This time, I decided to base my talk on the citizen sensing panel discussion at Tilburg Night University I was asked to participate in last month as a “community informatics expert”. In my Prato talk, I expanded my thoughts, thinking through in more detail what are the relationships between citizen sensing, citizen science, and community informatics, from the angle of power & empowerment.
Title: Citizen sensing meeting community informatics: from power to empowerment?
Abstract: Citizen sensing offers much promise in engaging citizens for the common good, such as working on addressing climate change at the grassroots level. By citizens participating, taking ownership and becoming involved in local citizen sensing communities, they can strengthen their common ground. However, to truly get empowered and reach collective impact, it is not enough for citizens to measure together. They face many entrenched power interests, from dismissal of the validity of their “amateur” results to regulatory powers being reluctant to act upon the common(s) findings. While citizen sensing communities are excellent examples of getting strong and lasting community engagement around distributed data and technologies, more is needed to break the impact deadlock. We think that insights and practices of field of community informatics might be useful here. We make the case for the need for citizen sensing & community informatics to join forces by telling a personal story of a citizen/practitioner/researcher getting drawn into this fascinating commons building world.
Feel free to download the slides of my presentation. A paper is to follow in the conference proceedings which should be published in the next few months.
Every year, Tilburg University organizes a “Night University“, a night full of lectures, panels, and events during which the rest of Tilburg can come and get some sense of what exactly is happening within, between and beyond the ivory towers.
How can “citizen sensing” stimulate climate-friendly behavior? Together with dr. Leonie Reins & Anna Berti Suman (Tilburg Law School), CommunitySense and “Meet Je Stad”, there will be an interactive talk on the use of citizen-run environmental monitoring technologies such as smart meters to be placed on roof tops. These technologies can raise awareness of climate change and nudge climate-friendly behavior. We will display some of the maps and tools such as climate sensors produced by the participants of the “Meet Je Stad” collective, an initiative that has been active in measuring changes in weather conditions.
Although I am no expert in citizen sensing, I do see great potential in how this technology might be used to empower communities, and vice versa. It was fun to think things through in preparation for the Night University panel. To not let these thoughts go to waste, I here present an edited version of the notes I made in trying to answer the questions the panelists were asked.
What do you do in regard to citizen sensing?
Well, first, as a citizen, I built my own sensor! Earlier this year, a workshop was organized at the Tilburg Public Library together with Meet Je Stad where interested locals could come and build their own basic sensing station that measures temperature and relative humidity. This as part of an initiative to start monitoring changes in climate at the city level.
However, also from a professional view I am interested. Community informatics as a field of research and practice focuses on how to build, empower, and link communities through the effective use of information and communication technologies. Citizen sensing is a great example of technology-supported local communities of engaged citizens working on a common interest, in this case climate change. However, such communities are about much more than just measuring: they really are about fostering engagement towards collective impact. No community can address huge, “wicked” problems like climate change on their own. Citizen sensing communities, for instance need connections to a network of related communities, like neighborhood, research, education, and business communities. They also need to grow strong connections – without losing their independence and critical voice – with local governments, so that they can, for instance, help inform policy making at the municipal level.
One way to embed such communities in a larger context is through the public library as a trusted third party supporting and connecting local communities. One example is the national Dutch KnowledgeCloud project, initiated by the Tilburg public library, for which I was the project leader in developing the demonstrator at the time. Through this approach, public libraries facilitate citizen-driven knowledge groups through providing meeting spaces, an online platform, relevant parts of collections, and support by community librarians.
How did your interest in citizen science grow? Why are you interested?
The very essence of community informatics is that research continuously meets practice. I see three main ways in which citizens can act as an important complement to professional scientists:
Citizens can be eyes and ears: there is simply too much to be done, scientists cannot be everywhere at the same time. Citizens can help scale up the number of observations, like the micro-climate measurements through citizen sensing. They can also alert their professional peers to potentially interesting phenomena happening in their area.
Citizens can ask interesting questions: as professionals, we are often biased in the kind of research questions we ask, because we are working from within existing research paradigms, frameworks, networks, and projects. Citizens can help frame new questions, as they look at reality from a different perspective, and are not hindered by existing research constraints. In the Netherlands, this role has even been formally acknowledged by using citizens’ questions as an important input in the construction of the Dutch National Research Agenda.
