September 30, 1998
Telecommunities Canada
Per: Garth Graham, Director, TC Board
The ideas in this guide draw heavily on comments from Dr Ursula Franklin and on the work of Henry McCandless of the Citizen's Circle for Accountability. They are both shining lights in the darkness that surrounds social action in Canada. Responsi bility for content is, of course, mine and not theirs. I acknowledge my debt and express my thanks.
Now that we're so smart, how come we aren't rich?
This guide assumes that adversarial prudence is necessary, at least initially, in negotiating cooperation between a community network and a smart community initiative. It provides some ideas on what the barriers to cooperation are and what strategic thinking might help a community network in negotiating its way beyond them If you've already got a sweetheart deal in your community, the rest of us need to know what caused it. What follows here is "foot in the door" stuff and, as always, the devil is going to be in the details.
The Federal Government has a new program that community networks need to be aware of - "The Smart Communities Initiative." This is one of the "six pillars of the national Connectedness agenda" which aims to make Canada the most connected nation in t he world by the year 2000. There is a "Blue Ribbon Panel of experts" now operating to advise on "developing a possible program to support the Smart Communities movement in Canada." In the Panel's request for input, they note, "The Smart Communities Ini tiative will use information and communications technologies to link people and organizations together, to share ideas and to address local development needs."
Bet you thought that's what community networks did! A significant difference is that these projects are driven by local governments or corporations, not citizens volunteer groups. Most community networks have probably not been paying as much attenti on to Smart Cities, Smart Communities and Telecities as they should. You can find out more about these at:
* Smart Communities Initiative
* Get Smart Canada
* Mentor Information Systems,
The Smart Communities Inventory Project
* California Institute for Smart Communities
* Telecities: the European Digital Cities (EDC) Partnership
The Blue Ribbon Panel, a sort of IHAC 3, seeks advice on:
* Smart Community applications that serve community interests
* Essential factors for technology infrastructure
* Organizing a framework to make you "smart" and sustainable
* Engaging a community in the project
* Deciding how results will be defined
Sorry, just when you thought that the problems of sustaining community networks were insurmountable, here comes one more reason to re-think your strategies. Those "themes" for input obviously assume that buy-in is not in question. But, when you read the call for input, you'll notice that there's no reference to a "movement" for community networking in Canada, or to the fact that it has a huge depth of experience in dealing with very similar questions. The only links to existing community networks a re down at the "case studies" level. Before you assume that the cavalry has finally arrived to save community networks from their difficulties, there are some other concerns you might want to think about.
There are Smart Community endeavors in Europe and the United States. There are strong national government programs in Europe and strong state level programs with heavy corporate involvement in the USA. They are basically run from the top down in ter ms of the themes to be pursued and projects funded. There isn't much in the way of community involvement at the program management level. Telecommunities Canada's experiences at the European Association for Community Networking Meeting in Barcelona (ECN9 8 ), July 1998, underlined how important it is for community networks to plunge into dialogue in this area.
Much of the discussion at ECN98 centered on consciousness of a continuum in European policy running from Digital or "smart" cities that have a primary focus on municipal public administration to Community networks that have a primary focus on social i nclusion. Some of the key words that qualify an organization's position on that continuum are as follows:
Representative democracy <----> Participatory democracy
Empowerment from above <----> Engagement from within
Accessible systems <----> Open systems
The tension caused by this continuum set the key theme of the ECN98 conference - "Models for Digital Cities: New roles of community networking." As the conference organizer and host, Artur Serra, put it in the ECN98 conference announcement:
"Community networks or; freenets started years ago as an expression of this citizen participation in the digital era. Now other private (local directories, geocities, ...) and public (telecities, smart cities,...)initiatives are beginning to compete with community networking in defining the models of digital cities and local online communities. Multiple civic actors are in place. Even professional communities (digital journalists, teachers, SMEs, universities...)are playing a key role in defining lo cal public digital spaces. Finally, on line communities are already spread all over the world. They are not only a local phenomenon."
"It is time to rethink the role of community networking in the digital era. It is time to think about what kind of digital cities are we going to build. We need a discussion about models for digital cities." He also said, "We need a dialogue between the city and the citizen that sums up existing networks and is not imposed from above... with the expectation that the Internet will reduce the barriers to forming closer ties among all actors."
