Here in the Connected Communities team at the RSA, we put a great deal of work into understanding social networks. We’re interested in finding ways to improve upon and utilise those networks existing within a community in a way that can have positive outcomes on both personal health as well as the social health of our communities overall. This has led to projects such as the Nominet Trust funded Social Mirror: Community Prescriptions, where we use a combination of a tablet-based application and social networks and wellbeing science to link people to local activities and groups that might be good for their wellbeing and health.
As we live in a society which is in part shaped through innovation, there are many new and exciting opportunities to help people with technology. For example, by providing people access to much needed social services or through improving individual social networks of practical, emotional and psychological support. Such technologies can be understood as ‘community technologies’ as they seek to address social troubles at the community level through the technical application of an idea.
As a current MA student in Digital Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London I have a vested interest in understanding the complex relationships which exist at the intersection of technology and society, and in turn I am taking this opportunity to reflect on the concept of community technology in relation to the exciting work I have been involved in during my work placement here at the RSA, namely examining how to best apply the learning and the tools developed in Social Mirror: Community Prescriptions for other sites and situations.
Community technology is most commonly understood in the context of community technology centres, which tend to focus on increasing a community’s access to information communication technologies (ICT) through affordable and often free access to computers and the internet. But other forms of community technology can conform to a slightly more abstract definition as they are asset-based approaches to problem solving, holding that successful social and economic revitalisation must start with the capacities which are already present in a community.
The asset-based approach is foundational to bartering systems like LETS or time banking organisations, both of which focus on empowering an economically marginalised community by tapping into the skillsets and services of a social economy which is already in place. A defining characteristic of these forms of community technology is that they recognise the various people, objects and flows implicated in the application of a technology as necessary components of the technology itself. From here they can be understood to operate independently (or collectively) as technological objects, each with varying relevance to social issues.
RSA’s Social Mirror can also be classified in a similar manner, as it too is aimed at tapping into existing social capital as it pushes to address the often private troubles of mental health, social isolation and low well-being within the public issue of limited resources. (You can read more on this private/public interrelation here.) Like all RSA Connected Communities initiatives, Social Mirror is internally focused, in that it calls on the community members themselves to identify their interests and help build upon their own capacities to solve problems in a way which utilises an external community technology system to help facilitate the pooling and redistribution of community focused social resources. It is also relationship driven, meaning that it encourages the on-going establishment of productive relationships among community members. As well as providing a means for increasing connectivity among people, one of its premier aims is to assist the development of trust and norms, which are seen as necessary in the maintenance and strengthening of relationships within a community.
Mapify – to some extent inspired by the Connected Communities program - is another new and exciting community technology that researches and maps organisations’ connectivity and community reach. Similar to Social Mirror, it makes use of existing community capital, but where Social Mirror is more focused on helping people understand and reflect on their personal networks as well as inform them of available community resources in their area, Mapify has been designed for the purpose of informing council level decisions on regulation, funding and planning.
Framing technologies like the Social Mirror and Mapify from a community technological perspective can be useful for furthering project development as it evokes a design-based perspective that is sociologically informed through the reciprocal relationships which exist between individuals, their community and technology.
Currently we are in the beginning stages of adapting Social Mirror to be of use beyond its original pilot site. RSA project developers are working closely with community activists in the New Cross Gate area of Lewisham in South East London to unpack and work out the various community assets and social capital which are already in place and functioning in the area, and to get a sense for how social support networks are structured. It is through these efforts that our team will get a sense for Social Mirror’s own technological objects relevant to New Cross and, in turn, how and in what social context the project could be best applied. Watch this space!