That’s how I used to talk about the purpose of the Digital Society programme I led at Doteveryone. Talking at the Ethical Tech Summit last weekend, a few people asked me what I meant by that. I’ve also been thinking about what it means in the context of communities and cities, having just spent the last few days at City Lab (hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic) in Detroit.
It feels more necessary than ever for all of us to think about what needs strengthening and protecting. At Doteveryone, in the context of the work we were doing there, what I meant by it was the things that make up a strong society (as described here) — good and effective systems of justice, care, democracy, work, press freedom, relevant public institutions and social and relational infrastructure in places. It also felt important to focus on society to counterbalance how much we were thinking about tech. I worried that whilst we were helping the tech sector get more responsible, the world as we know it was crumbling around us.
Why is this important?
A strong social infrastructure is important — not just because of what it helps to solve — isolation, crime, education, addiction, political polarisation, and even climate change — it’s what it can help prevent and strengthen too – what it can make us resilient to.
Ensuring that we have a wide variety of public spaces, can produce those mysterious things we call community, a sense of belonging, a place, solidarity. Our democracy is fortified and enlivened by people coexisting together in public and so are our relationships and communities, our mental and physical health, and the making of our collective stories.
In his book Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg writes about the physical spaces that bind us together and form the basis of community life. He believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centres, bookstores, churches, mosques, synagogues, and parks where crucial, sometimes life-saving connections, are formed.
“These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. This is our social infrastructure: When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”
On the Community Lovers Guide platform, Tessy Britton and a group of local curators shine a light on new ways that communities are using space and organising themselves.
And In the New York Times last week, David Brooks also talked about the importance of place, and of social infrastructure.
“One of the signature facts of the internet age is that distance is not dead. Place matters as much as ever, and much more than we ever knew.When you think in neighbourhood terms rather than in individual terms you see things previously rendered invisible.”
Ways that community infrastructure is being created and strengthened
Eric Klinenberg and David Brooks’ work in this area is welcomed, and there are also some people and projects that have been demonstrating what this could look like on the ground.
Reimagining the Civic Commons
I’m a huge fan of Bryan Boyer’s work, (and not only because he’s a friend and I got to visit his house in Detroit this week). In 2015 Bryan was asked, as part of a whole programme of work about the civic commons, to “develop a vision of how the city of Philadelphia might feel if the Civic Commons “won” and became the animating spirit for public spaces and public goods across the city.” The result was this short film, “A Possible Philadelphia.”
I especially like one of the concepts that brings more visibility of what social infrastructure is there to do — why it exists, who it is serving, and how it is creating public value.
And the concept of public institutions being considered as bundles of ‘micro-assets’ instead of singular entities. I like this because it points at the need to revisit what kinds of social infrastructure we need now and how we can make better use of what we have.
In the work they also started to explore ideas around data legibility — communicating through physical infrastructure, and making use of digital infrastructure, the ways that citizens are contributing to the city — “Thank you for being the 974th person to contribute.”
“Reimagining the civic commons means changing communications to make the city rife with opportunities for informed citizenship and open dialogue in ways big and small.”
I say again, because I feel like I’ve talked about libraries a lot in the last few years, even working for a short stint with the Libraries Taskforce back in 2015, but it feels like there’s a new flurry of attention on them. From this article in the Guardian last week that talks about why libraries are more than just books, to the new campaign by the Big Issue, and this piece by Tony Hirst about the library being a natural home for emerging technology.
And the ideas we had at Doteveryone, still feel super relevant and as yet, unrealised.
The most rigorous and practical body of work that I know of in terms of building relational infrastructure and re-purposing/renewing social infrastructure is Participatory City. I may be biased because I’m in the Global Advisory group, but the ambition of building environmentally, socially, economically and sustainable communities is second to none. It also draws on the thinking of Albert Bandura, who’s work I’ve been following since my Psychology MSc — he extended the concept of individual agency out to collective agency and collective efficacy.
They published Made to Measure last week, a report on the first year of Every One Every Day, a unique approach to building local infrastructure to support resident projects at scale in Barking and Dagenham. Read it! Or at least look at how they’re thinking about outcomes, network effects and social capital.
In 2016 I did some work with the Co-op which I documented here — that was mainly about how a national brand could be more useful to communities. As part of that work I created a presentation for them about all the ways in which social and relational infrastructure was being strengthened around the (western) world.
As part of the same project they also asked me to make recommendations about their role in communities and how they could encourage more cooperation – becoming a social engine. Some of that thinking is here, and I’ve included it because the ideas are pretty simple and could be implemented by others.
Other notable work includes the Compendium for a Civic Economy, a book that Laura Bunt commissioned Indy Johar and the 00:// team to create back in 2011, and I often wonder what an updated version would look like.