The question was then asked from the floor - which community networks have successful working relationships with the city administrations that are members of the Telecities network and that benefit from the EDC project? While there was no ready answe r to this question, the audience expressed considerable interest in pursuing it. One response, making reference to the social inclusion agendas of grassroots community nets, asked " Can Telecities draw in entities that aren't cities and that aren't resp onsible to city councils?" There was no ready answer.
Fiorella De Cindio, Milano Community Network, noted that Telecities represent centralized services and a "broadcast" model that "comes from public administration, not from interaction and free discussion." But she concluded that "I believe the two ap proaches can find reasons to develop shared spaces." This belief was echoed by others, particularly Artur Serra who said "Digital cities need digital citizens." and Claire Shearman, UK Communities Online, who said "We have a value system that puts peopl e before markets...Communities are the future of the Net, and community networks are the future of community."
The European Association for Community Networking's belief that objectives for social inclusion and for effective public administration can find common cause is probably true for them. We are certain that EACN will succeed in allying itself with Tele cities / European Digital Cities (EDC), and we note that Canada has no comparable open forum for looking at multi-jurisdictional socio-economic and cultural impacts in a comprehensive way. Because of the realities of bottom-up networks of networks as ope n systems, the European community networks, such as Barcelona, Amsterdam and Milano, that do succeed in negotiating alliances with municipal administrations are developing rapidly without significant compromise to the central objective of social inclusion .
There is something of a parallel between Telecities / EDC and the Connecting Canada Initiative's alliance with "Smart Communities." But Telecities broadly focus on cooperative approaches to local government social and economic telematics applications in public administration, whereas Smart Communities seems poised to narrowly focus on local business / government partnerships that are primarily economic (ie. the US model). In Canada, the existing Smart Communities appear to be more comfortable in dea ling with commercial initiatives that appropriate communities as markets (and are better funded and connected), than they are in dealing with community networks. We'd like to be wrong about this, and it's premature to predict exactly what the Federal Gov ernment support will emphasize. But it seems reasonable to predict that the Europeans will be able to negotiate community networking onto the Telecities / Digital Cities agendas more readily than anything that we might be able to accomplish with Smart Co mmunities in Canada.
Industry Canada states that "the issue of community and citizen engagement is a major interest" to the Blue Ribbon Panel. They note that, "In structuring the Smart Communities panel we worked to include people with a strong community development back ground as well as with technical and business/social services backgrounds." As far as we are aware, the community networking movement was never consulted about this program in any significant way (in spite of ongoing discussions of joint action) before i t was announced by the Prime Minister.
The idea of coordinating local participation in a "connected" society and economy through a "smart communities initiative" is potentially divisive. For example, something like a Blacksburg project can make for a really "dumb" community when it keeps the community asleep to the reality that its electronic public spaces are being privatized. The primary objective of community networking is not just speeding up the process of putting the technology in place. That just confuses means with ends. The pr imary objective is to "feed the Net," in the sense of accelerating a movement toward open and distributed systems and social networks.
The threat to the Internet is not just commercialization. It's also politicization. Those interested in power before community are beginning to occupy our spaces and appropriate our practices. This too was inevitable. Some Smart Communities Initia tives are going to be a symptom of this. Rule one of good community development is: people want to talk - let them. If you hear someone say, "but really, online discussion is such wasteful chaos!" you know that you are facing the enemy.
The presence of community is always a threat to administration. It is always at war with people who get their "smarts' through alternative sources. Your task, as always, is to keep the Internet so open that it remains politically useless. When the virus of power infects a previously healthy structure, it does it through money. They already suspect that they can't really jam the Net. But they can preoccupy its netizens with non-essential tasks. Don't choke on the fact that you're being successful . Don't separate, just connect.
The rhetoric of a "Smart Communities" approach appears, at first sight, compelling. But it fails to address both social inclusiveness and Internet realities. At political and corporate levels beyond your community, "Smart Communities" is understood as a handy metaphor for a conscious campaign of public relations. The resources of market researchers, opinion polls, and expensive spin doctors have been assembled to ensure that you like what you hear. Do not confront these powerful forces in their ow n media. You will lose. When it gets tough, go home to your own medium - the Internet. The language there will be a comfort for you, but they still face it with fear and trembling.
