Community Innovation and Community Informatics

Posted on April 6, 2013

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Innovation is the buzzword of the moment. Countries large and small, rich and poor, international agencies, private companies even individuals are pre-occupied with finding the key to “innovation”.  What precisely is meant by “innovation” of course, varies from context to context and even within contexts it is difficult to find a hard and fast definition that goes beyond simply referring to “change” of some sort and hopefully change for the better or change that builds on what has gone on before.

That “innovation” has become such a slogan and even rallying call for such a diverse set of actors indicates the degree to which the settled structures and patterns of economies and market places have themselves changed and in many cases been significantly disrupted as a consequence of various factors but primarily the inter-twined mega disrupters of globalization and information technology and now the Internet as the necessary and all-transforming linkage between these.  Innovation as a necessary condition of modern economies is seen as a response to, perhaps the only response to globalized markets and international competition and equally to profoundly disrupted traditional business models in a increasingly wide range of sectors.

When companies everywhere have access to roughly the same amount of information and to the same infrastructure of technical support and when consumers everywhere have access to the global marketplace of goods and to new products and to the means of shopping for competitive prices, features, or styles the need to be new, first, different, is as some have argued, the only basis of a competitive edge.  And with the sources of “innovation” being attributed directly to new knowledge and intelligence, and creativity in the labour force, there is extreme pressure on governments to ensure those qualities are inculcated through the education system and nurtured in the institutions of higher learning and publicly funded research establishments in order that their populations and enterprises are able to suitably compete.

However, while this may be the most visible and the most “hyped” form of “innovation” it is not the only one.  This type of innovation might be termed “competitive innovation” since the intent is to support competitive positioning in hyper-competitive commercial marketplaces.  There is on the other hand a form of “grassroots innovation” also, understood in the context of social change where innovation is not concerned with enabling competition but rather is concerned with effective adaptation to changing circumstances.

This latter type of innovation might be characterized as “social innovation” or “community innovation” since so much of this type of innovation takes place within the context of communities either of place or of interest where trusted peers are enabled to experiment with established routines and practices to find alternative strategies for accomplishing what might otherwise be routine or conventionalized tasks.  This type of “innovation” is not concerned with ensuring opportunities for competition in globalized marketplaces but rather in enabling those involved in these communities and often grassroots communities to better undertake the tasks for which they normally have responsibility and for undertaking new tasks as they might become necessary and all within a context of shared community norms, values and goals.

Meanwhile, as governments in particular, aided and abetted by multi-lateral agencies and egged on by the corporate think tanks and corporate owned ideologues put ever increasing resources into competitive innovation and restructuring and re-designing education systems and research establishments into an ever accelerating quest for the “next big thing” community based capacity facilities to support local grassroots innovation are increasingly starved or marginalized.   And yet, of course, it is precisely that kind of innovation and adaptation at the grassroots that is needed in order to confront and overcome the various dilemmas and challenges of the 21st century. Finding ways to respond to the changes in local conditions being brought about by climate change, managing environmental degradation, finding alternative strategies for energy consumption and resource depletion are going to require concerted policy action at the national and global levels but also equivalent changes (social adaptations and innovations) at the local level to ensure effective implementation.

In this context it is important also to draw a distinction between “social innovation” and “community innovation”.  Social innovation (according to Wikipedia) is defined as

new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds — from working conditions and education to community development and health — and that extend and strengthen civil society. The term has overlapping meanings. It can be used to refer to social processes of innovation, such as open source methods and techniques. Alternatively it refers to innovations which have a social purpose — like microcredit or distance learning. The concept can also be related to social entrepreneurship (entrepreneurship is not necessarily innovative, but it can be a means of innovation) and it also overlaps with innovation in public policy and governance. Social innovation can take place within government, the for-profit sector, the nonprofit sector (also known as the third sector), or in the spaces between them

In this definition it is clear that “social innovation” refers to innovation at the social level including in areas such as policy and governance.  Interestingly, there is no counterpart definition in Wikipedia for “Community Innovation” and yet community innovation as the capacity to find ways to implement social and other innovations, would be key to the successful undertaking of social innovation both at the local level and through aggregation at a regional or national level. In fact, it was precisely this type of innovation–community innovation–that Paulo Freire was developing in his notions of conscientization — becoming conscious of one’s circumstances and developing the capacity to respond effectively — and this can initially only take place at the local and grounded level.

Many, many of the outstanding issues that need to be addressed–adaptation to climate change, the creation of meaningful work, the resolution of cultural/religious conflicts and integration of diverse populations, environmental and resource management for future generations all can only really be accomplished through “innovation” at the local level–not technical innovation, once for all globally singular innovation, but rather “innovation” as the capacity of those in local communities to find meaningful, efficient and effective ways to respond to their very local and singular challenges but also and equally are challenges which they share with multiple similar communities globally.

In practice it is possible, even desirable to take an alternative approach to “innovation”, where innovation is a change or introduction of new processes or products which are novel in the context into which they are being introduced and where such an introduction has the effect of stimulating a localized adaptation and change. In this case innovation can be seen as something which is fairly widespread in society and something which can occur under a very wide set of circumstances.  In this context innovation can be understood as having significant impacts and benefits not only through the effect of a “trickle down” from elites and high performers but also a “trickle up” from local adaptations and community based novelty and change which, because it is locally based and potentially very wide-spread, can have very significant and broadly distributed impacts and benefits.  In this latter case bottom up approach to innovation, the benefits as with the innovations themselves can be seen as being widely dispersed and contributing to general well-being directly rather than indirectly and solely through the creation of competitive advanced technologies and the participation in the benefits of this competition by a relatively limited number of individuals.

The opportunity with a Community Informatics approach is for the community to have some direction and responsibility i.e. “ownership” in the innovation and the innovation strategy.  The use of a CI technology strategy ensures that “innovation” is done by, with and in the community and not simply something that is done “to” or “for” the community.  By adopting a CI approach, there is a degree of assurance that the process of innovation will become an on-going element of community life and activity rather than a once for all investment in for example a single high profile “innovating institution”.

It is one of the crucial activities for Community Informatics to design appropriate strategies and technology supports for these processes of knowledge acquisition, assimilation and processing.  Similarly the provision of technical supports to communities in their processes of knowledge management may be one of the most significant arguments in support of community focused ICT strategies in that the fostering of innovation and innovative capacity at the local level is a major source of advance and a prime basis for economic and social development locally as well as a powerful contributor to national strategies for innovation.

This of course, represents the opportunity for community informatics as a way of feeding information into communities (the basis of innovation being in part novelty and “new” information/ideas), as a way of sharing successful “innovations” community to community and by providing an infrastructure of communications and information management as a platform on which these types of solutions can be enacted.

Thus the availability of technology supports at the local level can be seen as a significant contributor to the opportunities for local innovation and from the perspective of national governments the investment in the development of local technology infrastructures may be seen within the overall context of a contribution to a national innovation strategy and moreover one that is truly contributing to social change and adaptation and not simply to an endless quest for competitive advantage in constantly changing global marketplaces.

Such an approach to innovation is of particular value in Less Developed Countries and among marginalized populations where the capacity for change and adaptation may be stifled because of a lack of local opportunity, through lack of access to information, or through the constant draining of skilled and ambitious young people to more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Thus the current shift of attention (and resources) towards a focus on technological entrepreneurialism, the innovator as individual cultural hero, linkages into global technology and corporate networks while not necessarily impeding local development will likely have only marginal impacts on developments in most rural and marginal communities in LDC’s.