- What is the simplest thing we can do to connect all the many excellent civic networks we can find in Brighton?
- How can we give that network of networks a stronger voice?
- Is the process of connecting these networks repeatable in other places – what can we learn?
These questions form the basis of a research project that a few of us are interested in kicking off over the next couple of months – how do you network the networks? Given the time constraints we didn’t get past question three but the other are important context setting for the debate because I think these are critical questions for anyone interested in civic participation or community engagement and arguably for politicians as well – if we are living in a more networked society then how do we ensure that this is strengthening the civic fabric of our communities?
The main reason for these question is that I have become increasingly aware over the course of my research of the fragility of the digital civic space. While something like CityCamp Brighton reaffirms my belief in the ability of the social web to connect and organise like minded people to change the places where they live for the better the facts show clearly that digital civic activists are in the minority.
Dig a little deeper however and you can, I believe, illustrate that though not active many more people – the majority of people – are civically connected. We are connected through sports clubs, schools, clubs and networks and in dozens of other ways. There are many ways in which we connect to civic society and we increasingly use technology to make that connection easier even if that connection is weak. Each of those civic networks could have within it people who are connected to other networks – the bridges or weak ties of network theory – and these people are vital to the fabric of the overall network of the place – the network of networks. Those connectors have the potential to be a vital element of a more connected society.
There are so many brilliant websites and networks out there – my question is how do you connect them together so that they can collaborate more effectively?
Underlying this question is the assumption that these networks want to or ‘should’ collaborate. For the purposes of this work I am assuming collaboration to be at a minimum information sharing and dissemination and I am also assuming that even if the networks do not collaborate better connectivity will not result in excessive competition. These are fairly big assumptions but I am going to park them for now and come back to them at a later date if we manage to get question 1 off the ground.
We used the CityCamp session to kick around these questions with a group of people who were in the main part connectors themselves. In general terms the group formed three different positions:
- People who believed that this would all sort itself out – we just need to be more aware of the need to make networks open
- People who wanted some kind of external solution – a directory or role responsible for connecting things together
- People who felt that some kind of intervention was needed but that it needed to be sustainable with an emphasis on behaviour change rather than external input
Given a lot of consensus was reached around the benefits of connecting different networks together we spent some time discussing what stops it happening. Some of the ideas put forward included:
- Time – connecting networks involves participating in more than one network and that takes time
- Visibility – finding other networks is not always easy and even with good intentions we can miss connections
- Laziness – how often do we cut and paste an invite rather than actually asking someone to attend an event?
We also asked whether or not it was something that people were aware of and it was generally acknowledged that organisers need to be consciously focused on widening reach in order to connect to other networks. This brought us to a different articulation of connectors as gatekeepers and the need to ensure that connectivity is with the whole network and not limited to or throttled by the connecting individual.
The aim of the project will be, as a starting point, to experiment with some techniques and approaches to ‘network the networks. The ideas discussed to do this included creating visible networks in the form of notice boards and community space or common branding or exploring how we could create a citywide hashtag – something like a connecting bat signal.
The idea that we spent most time on was the suggestion that we creating a network of people and not rely on technology to create these connects. The discussion the turned to whether this was something that could be curated – control of such a network being considered to be out of the question. This turned into a discussion of the potential of a ‘City curators network’ which would connect both physical and digital networks. The curators would be charged with ensuring that participation is widening access and would be asked to curate not filter of censor. They would also be charged with ensuring that the network remains open to new participants.
This seemed like a lovely construct but we saw considerable issues with consciously constructing such a network. Even if we could envisage how to make it self-sustaining there were substantive questions about how we might build trust in these people as well as concerns about the risks of creating a new gatekeeping elite and whether this group should also be responsible for the representativeness.
At this point we were some distance from the lean ambition of finding the simplest way of connecting the connectors together.
In the end the discussion polarised around two ideas; either we need to encourage behaviour change or we need provide better support. In the end the lean ambition dominated and the discussion became one about behaviour change and in effect how we could ‘nudge’ people towards tending towards openness and connection.
One of the final points in the discussion was around the need to create a sense of personal responsibility – should we not want to make networks open and connected? So much of this statement is I believe related to the inherently pro-social and active stance that you are going to find in a gathering such as CityCamp but there is also something here about the online participatory culture with its affordances of openness and connectivity ‘infecting’ the way in which offline networks function. If this is the case then this once again becomes all about people and not technology and we will be taking this thought forward as we experiment with some of the ideas discussed in the session.
If you would like to be involved then please get in touch.