Skepticism about government and industry as players in or supporters of community networks is healthy. For example, CAP believes that public access can be rapidly propelled along when various organizations operating at the local level sense that broa d-based public access contributes meaningfully to accomplishing their mandates. "Essentially these organizations have the public backing and budgets to create and sustain extensive community networking activities." But if we fear that anything which the federal government may eventually provide by way of programming support will be focused on or driven by industry as compared to community development concerns then we should say so. Of course the proof will be in the pudding.
When voluntary citizen commitment with no money faces alliances of power and money, the answer to the fight or flight question is never simple. There are three options: keep you head down, strike from silence then hide, or hold your nose and take the money. Are smart communities one more threat to community networks? If you negotiate with your eyes wide open and a firm hand on your principles, the answer could be - not necessarily. It's a question of their intentions, and that's a question that ca n only be decided on a community-by- community basis.
Corporate interests:
Local corporations participating in a Smart Community Initiative will have two clear but often unstated agendas: getting government "off our back," while, at the same time, getting government to outsource or privatize it's services. They will protest that they "live in this community too" and have its interests at heart. They will agree that your social principles are appropriate, even necessary, but then what? Then they will ask, "Where's the hook? If we invest our resources, where's the value?" They mean - where's their corporation's return on investment? - not some abstraction of community well being. There are, in fact, good answers to that question, but don't leave home without them.
Government interests:
Government agencies participating a Smart Community Initiative will want to "have the wires in place" so that "community residents can interact with government on-line." But by "interact" they don't mean quite the same thing that you do. They will a sk, "Are we steering the boat or rowing it?" While they protest their concern for the well being of the community, their primary interest will be in downloading responsibility to lower levels of government and in rapidly shifting government services to e lectronic delivery. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's clear who benefits and who pays.
Since the struggle of centers to retain control of their peripheries was a critical dynamic of industrial society infrastructure, most governments hope they can apply outmoded but familiar tactics as they advance onto unfamiliar ground. Every instin ct they have, every lesson they've learned, tells them it's cheaper to deconcentrate services to the local level but it's dangerous to "decentralize" power. But, on the Internet, distance is dead and spatial metaphors do not apply. Everything is local and global all it once. A web has basins of attraction, not edges. Attempting political control from the 'center" is exactly the opposite of effective governance in distributed systems.
We have a right to good government. We have a powerful tool that can force it to do what it's supposed to do. We can use the Net to make the politics visible, not to make its moves but to see its moves. To do their jobs properly, decision-makers in authority must know the implications of what they propose, and know the results. What they know, they can report. When we know what they know, we can effectively ask them to do so. We hold a major piece of the puzzle for coping with fundamental change in how citizens relate to people in authority.
Community network interests:
Under our definition, some Smart Community Initiatives might qualify as community networks. This would depend on their intentions with respect to six factors:
* Defense of electronic public space as a zone of social interaction.
* Defining "access" as first a function of social inclusion and self determination, and only secondly of services.
* using cooperative bandwidth buying power to negotiate connectivity contracts with positive social outcomes.
* Focus on human ends (It's the community that's the network), not technology.
* Open decision-making processes that surface and share knowledge about socio-economic impacts (Who benefits? Who pays?) from the community's perspective.
* Responsible for being "in" the community that is realized online, not just the bit transport processes that move in and out of it.
From that checklist, it is easy to see how a community, having both a citizen's group called a community network and a citizen's group called a smart community, might find they have a very narrow range of interests in common . If a community networki ng association starts negotiating an alliance with a smart community initiative and finds that they pay only lip service to those principles, they should assume that the smart community "designation" could do as much to separate elements of their communit y as it could to connect them.
If these principles are rejected, it's going to be difficult to mediate your way onto common ground. There are two keys to your identity and your utility that you should not compromise - your role as a learning organization and your capacity to act a s a bridge to universal access
Community networks are grassroots organizations. Starting in 1992, they began assisting ordinary citizens to encounter the Internet as a factor in their daily life, well before business and government in Canada began to consider its socio-economic im pact. Their continuing growth and utility depends on sustaining self-organized local initiatives. Right from the beginning, community networks were concerned, correctly, to retain the local autonomy that defines their essence and makes them both useful and ultimately sustainable.