Citizens can be influential science ambassadors: in the era of fake news, anti-vaxxers and Flat Earthers, there is an increasing public distrust and misunderstanding of what science is and what role it plays in society. This is a very dangerous development and hard to counter. Citizen science can form a first line of defense here. Citizens being involved in science themselves first of all get a much better sense of the potential – and limitations – of science. Second, they can help educate and convince their circles of peers that science does not provide “just another opinion”, but forms the bedrock of modern, diverse society and is worth protecting. This is not to say that scientists are infallible and what they say should be taken at face value. However, a scientifically engaged citizenry can provide constructive criticism to strengthen science rather than destroy it.
Can citizen sensing be considered science in your opinion? What are the benefits and challenges?
Citizen science in general – and citizen sensing in particular – can of course play an especially important role in the data collection and analysis stage. However, one could imagine roles for citizen sensing in all research stages – especially when embedded in a strong network of communities. For example, by having academic researchers actively participate in various citizen sensing communities, citizens can also be instrumental in research question framing and impact assessment. Roles are also conceivable for citizens to author, review, and disseminate their own findings in the local press and on social media, as well as to help “translate” peer-reviewed scientific articles into language and local examples that the general public can understand.
As to the challenges: of course, there are risks involved if local groups are working in isolation, possibly misinterpreting scientific models and findings. All the more reason to work on designing carefully balanced socio-technical systems where citizen and professional scientists get to know and collaborate with each other, and on developing strong and lasting research communities around the distributed sensing projects springing up everywhere. Again, public libraries, with initiatives like the KnowledgeCloud can be important mediating and enabling third parties by providing the necessary meeting, content, and collaboration infrastructure.
What can policy/decision-makers learn/take from citizen sensing?
A lot. Citizens and scientists are only two important citizen sensing stakeholders. Policy/decision-makers, especially in government, should also be strongly connected to the citizen sensing communities operating in their area of governance. Some take-aways for them:
Help fill the information gaps: there is often only a very coarse grid of official measurement stations. Effective air pollution measurement may require a much finer network of sensors, however. In the case of woodsmoke, the produced (extremely unhealthy) fine particulate matter and other pollutants come in high concentrations from very local sources (e.g. home wood stoves). Average measurements only covering a large area over a longer period of time literally do not make sense. Such pollution sources should be measured continuously at the neighborhood or even street level to inform effective action.
Citizen engagement in common agenda setting: as citizens generate and steward their own data, they have much more of an interest in DOING something with them. Governments always lament that they would like a more involved populace in defining what it is that their citizens want and need. This is their chance to get that engagement and act on it.
Make government more accountable and legitimate: like science, governments all over the world face grave problems with defending their legitimacy. Populist movements carry out vicious attacks, dangerously eroding eroding democratic foundations. One key tactic is fanning the flames of distrust in governmental (and scientific) authority, often by spewing fake news in social media. By developing strong citizen sensing communities, with active involvement of citizens, scientists, and civil servants (in the true sense of the word), accountability, trust, and ultimately legitimacy of policy making can be strengthened. This on the condition that government takes those communities seriously, and not just sees them as an easy way to check the “citizens involved” box, without actually listening to and doing something with the concerns brought up.
How can each of us contribute both at an individual and group level?
As a citizen, you could take the following concrete steps to become a true “citizen sensor” in the way outlined in this post:
Join a local citizen sensing community: There are many wonderful citizen sensing people very willing to get you going. In the Tilburg area, for instance, you could come to one of the LoRa IOT-In-Action Network meetups.
Collect data: with the help of your local community, build a sensor and install it at home. Don’t forget to continue to take care of it once up and running!
Interpret the data: start thinking about what all those data really mean? How might they be used to change things at the local level?
Inform(ed) discussion: don’t keep your insights to yourself. Go out there, on Facebook, on Twitter, attend physical meetings and debates. Share your results, your interpretations, engage in constructive conversation, build alliances.
