Building “networks of communities” for a civic intelligence movement with impact

We live in an age of confusion, stagnation, and crisis. What we need is not more of the same top down, neo-liberal corporate and government interventions. These are just a recipes for ever more socio-economic and cultural alienation, disillusion and disempowerment. Instead, we should tap into the growing bottom-up and middle-out capacity around the world for civic intelligence: the collective, citizen-driven, (where possible institutionally supported) capability to think and work together. As Doug Schuler says:

Civic intelligence describes what happens when people work together to address problems efficiently and equitably. It’s a wide-ranging concept that shows how positive change happens. It can be applied anywhere – from the local to the global – and could take many forms.

Civic intelligence, properly taking root in the real world out there, is a necessary condition for any progressive movement-with-impact to build. A movement that is powerful, effective, and agile.  A movement that scales, not in the sense of it being a monolithic mob, but consisting of a multitude of communities, each with their own identity, but in federation having real impact. A movement that consists of countless, interwoven webs of meaningful relationships and interactions, allowing groups of citizens to both grow and interconnect strong local communities, communities of interest and of practice.

However, these communities should not become inward looking, just minding their own business. They need to actively build mutual connections across their boundaries, so that true community networks emerge. Together, these networks of communities can form a strong, resilient societal fabric capable of  much better dealing with the numerous challenges being thrown at them than each community on its own.

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To literally rebuild society, identifying and strengthening the linking pins between communities is of the essence. Such linking pins can be social bridges (e.g. people who are active in various communities), technical bridges (e.g. features like social media notifications that alert you to interesting conversations happening in other  communities) and conceptual bridges (e.g. tags that help identify meaningful connections between content on the Web). It is exactly for identifying such (potential) linking pins that community network bridge-building processes like knowledge weaving and  participatory community network mapping can be so powerful. Take, for example, the case of building conceptual and social bridges across agricultural communities of practice around the world by – in a facilitated participatory process – first mapping the projects represented by INGENAES global conference participants and then defining joint “seed actions” for follow-up.

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Building  conceptual bridges across agricultural communities of practice around the world

However, in polarized times, we need to be aware that there is not just a movement driven by emancipatory civic intelligence. There is a counter-movement as well, also consisting of  complex networks of communities. A counter-movement woven from that same fabric of interpersonal ties and bonds, albeit it motivated by fundamentally different and often opposing values, and in many cases fueled behind the scenes by powerful manipulating forces, such as well-funded “astroturf organizations”. The clash between these two movements is exemplified by the animosity and heated debates about basically everything in the present day US, and elsewhere in the world.

Instead of confronting these powers that be head-on, it is exactly by zooming in on that microscopic level of the neighbors and peers that building bridges, joint healing, and effecting change may begin, “one connection at the time”. However, that is only a necessary condition. The more abstract, but equally important mission of how to link and scale these numerous communities into something that displays emergent properties of collective intelligence is still in its infancy, both in theory and practice.

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Farrming community representatives making sense of their collaboration maps in Mbwadzulu, Malawi, September 2017.

I am not naive. I know there is an inner core, and not a small one, in that ultra-conservative counter-movement that is too set in its beliefs and ways to be changed by civic engagement. However, by finding socially inclusive ways for “liberating voices” across the chasm, creating small-scale working examples of socially inclusive change with reasonable members from the counter-movement’s outer sphere, then forging smart alliances, and alliances of alliances, the fight to (re)build a more civic & civil society will gain momentum again.

How to do that is still very much an open question, but a challenge we cannot ignore. As JFK said:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Who says we can’t set ourselves the same mission impossible to reach a more civic Earth in a decade…

Tilburg Legend(s): what’s in an icon?

Tilburg is at the heart of a region in the southern Netherlands which has traditionally been very socially innovative. This tradition is celebrated annually during the European Social Innovation Week, recently renamed to the Dear Future week.