As a consequence, their national voice, Telecommunities Canada, is an association of associations. The member associations of TC have consistently expressed the need for a national capacity, not to provide centralized services "to" community networks , but to share experiences and resources "among" community networks. TC does not 'represent" the collective interests of members, it expresses them. In other words, Telecommunities Canada's primary role is to find the means of rendering local learning i nto a common knowledge base that is generally accessible to anyone who might want to use it. It can only do this by mirroring at the national level what many community nets are already doing very well to create accessible online social networks at the lo cal level.
Community networks are known by many other names, including Freenets, CivicNets, Community Information Systems, Public Access Centres, and Online Communities. They share a broad-based focus on serving the communications and information needs of both communities of affinity and locality. They encompass the description of needs within the metaphor of an online community "space" within an "electronic commons." They emphasize the role of their members as citizens of that electronic public space, and en courage dialogue and interaction among those citizens by offering them equal access to a common and convenient medium of computer-mediated interactive communication.
Telecommunities Canada defines a community network as the capacity that a community has to learn from new modes of communications and to apply that learning to its own ends. That's a learning and a process definition, not a services definition. Some level of that capacity is going to be present in any living community. Powerful means of sustaining it can be achieved through the reallocation of existing resources and priorities. The problem is consciousness of the need to do this, not money. In fa ct, communities that organize to achieve interdependent action within the framework of something like that definition usually succeed in negotiating access to actual communications technologies and services at far less costs than those that don't.
This definition makes community networking an essential means of ensuring that the privatization of electronic public space does not enclose the possibility of achieving the "interconnected and interoperable network of networks," stated as a principle in the Federal Order in Council P.C. 1994-1689 on information highway strategy. The Internet protocol of open and distributed systems is the model for the social networks that community networks support.
Definition is important. Your other two "partners" are going to assume from the beginning that the social sector is the "services bureau" for all of the marginal clients that they can't or don't want to reach. And so you may be, and even want to be. But taking on the role of distributor of what the community learns about connectivity gives you a key element of the community's essential knowledge base. It brings you to the family table as equal partner, not the poor cousin. A variation of this def inition is in the Memorandum of Understanding between Telecommunities Canada and Industry Canada, so you can even claim that it's "official."
One of our main strengths is that there will never be a "Connected Canada" without a rich infrastructure of community networks. Community networks are the golden bridge of dialogue between the city and the citizen. They are the missing element in a true national universal access strategy. The central issue of universal access is the ability to participate fully and equitably in rapidly shifting structures of political economy. In other words, universal access is actually about socio-economic impac t assessment, in the simple sense of finding out who benefits and who pays when the connections we all need to be successful have shifted into electronic public space. It is not just about determining who can or cannot afford new communications tools and services (ie. it is not about market failure).
Universal Access is about access to choices (at both individual and group levels) in the context of a radical restructuring of social process. Community networks are committed to the odd notion that the key to understanding what matters in a "knowle dge-based society and economy" (or rather the "networked economy," a still inadequate phrase, but perhaps more convivial) lies in learning what ordinary people do with the new tools of connectivity that are available to them. It's a question of learning from their behaviour as they both experience new media on its own terms and then applying what they know to alter their experience. "We make our networks and then our networks make us." Accordingly, since the emergence of a community networking movemen t in Canada in late 1992, there have been many people experiencing in a hands-on way the shift of social behaviours as people seek to realize community online.
The word "services" diverts an essential debate about community networking's role and purpose into a dead-end channel. Accepting that "services" is the answer to the question of "access to what?" gives the high ground to the market failure technocrat s even before the question has been posed. We can't create a vocabulary for discussing access to an effective means of participation in changing social process out of a discourse about the market price of new tools. The issue of services is secondary to the question of whether or not someone has the means, the method and the ability to make informed choices about how they wish to respond to shifting modes of connection in changing social networks. The issue is autonomy and self-determination. It's the community that's the network, not the technology. Am I included or excluded? ...connected or separated? ...telling my story or having it told for me?
So far, the effort to move beyond "market failure," and all efforts to broaden the universal access debate to include social processes, has failed. Since those processes are so clearly in motion, regardless of whether or not they are taken into accou nt, why not stay at the grassroots level of community networking and "just do it." But the national level is such an awful muddle, and the local level is filled with such masses of creative adaptions and energetic engagement, that it seems unfortunate to abandon the attempt to have the pragmatic and useful influence the dogmatic and dysfunctional. Let's just keep talking till it's all done.