Little Village HQ are building social and relational infrastructure through their activities, and the Roots Programme, a new initiative from Ruth Ibegbuna will be vital (I think) in helping to bring people back together in communities.
There is work that Future Communities was doing almost 10 years ago in writing up key factors of social infrastructure and the kinds of amenities communities need. And the Young Foundation Places Programme, alongside the work of Social Life (which spun out of the Young Foundation!)
And even with all that, we need something more
Even with all that good work going on (and of course there is lots more) we need to think further ahead and also through a technology lens.
At MozFest Renee DiResta shared the slide below and I’d add another one. Currently our social and relational life is being left to play out on infrastructure that is increasingly owned by the private sector — Facebook, WhatsApp and NextDoor become the social glue — as I wrote about here.
But it’s not just the ownership of our social infrastructure that we should be questioning, it’s how technology is changing us and how that influences our use and valuing of social infrastructure. Rebecca Solnit talks about a push — “a push for disembodiment and never leaving the house and fearing and avoiding strangers and doing everything as fast as possible is so powerful.”
In her essay for Civil Society Futures, Rhiannon White talks about:
“It’s a time of overwhelming isolationism, as borders go up people sink further into their shells; doors shut with algorithm screens that feed us our future. Social media lulling us into a false sense of community — one that we design ourselves, hearing what we want and filling the void of the need for human connection.”
Through a technology lens
It’s why we need people that bring a technology lens and understanding to look more at social infrastructure, like Doteveryone is starting to do (Hooray!) and people like Dan Hill in his brilliantly titled essay Believing In Society Over Unicorns.
“Perhaps these are the kind of questions we should ask of these technologies, as they begin to directly affect the spatial as well as the social, cultural, political and economic.
How might Airbnb’s ability to re-program space change apartment design?
How might vehicle-sharing change the form and volume of parking space?
How might autonomous vehicles slowly dissolve the artefacts of the age of traffic engineering, enabling a complete rethinking of what a streetscape is?
How might retail spaces change form, or even disappear, based on ‘anticipatory logistics’, fabrication and autonomous delivery?
How might super-local energy generation and storage change district design, and ownership models?”
— Dan Hill
Richard Pope wrote recently about Real-World Government Platforms — “What if local offices were seen as a shared capability for any government service that needs to talk to people face-to-face?”
Bryan Boyer talks about “many communities already use school parking lots, playing fields, and auditoriums for extracurricular purposes, but what if we challenged ourselves to think of further ways that schools and the other elements of the commons could be utilised?” —yet I think we need to challenge ourselves further and think about what is needed now, especially because of technology and how it is reshaping what we need.
There are new patterns and norms (and a lot of loss) in our community interactions— how does precarious work, time poverty, in-work poverty, screen addiction etc change what we need in our social infrastructure?
What does this mean we need to do?
Whilst important work is being done with the tech sector to pull them in to line, maybe those of us working in the social sector need to get much clearer about how we want technology to serve us as a society.
“This is what strategic design is — picturing what kind of future we want, and then setting about collaboratively developing the scaffolding needed to get there.”
This is the conversation I would love to see the social sector lead, not academia or business or government, and I say that because the social sector (though it still has a way to go to be perfect) is much, much more representative of the whole of society — in terms of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, gender etc etc etc…as well as generally knowing, from experience, what is happening on the ground — I wrote about this a while ago. There is also a role for collective myth-making in this, and I hope to do some work with Alex Evans, who wrote the Myth Gap, on this next year.
What do we want from the tech sector? As Dan Hill says — “The private sector, after all, tends to cherry-pick the easy bits, the low-hanging fruit. Why wouldn’t they? They don’t really do difficult. That is ‘left to’ the public sector to pick up, or to drive. ” — but maybe we shouldn’t let them off the hook?
The technology sector has contributed to things like rising housing costs and the undervaluing of care, so how far do we want to see them pick up social responsibility? It was interesting to read this today, about big business in San Francisco coming under pressure (and rightly so) to invest in addressing the homelessness issue.
How can we ensure that leaders and others in the social sector, whilst writing brilliant provocations about things like kindness in public policy, have more understanding of technology and its longer term influences? I think the upcoming findings from Civil Society Futures will have many excellent recommendations, and we need to make sure our social infrastructure, our civil society, can also respond to and mitigate the social changes caused by technology. Otherwise social infrastructure will always be playing catchup.
I still don’t think anyone has figured out how to do the work of bringing together local activity (social and relational infrastructure) with digital infrastructure — who can do this?
I’m going to be exploring some of this as part of my Fellowship at IIPP over the next 12 months— please do get in touch if any of this resonates.