The TilburgsAns open source typeface

At the conclusion of this week, the annual Social Innovation Awards are announced. This year’s Runner-Up Award was won by TilburgsAns, a unique initiative by Sander Neijnens and Ivo van Leeuwen, two local graphic designers who developed an open source “typeface for a sans serif city” of letters and icons. From the jury report:

The project especially focuses on Tilburg residents. By using the typeface, they connect with the city and each other. Still, its use is not restricted to Tilburgers alone. Also, people outside of the city can download TilburgsAns and apply it, creating a virtual bond with Tilburg. For the initiators, TilburgsAns is not about city marketing or city branding, but it is an innovative art project with the aim of uniting people through (visual) language. Furthermore, TilburgsAns makes visible – in an innovative way – the material and immaterial heritage of the city via its icons.

This immediately piqued my interest. As you know, I am an ardent believer in the power of visualization and mapping to build, strengthen, and link communities.  Furthermore, I have been a long-time resident of Tilburg, a city I have come – like so many other non-natives – to appreciate over the years as a hotbed of cultural and social innovation.  It is not so much a remarkable city architecture-wise. What makes it such a pleasure to live here are the interesting and compassionate people and the multitude of inspiring initiatives they organize.

On icons

In my CommunitySensor mapping methodology, icons play a crucial role. They are at the core of the visual language, I use to map the linkages and collaborations taking place in community networks. However, for sensemaking between communities, we need standard icons. For example, in the map below of a community network mapping project in Malawi we see how  standard icons act as “conceptual bridges” between two projects, outlining how they have activities, stakeholders, and resources in common.

CommunitySensor standardized community network mapping icons

What interested me so much about the TilburgsAns icon set, is that they are the opposite of standardized icons. Each of the icons is unique, capturing part of that distinctive “sense of Tilburg community”. Together, they define the essence of the city, its people, initiatives and events, sites & sights, and language.

TilburgsAns unique city icons

This contrast between both icons sets and their uses – making connections across communities versus communicating the identity of a city – really got my mind racing. Perhaps, effective community network mapping needs a mix of both: (1) unique community icons to visualize what the community is about, strengthen bonds and ties between community members, and clarify its essence to the outside world – and (2) standardized community mapping icons to catalyze inter-communal sensemaking, collaboration, and “knowledge weaving for social innovation”.

The Tilburg Legend(s) map

Lots of food for thought, here, but instead of going off on an academic tangent, I decided to do something practical to get a better sense of the “deep meaning” of TilburgsAns, and  to make a contribution to the Tilburg commons myself, building on the magnificent work of Sander and Ivo. Instead of just seeing the list of Tilburg icons, why not – literally – put them on the map?

To this purpose, I created two Google maps, the English Tilburg Legend(s) map and the Dutch Tilburgse Iconen, playing with the notions of legends defining Tilburg both story and icon-wise.

The Tilburg Legend(s) map

On each map, the relevant icons from the TilburgsAns list have been ordered in the categories People, Initiatives & Events, and Sites & Sights. Only the TilburgsAns word-icons without a clear geographical reference have been left out. By hovering over an item in the table of contents on the left hand side, you can see where it is situated on the map. By clicking a table of contents entry or an icon on the map, a brief description is shown, copied from the TilburgsAns entry.  For example, when clicking the icon of Peerke Donders – one of the iconic “sons of the city” –  the following description is shown:

The Google Maps description of the Peerke Donders icon

When next clicking the link within the description, one is taken to the actual TilburgsAns page for that description, which – besides that text – also shows the full-size icon, plus links to further information:

The TIlburgsAns description of Peerke Donders showing both the enlarged icon and links to further information.

Like so many things in social innovation, this mapping experiment  is only a work-in-progress. The map is far from complete, and comes with many technical limitations, for instance, Google Maps only showing small icons or rather crude descriptions. Still, it has many potential applications, for example in providing a different, off-the-beaten-track view on the city to new residents and visitors.

The experiment also shows how one social innovation may lead to another, in often unexpected ways. Together, these social innovations form a web of catalysts for social change, strengthening our precious common good. In desperate times of societal polarization, alienation, and fragmentation, it is such initiatives that are potent symbols of that there is still much worth preserving and fighting for together.

New publication – CommunitySensor: towards a participatory community network mapping methodology

A. de Moor (2017). CommunitySensor: Towards a Participatory Community Network Mapping Methodology. The Journal of Community Informatics, 13(2):  35-58.