Influence policy: with your collective interpretations, start reaching out. Contact your municipality, get journalists from the local papers interested. Make suggestions for policy change based on (your hard-won) evidence, corroborated by peer-reviewed methods and data. Use the support network you have developed through your community and interactions with stakeholders far beyond.
In sum, citizen sensing is a powerful form of both citizen science and community informatics. Citizen sensing may look “geeky” at first sight. However, citizen sensing communities, properly embedded in their local stakeholder networks, should be on the frontlines of the fight to restore faith in science and government. There is still a long way to go for citizen sensing to live up to those hopes. Join us in making it happen.
All over the world, organizations are gearing up to address the causes and effects of climate change. However, none of them can do this on their own, joining forces is of the essence.
The 2015 Paris Agreement was a major milestone in accelerating this process of global collaboration:
The Paris Agreement builds upon the Convention and for the first time brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so. As such, it charts a new course in the global climate effort.
Although the intentions in Paris were good, as we all know there is still monumental confusion and dithering everywhere about what exactly needs to be done, in what way, when, and by whom. Part of this has to do with climate change being such a wicked problem: not only the problems and possible solutions are fuzzy and open-ended, but also which stakeholders should be involved. On the one hand, a plethora of inspiring, concrete initiatives is emerging worldwide that help inspire thinking and acting. On the other hand, as the challenges are so immense and urgent, they cannot be solved by such scattered initiatives in isolation. We need scalable, evolving collaborations, focusing on systems and policy change and committed to by a myriad of societal stakeholders. Only then can the massive transformation of the global political and economic order take place that is required to reach measurable collective impact in time.
The 2018 Dutch Klimaatstroom Zuid Climate Summit
Early 2018, in the southern Netherlands, several organizations, including the Province of North Brabant, the Brabantse Delta regional water authority, provincial future studies institute BrabantKennis and the municipality of Breda were thinking along these lines. They decided that to effectively address their share of the Paris Agreement goals, a movement of organizations in the three southern Dutch provinces of Zeeland, Noord-Brabant en Limburg should be started: Klimaatstroom Zuid (Climate Flow South).
Every participant has its own responsibility, while at the same time we need to work collectively. We can succeed by collaborating with concrete goals in mind. The will is there. What matters is that solutions are realized across the boundaries of individual organizations and sectors.
To kick-off this “climate movement of inititatives”, a climate summit was organized in the former Breda domed prison in June 2018. A fitting location for policy and decision makers plotting their way to escape from the global governance system that keeps us all trapped in climate inaction…
As the manifest states:
The manifest is not a goal in itself. It is part of a movement towards more attention for the climate in the Southern Netherlands. Furthermore, there is a connection with the national climate ambitions. To translate those ambitions into a concrete action perspective, we organize a climate summit of and for the Southern Netherlands on June 4, 2018. We bring together existing initiatives to accelerate and bundle them, and also to connect them to the proces of the National Climate Agreement. We determine how we will realize the further ambitions and specifythe desired transition paths for the various sectors. In this way, we will arrive at concrete implementation plans with measurable results.
Interest to participate in this hands-on summit was beyond expectation. Representatives of over 80 governmental agencies, 100 non-governmental organizations, and 130 companies participated in the conference, not only symbolically, but also concretely in so-called working “arenas”. These had the explicit goal of arriving – during the day – at draft agreements for specific combinations of themes and domains/sectors, as starting points for future collaborations. Following the classification of the National Climate Agreement negotations, the themes included Energy, Climate Adaptation, and Circular Economy, whereas the sectors concerned Electricity, Built Environment, Industry, Agriculture & Rural Areas, and Mobility & Logistics.
Discovering Collaborative Common Ground in Budding Climate Coalitions
All over the world, even when the intentions and enthusiasm are heartfelt, fragmentation of efforts and bureaucratic inertia remain major problems. These institutional hurdles stand in the way of transforming the nascent climate change coalitions of the willing into effective and scalable collaborative networks with collective impact. The stakeholders involved are already engaged in numerous initiatives, each with their own goals, interests, governance procedures and collaborative culture. There is no overarching hierarchy that can command & control everybody into the same direction, nor would that ever be even possible and desired: the complexity and scale of the climate adaptation and mitigation challenges ahead and the many divergent, often contradictory organizational interests involved preclude that.
