By Anna Dent, Promising Trouble.
In the course of our research, we spoke with a number of community businesses embracing the potential of community tech. The organisations that participated in our research do a wide range of things, from running local amenities such as skate parks, libraries and radio stations, creating art and media, through to providing training and infrastructure that supported housing, food banks and health care.
Through our discussions with these community tech pioneers, we found out what motivated them to develop their own community tech products, how the process has been so far, and what they are hoping to achieve.
Who is building community tech?
We have been inspired by the way a number of community businesses are making or using community tech. Innovative organisations including Loomio, My Society, Knowle West Media Centre, and Chilli Studios have all pioneered use of technology made for or by communities to do very different things and support different kinds of outcomes.
And although the type of community business we spoke with varied in many ways, they shared some characteristics. They were all:
- ambitious, enthusiastic, motivated and proactive
- committed to sharing their work with others and being transparent with their communities
- willing to take risks and open to change
- take a consultative approach to bring their staff and members on the community tech journey with them.
Why are they doing it?
Motivations generally fell into two categories.
Firstly, the community tech pioneers had sound operational reasons why building their own products made sense. They talked about the cost of commercial products, and the lack of off-the-shelf products that could meet their needs. They see clearly how creating their own product can improve how they operate, both extending their capabilities, and replacing legacy systems cobbled together over many years. An arts organisation described needing to upgrade from a plethora of ‘creaking’ spreadsheets that held members’ details, and their vision of a new system integrating sign-ins to their building, data collection and member information.
As you might expect for community-driven organisations, they were also motivated by their values. They want to create tech in line with, rather than in opposition, to their values. A community media organisation talked about wanting to build a CRM system without the problematic data ownership and privacy issues they identified in commercial options.
An arts and mental health organisation described the challenges their members faced using Facebook groups due to the perceived ‘toxicity’ of the site, which cancelled out the benefits of an online community. In response, they are developing their own social platform, with member safety at its heart. An arts and media organisation that builds digital tools and systems to empower the community they work with aims to make data about their community more transparent and shareable, and to transfer power and resources to local people. In this way, community tech is absolutely at the heart of delivering their mission.
We also found organisations creating specialist technology that can be used by communities of practice; they might not be community businesses themselves, but they tend to share similar values. Reuse is at the heart of these organisations, which we dubbed community infrastructure.
One community infrastructure organisation we spoke to develops software for community food enterprises to manage their sales and other processes, and helps them to become more sustainable businesses. Food enterprises become members of the network and participate in its governance and development, as well as using the tools and products.
What are the conditions for success?
The ‘why’ is really important. Community businesses we spoke to had a clear vision, and a well-defined problem they were trying to solve. They could articulate why a tech solution was most appropriate, and how it would complement and support their core values.
Many of them also had gone through a process of gaining confidence in understanding and talking about tech, and seeing what it could do for them; they had to get to a point where they knew enough to spark ideas about what was possible. The community media organisation had worked with a developer on their new CRM system, and as well as doing the technical work, the developer helped all staff to build their confidence and therefore imagine the ways that technology could improve their business.
This confidence and ‘just enough’ knowledge is also distributed across the organisations that are creating community tech; there isn’t just an IT person dreaming up solutions in a vacuum, the whole organisation grows together in appreciating the potential of creating their own products.
The importance of learning from and working alongside peers was also a clear finding from the research. It helps community businesses to see what’s possible, and crucially to see tech being built by organisations they relate to, not a big tech company or VC-backed start-up.
Access to technical expertise and support, both internal and external, and long-term funding that allows community businesses to try new things, and to fail, are also critical to the growth of community tech.
It is still early days for the community tech movement, but the creativity and enthusiasm of these community business pioneers shows us the enormous potential to create change.