Fig 2 - The Community Network Sensemaking Cycle

Abstract

Participatory community network mapping can support collaborative sensemaking within and across communities and their surrounding stakeholder networks. We introduce the CommunitySensor methodology under construction. After summarizing earlier work, we show how the methodology uses a cyclical approach by adopting a Community Network Development Cycle that embeds a Community Network Sensemaking Cycle. We list some observations from practice about using community network mapping for making inter-communal sense. We discuss how extending the methodology with a pattern-driven approach benefits the building of bridges across networked communities, as well as the sharing of generalized lessons learnt. To this purpose, a community collaboration pattern language is essential. We show initial work in developing and using such a language by examining the cross-case evolution of core community network interaction patterns.

Tribute to Michael Gurstein – founding father of the Community Informatics Field

On October 8th, Michael Gurstein – founding father of the field of Community Informatics – sadly passed away.

I first met Mike when I stumbled into the wrong” workshop room at the first Communities and Technologies conference in Amsterdam in 2003, the workshop being chaired by Mike. This was the first time I learned about Community Informatics as a field, and I immediately knew I had “come home”.

Mike and I have been good friends and colleagues ever since, bumping into each other regularly at conferences and events, and, of course, having had countless interactions online. Mike has always been a great source of inspiration, a mentor, and role model to me, and has played an important part in mentally preparing me for setting up and defining the mission and approach of my own research consultancy CommunitySense.

Mike, we all owe so much to your being the founding father of our now thriving field of Community Informatics. Your contributions have been numerous: your vision and passion about the field; your deep insight that it is not the technologies per se, but how they are being put to effective use that truly empowers communities; your heartfelt conviction that Community Informatics researchers and practitioners strongly depend on one another to achieve that goal; your tireless efforts, from lobbying at the highest international political levels to guiding young researchers and practitioners asking for your advice; and, of course, establishing The Journal of Community Informatics and the Community Informatics Researchers mailing list as crucial fora for the field to develop.

Mike, you are now no longer with us physically, but – in the spirit of the field you helped create – will always remain a virtual member of the Community Informatics community, continue to inspire us and be present as we continue to develop our collective work “from ideals to impact”.

Mike in a characteristic pose at the Communities and Technologies Future Vision Workshop in Siegen, Germany, in 2014.

 

Mapping the World: the INGENAES Global Symposium and Learning Exchange

It all started with mapping the local: the Tilburg Urban Farming community. This January, however, I ended up mapping the global end of the agricultural spectrum: the INGENAES Global Symposium and Learning Exchange, held in Lusaka, Zambia. It was a wonderful meeting of minds of people from all over the world working on and passionate about the intersection of Gender, Nutrition, and Agricultural Extension.

The INGENAES conference crowd

Knowledge and learning exchanges as well as network building are key components of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension Services (INGENAES) project. The project aims to stimulate the intersection between the sub-domains of gender, nutrition and agricultural extension services so that not only are farmers maximizing their participation in the agricultural value chain, but the nutrition needs of themselves, their families and communities are also served with the additional aspect of the pivotal role of women in this field. The January 2017 INGENAES Global Symposium and Learning Exchange in Zambia aimed to use mapping to catalyze this process, connecting practitioners and researchers across the sub-domains of the field, including participants designing and committing to follow-up activities back home.

Mapping the Conference

Our goal with this initial experiment was not to set up a fully participatory community network mapping process, as this would have required a much longer time frame and many more resources. We focused on the following questions:

  • What would an initial map representing both the diversity and common ground in this emerging field look like?
  • How to create it with contributions from the participants?
  • How to use the map to give conference participants some sense of what their emerging field literally looks like?
  • Can we design practical maps-based conference activities that help conference participants contribute to further field building?

To answer these questions, renowned group facilitator Nancy White,  INGENAES Associate Director Andrea Bohn, and I came up with a participatory process involving producing the actual map, facilitated sensemaking sessions, lots of commitment, as well as the essential bit of fun! We wanted to make the mapping and facilitation processes “dance together”, as it were, with the maps helping to set the agenda for engaged conversations held in the facilitated sessions, while also capturing conference results and “seeds for action” to be followed up on after the conference.