Of course, top down (inter)governmental frameworks and directives remain crucial, to legitimize and enforce the boundaries of the collaboration between societal stakeholders. However, within those political boundaries, we need a different paradigm to provide the necessary alignment and coordination. Instead of centralized, forced integration of climate change initiatives, we should work on smart scaling through common agenda setting: identifying conceptual and actionable common ground between existing initiatives, weaving ever more meaningful connections between them, and identifying collaboration gaps that can be filled by new initiatives. A light and agile form of alignment of initiatives, if you will, partially integrating them only where useful and feasible.
With this philosophy in mind, we decided to use the CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network mapping in combination with the Kumu online network visualization tool to symbolically map the collaborative connections between the initiatives represented at the summit. Previous experiences, like the participatory mapping of social innovation connections between major European cities and collaborative connections between participants in a global agricultural conference, had demonstrated the usefulness of such an approach. By showing that there are already many, often hidden, collaborative links between initiatives – the “connection force” – and subsequently actively making sense of them, the potential for achieving collective impact turns out to be much larger than one would think at first sight. By developing a visual knowledge base representing that connection force, stakeholders should, first, become aware of that hidden collaborative potential. Second, such a systematic knowledge-driven approach could help more easily identify issues, priorities and next actions to address the WHAT? SO WHAT? NOW WHAT? questions in growing these extremely complex collaborations.
Visualizing the climate initiative connections
So how did we make visible the connections between the climate initiatives submitted during the conference?
Prior to the summit, in consultation with the summit organizers, we defined the following common element types, drawing from both concepts key to the National Climate Agreement negotiations then taking place, as well as the focus of the conference working arenas:
Energy, Climate Adaptation, and Circular Economy
Electricity, Built Environment, Industry, Agriculture & Rural Areas, and Mobility & Logistics
Of course, these are just rough simplifications of a messy working reality, but they were deemed sufficient to sketch some of the initial contours of potential common collaborative ground in a very complex field.
Different possible connection types between these elements were also defined, for example, a project/initiative having alocation, or contributing to a particular theme or sector.
We then configured a visual knowledge base using the Kumu visualization tool. This configuration included defining an initial set of perspectives on the collaboration ecosystem, to help focusing on potentially relevant subsets of connections. Examples of such perspectives included which stakeholders are already involved in what projects and initiatives, what projects and initiatives contribute to which themes, and what projects and initiatives are worked on by what sectors?
Climate Summit Day
On the summit day itself, we set up a “mapping station” on the periphery of the main stage. Interested members of the audience who wanted to register their project or initiative could fill out a simple survey – in either paper or electronic form – and submit it to the mapping team. We processed the forms on the fly, adding the data to the growing Kumu knowledge base.
Key to the CommunitySensor methodology is that the mapping is not about the maps as deliverables on their own, but about the process of participation of the community of stakeholders, from defining the mapping language, collecting the data, to making sense of the evolving maps and using them in their collaboration processes.
Despite the mapping event literally only being a side show, and the data collected forming only a very random sample, at the end of the conference, we had already put 47 projects / initiatives, 144 organisations, 37 locations, and 428 collaborative connections between them on the map. You can get a sense of what those connections were through the following example perspectives on the emerging collaboration ecosystem:
There are also more specialized and actionable perspectives, such as the collaboration contexts for the various arenas. An example is the arena where decision makers are collaborating on the theme Energy and the domain/sector Built Environment.
Although such general perspectives are good starting points for common sensemaking, there are many other ways to use the knowledge base in generating useful agenda setting perspectives. For example, this customized perspective shows the projects/initiatives around and between the four largest cities in the province of Noord-Brabant. This could be used by, say, municipal and provincial decision makers, for discussions on which existing or new (inter)city initiatives to develop to jointly get more meaningful and scaled up climate action going.
Still, such maps are meaningless without together making sense of them: what parts are relevant for understanding one’s own position in the ecosystem, identifying new partners, opportunities for linking up existing initiatives or starting new ones, and so on? One way we promoted such small scale sensemaking, for example, was to take interested participants on a private tour of the map at the mapping station. People were very interested in discovering the to them often unknown connections around themes, sectors, or locations their collaboration had in common with other endeavors.
