Community Informatics and Community Development: CI gave a party and CD didn’t come, CD gives a party and they didn’t invite CI—What is going on?

Posted on February 28, 2010

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One of the interesting and useful outcomes about touring around is that one can begin to discern patterns and structures that aren’t necessarily visible when one only looks at individual cases or projects.

My first work in community informatics (starting in 1995) was done on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia working in that most fascinating part of Canada but one which at the time was experiencing a period of chronic economic decline and associated severe unemployment, out-migration and general community malaise.  In that context, I was recruited to work in Cape Breton by Fr. Greg Macleod the founder of New Dawn Enterprises and perhaps Canada’s most original and effective developer of models and strategies for community economic development (CED). My job there was, working from within an academic context, to see if/how the new tools of ICT could do something to support the local economy.  I won’t go into detail on this work at this time except to say that we had some successes, a lot failures and I/we learned a lot and for me this became the seeds of Community Informatics (as a research and academic discipline).

I was reflecting on this experience recently when I was in Sri Lanka and then later in India.  The reason for this reflection was that one of my real disappointments in Cape Breton was that we left much less of a lasting legacy there than I would have liked and more important I don’t think we had anything like the impact that we could and should have had.  I didn’t see this at the time and I think I only realized this after I had had an opportunity to take a bit of a look at Sarvodaya and FUSION, its ICT project arm and began to see a bit of a pattern.

Sarvodaya is probably the most significant community development organization in the world relative to the country in which it is located. I won’t go on to describe Sarvodaya, its website gives as good a sense as possible in text and picture format as one can give of the overall breadth and depth of its activities in the Sri Lankan context.  However, its only by being and traveling in Sri Lanka, seeing the substantial Sarvodaya centres in communities all across the country, seeing the numerous buses and trucks with Sarvodaya’s logo and name, hearing the continuous references to Sarvodaya’s activities in this community and that that one really has a sense of its overall significance.

The links I was starting to make with my experience in Cape Breton was then to an extent reinforced when I had a chance to visit a rural development project undertaken by colleagues and friends at the Centre for Community Informatics and Development, the field project arm of the ITforChange the policy NGO based in Bangalore where they were acting as the ICT element of what was described as a “community informatics” project but which was in fact a community development project with an ICT component.

My instructions from Fr. Greg as I took up my job in Sydney, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia was to develop projects and activities using ICTs that would somehow benefit Cape Bretoners and hopefully create some long term employment opportunities. And so that is what we attempted to do.  I had a bit of a budget, access to some really outstanding people both local and who had somehow ended up in Cape Breton (mostly attracted by Fr. Greg’s reputation and his activities in the community).

We developed perhaps a dozen projects over the course of the some 4 years of the Centre for Community Enterprise Networking (C\CEN) (the framework that I set up to manage our activities) and created perhaps 200 person years of employment during that period. Not bad, certainly very cost-effective relative to comparable employment development schemes being undertaken by Canadian government agencies at roughly the same time.  However, what I realize now was that we missed out on the real opportunity for effecting positive change in Cape Breton.

Fr. Greg, through New Dawn and through the variety of other of the various CED activities which he had initiated or inspired in Cape Breton, across Canada and throughout other parts of the world was in touch with thousands of people all of whom were working towards alternative approaches to building and finding for themselves a productive place in the larger economy and society.  In a modest way, I see very strong similarities between Fr. Greg and New Dawn and their position and role in Cape Breton and Sarvodaya and its position and role in Sri Lanka.  (I know that I’m over-simplifying and making very broad statements from too limited information but the point that I’m making isn’t this one.)

What I realize now is that, rather than spending my time and resources establishing stand alone ICT projects, had I found some way to infuse ICT as a constituent element of Fr. Greg and New Dawn’s overall activities—first by training all of them in the use of ICTs and perhaps more important finding a way of creating an imagination about the opportunities that ICT provide for community and community economic development and community empowerment – that rather than trying to give Cape Breton a fish (some ICT enabled jobs), I would have been teaching them how to fish for themselves (recreate their economy on a digital platform).

How precisely I might have done that I’m not sure.  Fr. Greg like all outstanding community development people I’ve ever met was/is first of all very much oriented to the physical contact and the face to face.  The intermediation of technology as a barrier/medium in the linkage between himself and his “flock” was not something with which he was very comfortable. Certainly I don’t think he saw how the kind of self-development that was necessary to turn a semi-literate unemployed fisherman into a small-businessman or a stay at home housewife into a community leader could be effected just by electronic communications.  Nor, I think did he quite understand that the economic future of Cape Breton as with much of the rest of the world in large part would be built on an electronic platform that couldn’t be seen or touched or which only a very few people, none of whom he would ever likely know well, would understand.

And because he had been so successful at what he had been doing in the terms that were meaningful to him, that is the trust and confidence that he had managed to realize from his fellow Cape Bretoners, he felt little need, I think to find ways of assimilating this new set of “toys” into what he had been doing for so long. All of that of course is completely intelligible and it is hard to fault it except that what he and I were failing to do was to realize for the people of Cape Breton the real opportunities that ICTs present which is to facilitate the broad based shift into the Digital Society/Digital Economy where the digital means and ICTs are understood and included as constituent elements of the full range of economic and social activities.

It should be recognized that in the Developed world and various parts of the Developing world it is the “market” or market based softwares, business strategies or employment requirements that is causing countries and their component societies/cultures/communities to transition into the Digital Economy/Society–Facebook as a digital recruitment phenomenon for example, is having an enormous impact in many parts of the world. What hasn’t happened however, is that those who are pursuing alternative and perhaps more community-based strategies towards economic and social development as for example, Sarvodaya (or in the Developed World context, New Dawn) haven’t seen that it was necessary and productive to infuse ICTs and ICT based opportunities into their on-going work in the range of areas in which they are active.

The consequence of this has I think, been to deny those with whom groups such as Sarvodaya (or New Dawn) work, the immediate opportunities that ICTs might present in communications, training, information access and use but more important to limit the effectiveness and range of capabilities which these organizations might have if they were to have effected the Digital transition themselves.  A Sarvodaya (or a New Dawn) using the full-powers of ICTs to reach out to those who have need for the kind of services that they provide (and perhaps as important to create the digital platform which would allow for those connections); seeing ICTs as a constituent component of its economic activities and bringing to the use of ICTs in those activities the same sensitivity, creativity and responsiveness to the needs and talents of the poor; or using ICTs as a core element in their efforts to influence regional, national and even global policy—is truly formidable to anticipate.

For me, and again on reflection, the challenge and promise of a “community informatics” is not achieved through collections of projects however successful they might be. Rather the real success would come when there was a real and equal partnership between ICTs and community enablement.  Also, I’m now coming to understand that this will take place not through expanded networks of telecentres or through funding schemes for transaction portals or similar such developments (recognizing for example that the ITforChange project was rather more of a Community Development project with an ICT component than a “community informatics” project.  Rather a real community informatics will come when organizations such as Sarvodaya (and New Dawn) begin to assimilate and infuse ICTs as a necessary and constituent element of everything that they do on an on-going and day-to-day basis in the same way as the range of digitally enabled private sector enterprises are using ICTs to transform markets, redefine products and enormously enrich shareholders.