The conference map

The online conference map (as an artifact) is both an input to and an outcome of the mapping process that happened prior to, during, and after the conference. Key elements it includes are ThemesCountries, OrganizationsProjects/InitiativesWisdoms, and Actions . To make the map more readable, we included a number of views that show subsets of the elements and connections of the map: Collaboration Ecosystem, Themes, Organizations, Countries & Projects, Themes & Projects, Organizations & Projects, Themes & Wisdoms, and Themes & Actions.

The INGENAES conference map

The mapping process

The process consisted of three stages: (1) seeding the map (prior to the conference); (2) seeding collaborations (during the conference); and (3) growing the collaborations (after the conference).

Prior to the conference

We first defined the conceptual model for the map, comprising of the core types of elements and connections to be mapped, plus a taxonomy of themes relevant to the INGENAES domain. Next, we set up the tools ecosystem, consisting of the Kumu map, an online survey tool, and online discussion tool Disqus (which Kumu allows to be integrated with the map). We then collected initial data by asking all participants to fill out a form describing one of their flagship projects. The results were then used to create the seed map, consisting of a network of the collected elements and connections, and relevant views on this map.

We also designed an extensive content & process strategy on how to gather “wisdoms” and “(seeds for) actions”, drawing from Nancy’s inspiring “plumbers & poets” facilitation philosophy. The process design for the group interactions drew heavily from Liberating Structures, a set of 33 structures designed to liberate the knowledge and participation of everyone. These have shown to work very well in complex settings such as multidisciplinary field building.

During the conference

We started by introducing the mapping process via telling a “mapping story” using the metaphor of us being a band of “hunters/gatherers of wisdoms and actions”.

Tellling the mapping story

Having sensitized the participants to the ideas behind participatory mapping, the hard work of “harvesting wisdoms and actions” got started. In the sessions facilitated by Nancy, participants first started to share and capture lessons learnt as wisdoms. On the final day, participants interacting in small groups produced 98 “seed actions”, to be used for post-conference commitment and follow-up.

Conference participants capturing wisdoms & actions

Throughout the conference, participants could submit wisdom and action forms, which we partially grouped on the wall behind our “mapping station”. The collected forms and groupings made provided additional inputs to be added to the map by me in my role as map maker.

Trying to make sense of the submitted wisdoms & actions

In addition, all the while Nancy graphically recorded her impressions of the wisdoms and actions being shared on a large, wall-sized paper. This rich graphical picture further captured lessons learnt, complementing the online map.

Graphically recording the wisdoms & actions

The mapping process was amplified by the actions of the Social Media Reporters, a team of young Zambian reporters who were tasked with collecting stories and spreading the word about what was happening at the conference via social media. They for instance (re)tweeted messages about updates to the map. As we had the mapping station as our joint base, it was easier to keep each other informed about what was going on and needed to happen.

Working together with the social media reporters

After the conference

Participants were intrigued by the potential of participatory community network mapping as an approach to better capture and use conference outcomes, as exemplified by one of the comments received in the evaluation:

“I got a peek at many, but now need to go deeper. The Map and links will help”

Still a lot of work is needed to turn this pilot into a robust methodology. In an upcoming paper, we will share more details of the conference case. Furthermore, INGENAES is supporting a next round of methodology development, focusing on a specific country case. Stay tuned!

Conference mission accomplished!

 

New publication – Community Digital Storytelling for Collective Intelligence: towards a Storytelling Cycle of Trust

S. Copeland and A. de Moor (2017). Community Digital Storytelling for Collective Intelligence: towards a Storytelling Cycle of Trust. AI & Society, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-017-0744-1 (download preprint or read article online).

Abstract

Digital storytelling has become a popular method for curating community, organisational, and individual narratives. Since its beginnings over 20 years ago, projects have sprung up across the globe, where authentic voice is found in the narration of lived experiences. Contributing to a Collective Intelligence for the Common Good, the authors of this paper ask how shared stories can bring impetus to community groups to help identify what they seek to change, and how digital storytelling can be effectively implemented in community partnership projects to enable authentic voices to be carried to other stakeholders in society. The Community Digital Storytelling (CDST) method is introduced as a means for addressing community-of-place issues. There are five stages to this method: preparation, story telling, story digitisation, digital story sense-making, and digital story sharing. Additionally, a Storytelling Cycle of Trust framework is proposed. We identify four trust dimensions as being imperative foundations in implementing community digital media interventions for the common good: legitimacy, authenticity, synergy, and commons. This framework is concerned with increasing the impact that everyday stories can have on society; it is an engine driving prolonged storytelling. From this perspective, we consider the ability to scale up the scope and benefit of stories in civic contexts. To illustrate this framework, we use experiences from the CDST workshop in northern Britain and compare this with a social innovation project in the southern Netherlands.