We also engaged in more scaled up, collective sensemaking. Several times throughout the summit day, I was invited to the main stage to be briefly interviewed by the conference chair in my role as map maker, to present interesting perspectives on the map-in-progress. This, in fact, was the main outcome of the day: giving the audience a glimpse of how much (potential) common collaborative ground there already was between all their projects and initiatives, and how important it was to actively reflect upon them. Showing the connection force implicitly present between – on the surface – often fragmented efforts conveyed a powerful message that reaching collective impact is not just about starting more initiatives, but also about more systematically aligning and connecting those efforts.
After the summit
After the summit, its initial results were made available on the Klimaatstroom Zuid website . The photo gallery gives a palpable sense of the level of participation and enthusiasm throughout the day. The map of collaborative links between existing initiatives was also included as a symbolic representation of the connection force between existing initiatives on that day. It gives a good sense of the potential power that is there to reach impact together faster if only we could get our act TOGETHER.
The Climate Summit kicked off an ongoing process of ever closer climate action collaboration between a multitude of stakeholders at and between the provincial, regional, and municipal levels. Of course, it is not easy to keep the energy and focus generated during such an inspiring launch event. Setting common working agendas together requires very hard and ongoing work, for which a visual knowledge base-driven approach could provide important support. The Klimaatstroom Zuid coalition is still taking shape in a complex field of initiatives and interests, but bit by bit momentum is building.
Towards common agendas with impact: participatory mapping to help break the “collaboration paralysis”
Participatory mapping of the collaboration ecosystems that are to make impactful climate action happen should be a crucial input to make sense of actual and potential collaborations. Of course, it is not a panacea. People often say that “the maps are so complex”. True, but only such a tiny snapshot of initiatives at one event of thousands all over the world already shows such a complex (yet still highly simplified) web of collaborative relations. How then are decision makers to grow impactful alliances at regional, national, and international levels without a more systematic approach to common agenda setting?
As we continue to experiment with making such actionable maps, the perspectives through which to look at them, and the settings in which we make sense of them (e.g. workshops, meetings, brainstorming sessions, project planning), we are developing increasingly useful ways to inform common agenda setting and collaborative alliance building processes.
We are still only scratching the surface of what exactly are climate change collaboration ecosystems, what are useful visualizations of these networks, and how to use these effectively in common agenda setting efforts. Not only in high profile climate summits but also in the more mundane, but possibly even more important day to day policy making efforts.
I hope to have made clear in this post that we MUST address this collaborative complexity head on, if we are to jointly, timely and more effectively build the collaborative infrastructures the world so desperately needs to address the massive climate change challenges ahead. There is no more precious time to lose by remaining stuck in avoidable collaborative ignorance.
The biennial Communities and Technologies (C&T) conference is the premier international forum for stimulating scholarly debate and disseminating research on the complex connections between communities – in their multiple forms – and information and communication technologies.
It is one of my favorite conferences, and as usual, it was an amazing meeting of minds. See the tweet stream for an impression of the topics discussed. More on the paper I presented in a future post.
After the conference, some of us took a tour of the futuristic new campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. The buildings are phenomenal, however, what really struck me was how the concept of the campus being a community space has been designed into everything, from the overall master plan of the campus area to very specific building details. Instead of constructions creating artificial barriers between people, this campus in everything promotes the meeting and mingling of people and the building of community. There is a lesson or two to be learnt here by us working on community building with ICTs, where we often still let technology get in the way instead of acting as a community catalyst….
At any rate, a great symbol of where the worlds of physical architecture and online community spaces meet is this picture, where the three words I am pointing at neatly summarize what I am working on with CommunitySense. I am eager to further explore how the worlds of “traditional” urban planning & architecture and community informatics can mesh. Surely to be continued…
Last week, I gave a presentation at the 12th edition of the PechaKucha Tilburg event. PechaKucha is a lively presentation format in which anybody can share an idea(l), project or passion close to their heart. The challenge is that this has to take place in 20 slides of 20 seconds each, so you really need to be very focused in telling your story in exactly (and only…) 6 minutes and 40 seconds! As the photos attest, the event taking place in the Tilburg theatre De Nieuwe Vorst was packed and the atmosphere was vibrant.
