Why community organisations need community tech

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This blog post is the first of three outlining the research that Promising Trouble has undertaken for Power to Change, answering the question: “How can Power to Change inspire greater uptake of community tech?”
13 Sep, 2021
Rachel Coldicutt

Rachel Coldicutt

Promising Trouble

When digital experts talk about the non-profit sector and digital technologies, the conversation often moves to all the ways community organisations are getting it wrong and everything they have to learn.

In this context, the shift from “getting it wrong” to “getting it right” might involve increasing efficiency, using platform technologies, and increasing digital maturity. It might also involve being “agile” (with a big or a small A), adopting working practices and methodologies popularised by big tech companies, and collecting more data. It’s often about smoothing out the bumps and lumps and, essentially, making everything more corporate.

But what if some community organisations need different kinds of technology to businesses or governments? What if the growing critique of the social and environmental impact of corporate platforms makes adopting those products a moral and ethical dilemma for community organisations? What if there’s no one way of getting it right?

When we started this piece of work, our initial assumption was that we would build on the Glimmers Report that our sister organisation Careful Industries published last year. Having spent several months at the start of the pandemic speaking with charities and social enterprises, we recommended the creation of a community tech stack – some kind of centralised infrastructure that was more sustainable and less dependent on the values, behaviours, and pricing methodologies of big tech companies – but we weren’t sure how to make it or exactly what it should be.

Through this research project, we realised there was a more achievable solution: supporting and strengthening the technologies that community organisations are already making and using.

Strengthening Community Organisations

It has become fashionable in digital transformation circles to disparage small-scale products and services, but it makes sense that the needs of community businesses might not be met by bigger scale B2B software. Many of the features community businesses need include things that are “non-standard” in the business world, including member voting, collaborative decision-making, and volunteer management.

Meanwhile, the typical operating model of a community business will have a different kind of growth potential to a profit-making one. For instance, if a community group has successfully campaigned to save a local pub and taken over running it, it doesn’t mean it will become a specialist in saving pubs in other areas. It is more likely to double down and solve other problems in the same community: perhaps set up a veg box scheme, support a toy library, provide meeting space for faith or community groups, or host a local radio station.

Most off-the-shelf tech is optimised for organisations to expand their reach by doing the same thing again and again in more efficient ways – to open a chain of pubs or a network or libraries, say, rather than to establish a complex identity that has stronger ties to a single locality.

Moreover, some of the community businesses we spoke with also raised the issue of their values and approach to data collection being at odds with both the track records and Ts&Cs of big tech platforms.

So, given that there are already established categories like business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), and peer-to-peer technology (P2P), it doesn’t seem controversial to start thinking about a fourth: community-to-community. Technology that is owned and/or managed by communities, that supports the delivery of their values and preferred ways of working.

“Building Community Power through Community-Owned Infrastructure”

The starting point for our research was the pioneering and defining work being done by the Community Tech Collective in the US, including Community Tech NY and the Detroit Community Technology Project.

Using the Detroit Digital Justice Principles, their work is “committed to digital justice and to building community power through community-owned infrastructure”. The process we used in our work builds on the field research they undertook over a decade ago to understand the role of “media and technology in community organizing or grassroots economic development”. Not much has changed since then, but the urgency of the challenge has become even greater.

From a UK context, where our technology infrastructure has different kinds of challenges, some of the specific issues that need addressing are different to those found in New York and Detroit. For this project, we were specifically tasked with understanding the challenges for community businesses, and whether they could be a catalyst for the wider adoption of community-owned technologies. After completing a literature review and a series of qualitative interviews with community businesses, we settled our focus on hardware and software rather than connectivity.