The ownership and management of land and buildings for public benefit is, increasingly, a feature of communities the length and breadth of the UK. There is no shortage of ambition – with communities engaged and hard at work in socially conscious attempts to take control of and develop an altogether bewildering range of assets. There is also a healthy contemporary interest in community organising, neighbourhood planning, the co-production and delivery of public benefit services by community enterprises, as well as in social and impact investment.
Much of this is writ large in the policy aspirations underpinning the Government’s Localism and Opening Public Services agendas. However, technological advancements are transforming the operating context at break-neck pace.
The technological disruption that transformed the music industry a decade ago is fast impacting health, employment and education services. Our high streets are endeavouring to withstand the combined pressures of economic austerity and a burgeoning internet economy, such that local authorities are struggling to breathe new life into regeneration plans and stem the tide of vacant shops. Meanwhile, rural areas clamour for improved connectivity to halt the flight of young adults to our soon-to-be ‘smart cities’, and with 90% of jobs set to require e-skills within five years, those excluded communities already ‘left behind’ by the digital revolution face worsening employment prospects still over the years to come.
There are, then, potentially very serious ramifications for our deprived communities – whether we’re talking about connectivity, accessibility and affordability or ambition, knowledge and skills development. Equally, we should all be concerned about the preparedness of the voluntary and community sector, if it is to future-proof its vitally important work and ensure that it remains relevant in the face of changing needs, new service delivery channels and opportunities to deliver social impact.
The Government is, for its part, wedded to implementing a digital-by-default approach to public service delivery – albeit supplemented by an ‘assisted digital’ strategy. It is also investing significant public funds in open and big data, alongside next generation broadband, cutting-edge technological innovation and digital participation initiatives. And, it has (somewhat belatedly) developed a digital inclusion strategy. However, to date, its partnership development efforts have concentrated almost exclusively upon the scope for closer working with Higher Education Institutions and the private sector – to unlock the potential for greater efficiencies and economic growth that are harboured by technological advancement.
Indeed, with the exception of modest investments on the part of NESTA and the Nominet Trust, and those initiatives inviting communities to ‘get online’ like GO-ON UK and UK Online Centres, policy makers and major funders have been all but silent when it comes to working with communities to nurture our increasingly digital society.
There are very tangible opportunities for communities to contribute to and benefit from our digital society, and we’re absolutely certain the VCS should be campaigning around how science and technology can be made to serve social justice.
Common Futures is a modest new venture working with the public, private and third sectors to explore and kick at the boundaries of the community ownership and management landscape and, with that, uncover where the real potential for taking this work forward across the UK might lie.
In the first instance, we are working to deliver/support:
- Our Digital Community: a DCLG-funded action research and learning programme to explore digital asset and enterprise development by/for communities working with 20 VCS organisations.
- Fibre GarDen, Digital Merthyr & Digital Lyme: community-led telecommunications network initiatives supported by the Social Investment Business, Nominet Trust and Adventure Capital Fund.
- Common Libraries: community managed library/hack/maker spaces in Essex, Surrey, Lewisham, Kirklees and Devon with the Carnegie Trust, Arts Council England and 4th Floor Chattanooga
Our work involves collaborating with relevant international bodies, contributing to national policy development activities, as well as advising and supporting communities directly to deliver social impact and generate additional income by:
- developing and managing digital assets – ranging from affordable hardware provision to building their own telecommunications networks and deploying 3D printers;
- engaging with digital enterprise – for example, to secure contracts to deliver public services that involve a digital component; enhance one or more services they already offer using technology; develop new digital services to deliver against their overarching mission; establish internet-based enterprises to generate additional income; and/or make use of big and open data;
- applying open source business models and cooperative principles to harness hyper-local knowledge and skills through multimedia community publishing platforms.
Of course, voluntary and community sector organisations are also increasingly exploiting digital media to enhance their communications, organising, campaigning and fundraising activities through channel shift. But, if we are to meaningfully move with the times, we believe it is incumbent upon us all to increase our understanding of the implications of technological change for the VCS and communities more broadly, as well as contemplate how we might harness diverse technologies to solve persistent social problems.
We don’t (yet) know whether nanotechnology and 4D printing might one day contribute to community asset development efforts – but, what’s preventing us from engaging with discussions about, for example, Building Information Modelling (BIM), the circular economy and their potential to reduce our carbon footprint? Are we even looking at new collaborative self-build methods and exploring their potential to address the challenges surrounding affordable housing and low-cost/low-impact transportation in our rural communities or, indeed, translating the efforts of open hardware enthusiasts in myriad other ways?
Have we begun to contemplate whether micro-payments might be deployed and harnessed in the service of those socially isolated or excluded groups we’re working with? What scope might there be for us to generate an independent income from wealthier communities online, then, redistribute it to benefit some of the deprived communities in which we’re based? And, although we haven’t witnessed mass take-up of more ethical social media and search providers (yet), what is it that we’re doing to change all that – such that our data remains our own or, else, is invested in organisations that are willing to put it to better use?
The truth is we don’t know. So, we thought, it’s high time someone worked with communities to find out. And, that’s where we’re making a start….
If you share our passion for nurturing an inclusive digital society and developing contemporary community-led approaches to the commons, we’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch via @commonfutrs