In my presentation, I talk about the need for new ways to look at and address the multitude of “wicked problems” such as climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, and migration that humanity has to deal with. I introduce my CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network mapping and show how it has been applied, together with network visualization tool Kumu to strengthen agricultural collaborations in Malawi, as described in more detail in this post.
Mapping a community network is an art as much as a science. Solid methodology is important for professional purposes, of course (see for heavy-duty mapping processes the CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network mapping). Still, don’t let the need for formalized process get in the way of starting to make more sense of your own community. Rather than waiting until you have it all figured out, just get going and get your mapping hands dirty. No need to use fancy tools, just start capturing and reflecting upon what you see, using only a sheet of paper, if need be. You can always convert those paper representations into electronic form later.
Asking the right questions
Here are some of the key questions useful for starting your own community network mapping process. Starting point in your analysis should be the interactions that make up the community. You can’t simply “declare a community to be”:a thriving, healthy community is an evolving network of vibrant interactions. Here are some of the key aspects of these community interactions to be mapped:
What are key community interactions? These include activities, workflows, business processes, initiatives, projects or whatever else you call the dynamics that make your community tick.
Which participants are involved in starting, doing, and evaluating these interactions? Participants can be individual persons, roles people play, organizations, networks, or even other communities. Don’t just look at those involved in doing the interaction, but also those participants who play a role in getting the interactions going, and interpreting their outputs and outcomes.
What key content is being used/produced in what interactions? Don’t try to map all bits and pieces of information. Instead, focus on core content (such as important resources, products, and stories that act as collaborative bridges between participants and interactions.
Which online and physical tools are being used to support the interactions? Don’t just look at the fancy “digital community tools”. A face-to-face meeting in a village center is also a tool, and a very powerful one at that!
What are the links between the interactions? One major issue caused by today’s communication overload is that we start to lose the context of our interactions. Don’t just map the interactions themselves, but also how they interconnect. For example, does the completion of one interaction cause another one to start? Should participants of one interaction at least be aware of the outputs of another interaction?
What are important quality aspects of the elements and connections mapped? Think, for instance, of aspects like priority, timeliness, legitimacy and acceptability that indicate how to interpret specific parts of your map. These quality aspects are important triggers for productive sense-making conversations following the making of the map.
Tips & tricks to get started
Map making is expensive. Think carefully about in what level of detail you are going to model elements and connections, and when you need to update the map. Capturing less is more. Try to follow natural reporting rhythms, instead of making the provision of mapping data an extra chore.
Reuse existing data (e.g. from spreadsheets or organizational documents) when making your map. However, don’t limited yourself to what data is ready at hand. Often, the most useful data is still in the heads of community members.
Maps are a means, not an end. The mapping process does not end when a version of the map has been produced, but only really starts then. Use (relevant parts of) the maps by referring to them in meetings, workshops, and online conversations. Share links to relevant parts in social media. In this way, continue to make sense with the community stakeholders.
Communities and social networks overlap. There is a continuum between the social networks and communities making up community networks. Social networks are about relationships, interactions, and connections between people and act as a resource for knowledge sharing and problem solving. Communities refer to developing a shared identity around a theme and collectively learn and develop knowledge about it (see Team BE for a great explanation). No communities can flourish without being embedded in multiple social networks. Vice versa, out of social networks, communities often naturally emerge. Don’t try to make artificial distinctions between the two types of collectives. Just keep looking for interesting “densifications” in the community network map, and leave the conceptual nitpicking to academics 🙂
Iterate, iterate, and re-iterate. Mapping is never done. It is never complete, nor ever completely accurate. That doesn’t matter. Community network mapping is about boosting participation, creating a sense of community and empowerment. It is much more about the process than about the artefact. Make the process work. Get people to smile, their eyes to sparkle, and their mouths to talk. That’s when you know your mapping work is taking off!
