Too Big Not To Fail: A Conclusion and Way Forward for Community Informatics post-Copenhagen

Posted on January 1, 2010


I’ve been thinking a lot about Copenhagen, its process and outcomes and how it can or should link into community informatics.  What was notable to me, casually observing the Copenhagen conference from a distance was how focussed the discussions seemed to be on political processes–governance structures, treaties, declarations and so on and how little attention was paid to the underlying social processes which would be required if anything realistic were to be achievable.

Apart from a few countries with monolithic political systems (China?, but even there it may questionable) how exactly apart from massive processes of social engineering are realistic measures towards responding to various looming environmental crises going to be implemented.  Marketizing the issue may work on a macro level and here mega state structures can be (have to be) highly influential but on the micro and meso levels implementation of climate control and enviromental management strategies cannot be achieved by fiat.

At these levels it is social and ultimately community processes that will (and must) prevail.  Understanding, enabling and harmonizing with community processes of consensus building, conflict management, goal setting and collaborative action is what will be needed to go beyond simple exhortation or public guilt mongering to create and implement appropriate norms and values.

For this of course, Informatics (the use of Information and Communications Technologies) and thus Community Informatics has an enormous role:

  • as an enabler of community processes
  • as a platform for linking communities of interest and dispersed physical and virtual communities
  • as an amplifier of community knowledge (and civic intelligence)
  • as a support to appropriate community practice

Examples are necessarily small scale and local–automated community notifications of recycling, exchange and trash management opportunities and practices; meetups and planning processes for urban gardening; community bartering and skill exchange processes; urban dweller-farmer linkages and so on and so on.  Some of these would be possible but much much more difficult without ICT support, others would not be possible outside of the use of ICTs but in each ICT is an active enabler and support.

Figuring out ways of scaling these — aggregating up–is the next challenge and including technical issues of interoperability of systems and so on but especially organizational/governance issues of how to maintain the benefits of the local in the (scaled-up) regional and national.  But what should be evident overall is that the process that is workable is going to be one which is driven from the base rather than managed from the top.

One of the reasons that there is so much pessimism after Copenhagen is that there is now the realization that the Copenhagen style processes are structured around institutions and structures that are too big not to fail . State structures for large complex modern states, multi-national institutions, conferences with 20,000 participants representing every possible sectarian value and interest all attempting to achieve consensus over too wide a range of competing interests.  It ain’t going to happen.

And yet the interests expressed and the outcomes desired are ones which might in fact be reconciled at a more disaggregated level where social i.e. normative inter-individual or communal processes might come into play.  The problem is that the institutions involved are simply “too big not to fail”.

So one conclusion that I, at least, would draw from Copenhagen is that one of the necessary ways forward in response to the need for environmental and climate management is through a series of community-based technology enabled actions and strategies which of course, puts community informatics at the very centre of whatever emerges in our post-Copenhagen world.


Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.
Director: Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training
Vancouver, CANADA

CA tel. +1-604-602-0624