’m sure we’ve all paid attention to a number of issues in the melting pot that are set to test the limits of our communities: to have the capacity to look after each other and organise around the issues that matter:

·       Global energy price hikes, and inflation forecast to rise to 4% in the next few months.  

·       Private Rented Accommodation set to rise 3% this year, for the first time since 2016. 

·       Cuts to income support, hitting those in poor health communities hardest

·       The promise of tax increases in 18 months to pay for our healthcare, that whilst essential are going to be raised regressively; without using the opportunity to address the structural stigma of disability that excludes so many people from cultural and economic participation.

·       Hostile immigration tactics (thankfully juxtaposed with the kindness of strangers welcoming new arrivals).

Then last week – amidst all the memes about #hybridworking and the transition out of purely digital working lives – I came across some research about community tech by Promising Trouble for Power to Change.

Underneath some thought-provoking examples from across the UK, it’s fundamentally posing the question about ‘what could be?’

If we’re starting to get the message that….

open places to meet, with people who can talk across our ‘tribal lines’, raises the power of communities, measurable in socio-economic success (as the Bennett Institute says)…….

Then what if we viewed community tech with the same reverence?

The Power to Change report taks about the impact of having the tools to do the job at hand; rather than the compromises and costs of fitting into corporately designed tech.

Owning and (co-)designing the technology to explicitly build in the values in our communities’ missions. Not inadvertently furthering the mission of global players.   

These are all functions of our community infrastructure that can raise the capability to organise around the issues that matter most.  

But what’s going to grow this?  To even begin to ask, to think about community-led tech beyond the serendipitous circumstances of those that have managed it so far?

There’s such a strong pull on the status quo, in stressed out and conservative communities, where governance and investment tends to ossify existing power.

What if, instead…some of the discontinuous change we’re seeing helps shift some of these dynamics?…

What if ….. they start to reconfigure into opportunities for community-led infrastructure to grow?

As the Power to Change report says, we need people who know enough about tech and the mission of the community to imagine what might be possible. 

What if the expansion of our digital experiences in the last 18 months grows the confidence to imagine what might be in community-led tech?  

What if the #hybridworking search for near-home connections, enables us to reach more into our communities? To participate, to be enagaged in what makes them operate well?

What if people who aren’t tuned into traditional forms of community organising (that is so often church, school or council led outside of urban areas) are turned on by the rituals of organising in our digital worlds?

In the history of community organising it’s been hard to translate the ‘mutual aid’ bonus of a ‘crisis response’ into a sustaining movement. This should be remembered as we plan. 

But we are in a new world of digital networks that offer alternative futures.   The possibility of recombining the old and the new offers we have to hand.

This post started out as the simple act of noticing. Noticing the conversation about investment in communities. Noticing who – aside from the transactional political chatter – is talking about investment that matters. Investment that can change the game. 

Whilst we’re noticing the long Covid stresses on our communities, which need our continued attention…..

let’s at the same keep noticing what and how we can be ambitious and organise around what our communities need to be well.