We live in an age of confusion, stagnation, and crisis. What we need is not more of the same top down, neo-liberal corporate and government interventions. These are just a recipes for ever more socio-economic and cultural alienation, disillusion and disempowerment. Instead, we should tap into the growing bottom-up and middle-out capacity around the world for civic intelligence: the collective, citizen-driven, (where possible institutionally supported) capability to think and work together. As Doug Schuler says:
Civic intelligence describes what happens when people work together to address problems efficiently and equitably. It’s a wide-ranging concept that shows how positive change happens. It can be applied anywhere – from the local to the global – and could take many forms.
Civic intelligence, properly taking root in the real world out there, is a necessary condition for any progressive movement-with-impact to build. A movement that is powerful, effective, and agile. A movement that scales, not in the sense of it being a monolithic mob, but consisting of a multitude of communities, each with their own identity, but in federation having real impact. A movement that consists of countless, interwoven webs of meaningful relationships and interactions, allowing groups of citizens to both grow and interconnect strong local communities, communities of interest and of practice.
However, these communities should not become inward looking, just minding their own business. They need to actively build mutual connections across their boundaries, so that true community networks emerge. Together, these networks of communities can form a strong, resilient societal fabric capable of much better dealing with the numerous challenges being thrown at them than each community on its own.
To literally rebuild society, identifying and strengthening the linking pins between communities is of the essence. Such linking pins can be social bridges(e.g. people who are active in various communities), technical bridges (e.g. features like social media notifications that alert you to interesting conversations happening in other communities) and conceptual bridges(e.g. tags that help identify meaningful connections between content on the Web). It is exactly for identifying such (potential) linking pins that community network bridge-building processes like knowledge weaving and participatory community network mapping can be so powerful. Take, for example, the case of building conceptual and social bridges across agricultural communities of practice around the world by – in a facilitated participatory process – first mapping the projects represented by INGENAES global conference participants and then defining joint “seed actions” for follow-up.
However, in polarized times, we need to be aware that there is not just a movement driven by emancipatory civic intelligence. There is a counter-movement as well, also consisting of complex networks of communities. A counter-movement woven from that same fabric of interpersonal ties and bonds, albeit it motivated by fundamentally different and often opposing values, and in many cases fueled behind the scenes by powerful manipulating forces, such as well-funded “astroturf organizations”. The clash between these two movements is exemplified by the animosity and heated debates about basically everything in the present day US, and elsewhere in the world.
Instead of confronting these powers that be head-on, it is exactly by zooming in on that microscopic level of the neighbors and peers that building bridges, joint healing, and effecting change may begin, “one connection at the time”. However, that is only a necessary condition. The more abstract, but equally important mission of how to link and scale these numerous communities into something that displays emergent properties of collective intelligence is still in its infancy, both in theory and practice.
I am not naive. I know there is an inner core, and not a small one, in that ultra-conservative counter-movement that is too set in its beliefs and ways to be changed by civic engagement. However, by finding socially inclusive ways for “liberating voices” across the chasm, creating small-scale working examples of socially inclusive change with reasonable members from the counter-movement’s outer sphere, then forging smart alliances, and alliances of alliances, the fight to (re)build a more civic & civil society will gain momentum again.
How to do that is still very much an open question, but a challenge we cannot ignore. As JFK said:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Who says we can’t set ourselves the same mission impossible to reach a more civic Earth in a decade…
Tilburg is at the heart of a region in the southern Netherlands which has traditionally been very socially innovative. This tradition is celebrated annually during the European Social Innovation Week, recently renamed to the Dear Future week.
The project especially focuses on Tilburg residents. By using the typeface, they connect with the city and each other. Still, its use is not restricted to Tilburgers alone. Also, people outside of the city can download TilburgsAns and apply it, creating a virtual bond with Tilburg. For the initiators, TilburgsAns is not about city marketing or city branding, but it is an innovative art project with the aim of uniting people through (visual) language. Furthermore, TilburgsAns makes visible – in an innovative way – the material and immaterial heritage of the city via its icons.
This immediately piqued my interest. As you know, I am an ardent believer in the power of visualization and mapping to build, strengthen, and link communities. Furthermore, I have been a long-time resident of Tilburg, a city I have come – like so many other non-natives – to appreciate over the years as a hotbed of cultural and social innovation. It is not so much a remarkable city architecture-wise. What makes it such a pleasure to live here are the interesting and compassionate people and the multitude of inspiring initiatives they organize.
In my CommunitySensor mapping methodology, icons play a crucial role. They are at the core of the visual language, I use to map the linkages and collaborations taking place in community networks. However, for sensemaking between communities, we need standard icons. For example, in the map below of a community network mapping project in Malawi we see how standard icons act as “conceptual bridges” between two projects, outlining how they have activities, stakeholders, and resources in common.
What interested me so much about the TilburgsAns icon set, is that they are the opposite of standardized icons. Each of the icons is unique, capturing part of that distinctive “sense of Tilburg community”. Together, they define the essence of the city, its people, initiatives and events, sites & sights, and language.
This contrast between both icons sets and their uses – making connections across communities versus communicating the identity of a city – really got my mind racing. Perhaps, effective community network mapping needs a mix of both: (1) unique community icons to visualize what the community is about, strengthen bonds and ties between community members, and clarify its essence to the outside world – and (2) standardized community mapping icons to catalyze inter-communal sensemaking, collaboration, and “knowledge weaving for social innovation”.
The Tilburg Legend(s) map
Lots of food for thought, here, but instead of going off on an academic tangent, I decided to do something practical to get a better sense of the “deep meaning” of TilburgsAns, and to make a contribution to the Tilburg commons myself, building on the magnificent work of Sander and Ivo. Instead of just seeing the list of Tilburg icons, why not – literally – put them on the map?
To this purpose, I created two Google maps, the English Tilburg Legend(s) map and the Dutch Tilburgse Iconen, playing with the notions of legends defining Tilburg both story and icon-wise.
On each map, the relevant icons from the TilburgsAns list have been ordered in the categories People, Initiatives & Events, and Sites & Sights. Only the TilburgsAns word-icons without a clear geographical reference have been left out. By hovering over an item in the table of contents on the left hand side, you can see where it is situated on the map. By clicking a table of contents entry or an icon on the map, a brief description is shown, copied from the TilburgsAns entry. For example, when clicking the icon of Peerke Donders – one of the iconic “sons of the city” – the following description is shown:
When next clicking the link within the description, one is taken to the actual TilburgsAns page for that description, which – besides that text – also shows the full-size icon, plus links to further information:
Like so many things in social innovation, this mapping experiment is only a work-in-progress. The map is far from complete, and comes with many technical limitations, for instance, Google Maps only showing small icons or rather crude descriptions. Still, it has many potential applications, for example in providing a different, off-the-beaten-track view on the city to new residents and visitors.
The experiment also shows how one social innovation may lead to another, in often unexpected ways. Together, these social innovations form a web of catalysts for social change, strengthening our precious common good. In desperate times of societal polarization, alienation, and fragmentation, it is such initiatives that are potent symbols of that there is still much worth preserving and fighting for together.
On October 8th, Michael Gurstein – founding father of the field of Community Informatics – sadly passed away.
I first met Mike when I stumbled into the wrong” workshop room at the first Communities and Technologies conference in Amsterdam in 2003, the workshop being chaired by Mike. This was the first time I learned about Community Informatics as a field, and I immediately knew I had “come home”.
Mike and I have been good friends and colleagues ever since, bumping into each other regularly at conferences and events, and, of course, having had countless interactions online. Mike has always been a great source of inspiration, a mentor, and role model to me, and has played an important part in mentally preparing me for setting up and defining the mission and approach of my own research consultancy CommunitySense.
Mike, we all owe so much to your being the founding father of our now thriving field of Community Informatics. Your contributions have been numerous: your vision and passion about the field; your deep insight that it is not the technologies per se, but how they are being put to effective use that truly empowers communities; your heartfelt conviction that Community Informatics researchers and practitioners strongly depend on one another to achieve that goal; your tireless efforts, from lobbying at the highest international political levels to guiding young researchers and practitioners asking for your advice; and, of course, establishing The Journal of Community Informatics and the Community Informatics Researchers mailing list as crucial fora for the field to develop.
Mike, you are now no longer with us physically, but – in the spirit of the field you helped create – will always remain a virtual member of the Community Informatics community, continue to inspire us and be present as we continue to develop our collective work “from ideals to impact”.