 

Discovering common ground in European social innovation projects: mapping the BoostInno network collaboration

A while ago, I mentioned that I was going to share some exciting new community mapping projects I have been working on using my participatory community mapping methodology with online network visualization tool Kumu. After my post on mapping some Rotterdam Centres of Expertise, I now continue my series with the work I have been doing on mapping the collaboration in the URBACT BoostINNO project.

URBACT is an EU programme that aims “to enable cities to work together and develop integrated solutions to common urban challenges, by networking, learning from one another’s experiences, drawing lessons and identifying good practices to improve urban policies.”

BoostInno is one of the networks developed in URBACT,  with the aim to “enable public administrations to play a new role as public booster and brokers/facilitators of social innovation activities/projects/policies, by driving social innovation in, through and out the public sector.” Member cities include Gdansk (PL)-Lead partner, Paris (FR), Milan (IT), Turin (IT), Braga (PT), Barcelona (ES), Wroclaw (PL), Skane County (S), Baia Mare (RO), Strasbourg (FR), plus Lviv (UA) as an observer.

In preparation of one of its working meetings in Barcelona in November, I was asked to map the collaboration of the BoostInno network. Goal was to see if mapping this collaborative community of cities could help its members to make better sense of whom to work with and on what themes.  In particular, at this meeting, each city was to make a selection of other cities in the network to plan site visits to. Given that there were 11 cities present in Barcelona, and that there was only little dedicated time to meet and discuss with potential partners, it was felt that a map showing the common ground might be really helpful.

Prior to the meeting, we sent out a survey asking all cities to briefly describe 5 of their “flagship projects”, local projects that could serve as showcases of what they had to offer and share with their European peers. We also asked them to tag their projects with topics from the list of URBACT “Urban Topics”, concrete social innovation topics that cities work on and that URBACT has grouped in categories such as Integrated Urban Development, Economy, Environment, Governance, and Inclusion. Besides mapping those elements, I also added what “sharings” (concrete offerings) the cities wanted to “give” to and “use” from other cities. The resulting map literally shows the common ground of the BoostInno network, making it much easier to identify what is the common focus, but also to identify one’s own position and interests in the bigger scheme of things.

At the conference, I first presented the overall map, showing the big picture. However, I also set up a “mapping station”, where representatives of the various cities could come and see me. I then gave each of them a personalized tour showing how their city was positioned on the map, and what themes and  projects of other cities theirs was most closely related to.  In this way, precious meeting time could be used as efficiently as possible, as city representatives could more easily identify the potentially most relevant partners – also present in Barcelona – to talk to.

However, the buck didn’t stop there. As the BoostInno Lead Expert Peter Wolkowinski stated in his piece Why cities and their governance are vital keys to boosting social innovation, participatory community mapping goes way beyond the operational support. It has strategic political value too:

building communities depends on our capacities to intervene, to show results, to create maps, that allow intuitive sensemaking processes to exist. This in turn develops a common vision amoung participants, creating a very strong “social glue”. If used as tools for cross-fertilisation, for integrated action planning and doing, this kind of knowledge and feeling can be translated into political arguments, working at the core of the present crisis we are living through, where a total lack of trust has become what is common, but not what gives sense and unites different stakeholders.

As a now validated URBACT “Ad-Hoc Expert”, I aim to continue to work with the BoostInno team to weave my participatory community mapping methodology into the emerging social innovation approach of the network. I am excited to have this opportunity to keep working together with such committed people on ways to strengthen and share lessons about European collaboration on social innovation at the city level, the level where the conditions for the future prosperity and peace of our continent are being created…  To be continued.

Update July 14, 2017: A video interview held with me in Barcelona about the mapping project was just published: