The biennial Communities and Technologies (C&T) conference is the premier international forum for stimulating scholarly debate and disseminating research on the complex connections between communities – in their multiple forms – and information and communication technologies.
It is one of my favorite conferences, and as usual, it was an amazing meeting of minds. See the tweet stream for an impression of the topics discussed. More on the paper I presented in a future post.
After the conference, some of us took a tour of the futuristic new campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. The buildings are phenomenal, however, what really struck me was how the concept of the campus being a community space has been designed into everything, from the overall master plan of the campus area to very specific building details. Instead of constructions creating artificial barriers between people, this campus in everything promotes the meeting and mingling of people and the building of community. There is a lesson or two to be learnt here by us working on community building with ICTs, where we often still let technology get in the way instead of acting as a community catalyst….
At any rate, a great symbol of where the worlds of physical architecture and online community spaces meet is this picture, where the three words I am pointing at neatly summarize what I am working on with CommunitySense. I am eager to further explore how the worlds of “traditional” urban planning & architecture and community informatics can mesh. Surely to be continued…
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.
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 process consisted of three stages: (1) seedingthemap (prior to the conference); (2) seedingcollaborations (during the conference); and (3) growingthecollaborations (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 toolsecosystem, 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 collectedinitialdata by asking all participants to fill out a form describing one of their flagship projects. The results were then used to createthe“seedmap“, 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
Yesterday was a momentous day in the history of science. Never before did so many scientists and science supporters take to the streets in such huge numbers across the globe. Mass demonstrations took place in over 600 events, from the North Pole to the Antarctic. This went way beyond just anger about budget cuts and petty research politics. The deeply felt common goal was to defend the value of science as the bedrock of “The Reasonable Society” in an age where that very society is under threat from a belief in “alternative facts”, “post-truths”, and aggressive religious fanaticism aiming to literally take over the world again.
I took part in the Dutch version, which was held in Amsterdam. It was a rare and empowering sight to see so many researchers having come out of their labs, joining forces with concerned citizens, and knowing this was simultaneously happening all over the world. We live in scary times, but it is good to know that amidst all the extremism, the voices of reason are starting to connect and get organized. Quoting the March for Science NL Statement:
For far too long, scientists and supporters of science have remained silent in the face of policies which ignore scientific evidence, and endanger human life and the future of our world. Today, staying silent is a luxury we can no longer afford. It is time for everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policies to speak out for the values they believe in, for the sake of society, as citizens of the world. We need to bring awareness to the community and higher bodies that science is important, and it is everywhere, in every layer of society, even though this is not always directly perceivable. Importantly, science should not be partisan, left nor right, progressive nor conservative, and should not be controlled by governmental politics. It is a method for discovering the actual truth of things, regardless of ideology and regardless of authority. Nonetheless, for science to remain free from political influence, scientists need to engage with politics – now more than ever.
To share some of the uplifting spirit and message of the March for Science gatherings, here is a gallery of the – often very thoughtful – “signs of the times” that were carried by participants in the Dutch demonstration:
In the spring, I decided to go on a “research road trip” to Silicon Valley and Northern California. The overarching research theme of my road trip was to engage in some deep learning and sharing on my main current R&D focus: community mapping. I was going to visit and stay over at friends and colleagues doing great related work in their “natural habitat”. Some of them I had not seen in years, or even only met online: Jack Park, Eugene Kim, Nancy White, Jeff Conklin, Jeff Mohr, Howard Rheingold, Bev Trayner, Etienne Wenger, and Marc Smith, it’s been so good to meet (again)!
Of course, a road trip is nothing without a car, although fortunately the Bay Area does at least have some decent public transportation when travelling within the metropolitan area. The car also afforded me to visit some of the stunning natural sights dotting the northern part of this great state, including magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore and South Yuba River, as well as the mesmerizing shorelines of Big Sur and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Interspersing meaningful and intense personal visits with days of regenerative solitude in nature turned out to be a strong stimulus of my “Deep Thinking processes”, very much in line with my “thinking communities” philosophy.
To get some idea of the spirit of the research road trip, watch this video shot by my long-time friend and colleague Eugene Kim while I was visiting him in San Francisco:
The Berkeley meetup
One of the spin-offs of my journey was that Eugene invited me to give a talk at The Collective Spark in Berkeley. Hosted by Will Tam and Adene Sacks, it turned out to be a wonderful venue, atmosphere and bunch of most interesting and bright participants. We were received with drinks & snacks, allowing for people to meet and mingle extensively prior to the talk. After the talk, there were drinks again, so people could continue their animated conversations.
The WHAT of my talk was about participatory community mapping. It included examples from my R&D around the budding Tilburg urban farming community and other cases: using online network visualization tool Kumu to support the collective sensemaking of what the community is about and how to discover opportunities for community growth and innovation. See the slides:
Meshing physical and online community mapping
The novel part of the meetup for me was not so much the WHAT but the HOW. Over dinner the night prior to the meetup, Eugene and I were musing about how we could let the audience grasp the essence of community mapping more interactively than just by giving yet another standard presentation. We decided to create our very own “Instant Meetup Community Map”, taking advantage of the the Meet & Mingle-Introduction stage of this specfic meetup format.
We therefore asked the participants to not just have nice chats with various people before the start of the talk, but also tag each other with relevant topics that emerged during their conversations. This was to be done – very low tech – by putting sticky labels on each others’ sleeves.
As I was concentrating on getting to know the participants and preparing for the talk, Eugene acted as the community mapping facilitator. While everybody was still chatting away, he entered the participants and their associated topics in a simple Google Sheet. Kumu allows for maps to be generated automatically from such spreadsheets , so the emergent map could be visualized on-the-fly.
Just before my I started my presentation, we all had a look at the completed map together, with Eugene guiding our group discussion on what the patterns we distinguished might mean. The grey nodes indicated participants, and the orange ones topics. From the map overview, it’s easy to see how dispersed the interests of the group members were, yet there were a few common starting points, such as the topic of “consultant“. Still, the very fact that all participants were physically there to immediately tell stories about their more exotic topic assignments, provided lots of food for conversation.
It was a fun and inspiring exercise, resulting in both an aha experience of the power of community mapping and a nascent bonding between the participants, who were discovering surprising things they had – or did not have – in common. This lived experience must surely have made the participants more receptive to and understanding of the more general community mapping principles I was explaining subsequently in my talk.
Future Interactions’ focuses on emerging technologies (communication technology, nanotechnology etc.) that enrich our everyday lives and asks how they can be embodied in a meaningful way.
Design explores new horizons. How can design methods address promises and pitfalls of emerging technologies? How may these technologies transform our bodies, perceptions and behaviours?
The workshop participants were split in teams of two people. We were first asked to select a couple of cardboard cards from a common pool, covering the main categories technologies, applications, and interactions.
Together with my “future buddy”, John Swarts, I selected the following cards:
[Technology: advanced manufacturing)] forever beta – “products that are never finished and always updated”
[Applications: professional] working life – “performance, autonomy, and satisfaction”
[Applications: professional] lifelong learning – “lifelong learning, professionalism, and meta-learning”
[Interactions: society] politics – forms of political action
We chose these cards, as we believe the forever beta mode is the fundamental mode of the socio-technical design of society, involving all stakeholders as co-creators. That society is shaped by a working life in in which people are always learning from and with one another in networks and communities, without there being any stable knowledge hierarchies anymore. We added the political dimension, as we believe that such an informed, evolutionary, co-creative way of working & learning is not operating in a political vacuum, but should directly help shape the norms, values, and directions of the society of the future.
We then discussed how these cards could be merged into a “future design scenario”. Discussing a concrete case about innovation of elderly care, and inspired by the software design approach of “user-centered design”, we arrived at the idea of “society-centered design“. Such a concept would require much more than currently often the case a holistic multi-stakeholder approach to emergent, knowledge-driven ways of working and learning. This approach should be governed by _and_ frame the political framework in which these productive learning processes ought to take place. An early example of such society-centered design are the increasingly popular multi-stakeholder “living labs” sprouting everywhere, in which working concepts and political governance models for complex societal issues like care and education are being co-created by – ideally – all stakeholders involved.
In the next step, all groups positioned their “draft concepts” on a large gameboard, the horizontal axis indicating how quickly a concept could be implemented (from “tomorrow” till the more distant future). Finally, each group made a 1-minute pitch for their concept, after which each participant could position a number of coins on the concepts (or their intersections) which they thought to be the most valuable and feasible (we were thrilled to see our “society-centered design”-concept to turn out to be one of the winners. We’re almost done with our accompanying future bestseller book 🙂 On a serious note: the popularity of this concept is another indicator that the time for the field of community informatics/communities & technologies has come, as they are all about societal sensemaking of the pros and cons of powerful (IC)Ts).
The Future Interaction design method reminds me very much of other pattern-based design methods, such as the Liberating Voices “pattern language for communication revolution” (see Ken Gillgren’s piece on “lifting every voice” for a great application of that language). The beauty of such socio-technical design methods is on the one hand the simplicity of their components and rules, and on the other hand, the endless ways in which these elements can be configured and used for scalable, intricate human sensemaking. In the end, such methods are just catalysts, all the knowledge is in the heads of the participants. How to get that knowledge out of these heads and into socio-technical designs of politics, business, education, and every-day life & work is what such socio-technical sensemaking & design methods could help us accompish.
Though promising, there are still many open research questions on how to make these methods more effective, such as:
How to build rich sets of concepts/patterns/cards that are generic enough to be multi-purpose yet specific enough to trigger creative use?
How do such sets differ depending on their use, such as future interactions or “communication revolution” design?
What rules of the game help (1) elicit the most powerful configurations of patterns and (2) make sense of what these configurations mean?
How to document, share and disseminate the results?
How to enrich physical workshop sessions with digital preparatory and follow-up work?
How to make such insights actually influence policy-making and research?
I’m currently in Siegen, Germany. attending the Communities & Technologies Future Vision workshop. A main goal of the workshop is to build more common ground between the two very related fields of Communities & Technologies (C&T) and Community Informatics. We’re having very positive, fruitful discussions. To give you a flavor, here are the notes I just took of the discussion about the possible points of intersection in a breakout group consisting of Volker Wulf, Michael Gurstein, Susanne Bødker, Marcus Foth, and Aldo de Moor.
Common research themes
Societal role: the roles of communities in their various forms in society.
Common goals & Institutions. Community norms sometimes translate into goals, institutions.
“The Other”: Communities can also be against something, working on the boundaries, The Other.
Emergence of communities: the potential of communities to take a form and articulate itself, often in response to an external opportunity or threat. The time dimension is very important.
Context of communities: Is the goal to study communities or communities in a particular context? The latter: we should not just look at the narrow direct context of immediate users, but the broader (institutional) context and ecology. Essential in complex domains like health. E.g. the institutional sponsors. Then you can also better tie in with practitioner communities, governance, etc.
Ecosystems of tools: communities do not just use one tool, they live in a whole ecosystem, a rich space of physical and online tools.
(At least in in the CI) it’s not so much about the development of new technologies but about how the effective use and appropriation of community technologies. How can we model and use rich, situated context that informs socio-technical systems design without constraining community behaviors?
(C&T) Explore new technologies and try them out in new communities. Make the opportunities that these tools offer available to communities. In an ethnographic way try to find the ways to help them transform communities.
In CI: the interesting problem is identified by the community, the socio-technical systems solution emerges in the collaborative response to the problem CT: the interesting problem is in the tool community potential.
The common theme is really about how the larger societal context meets the relevant community technologies.
Key research questions in the next 10 years:
The Surveillance Society, how the net is turning into a Societal Control Device. What are alternatives?
Governance: how do you govern systems, disaggregate governance of systems so that communities can be empowered. Is the local level accountable to the higher level, or the higher level accountable to the lower level? It’s a systems design question
Employment and wealth distribution
Put the local back in communities.
Inter-communityissues: networks of communities, collaborating/intersecting/mashing/clashing communities
Make technological power (such as Big Data (and “tinkering technologies” such as 3D printing, Raspberry Pie) available to and usable by the people. How does it affect communities?
The notion of citizenship, not just users/consumers is key.
Migration, urbanization, depopulation: how can technologies strengthen sense of community?
Political activism, new ways of shaping democracy
Thematic conferences: more context-awareness should lead to more thematic conferences. Risk is that it scares away people working on other topics. There are all kinds of ways to deal with these, e.g. separate slots
Conference attendants could meet members of specific communities, and e.g. work with them in separate community-driven workshops. Could be too optimistic given the complexities of trying to ground academic discourse in practice. A workable approach could be to have sesssions where community members present their communities and their issues in very rich, informal ways, and have a well-facilitated discussion with the attending academics about some possible directions for addressing these issues. At the next edition of the conference, academics could then (also) present their follow-up (action) research jointly done with these communities on these cases in the more academically oriented slots, while continuing to give useful feedback in comprehensible and acceptable ways to the communities they have started to work with.
Turning it around: having “academic streams” in practitioner-oriented conferences.
Hybrid approaches are necessary in terms of different participants having different motivations needing different kinds of outcomes for the conference to be rewarding for them.
NB such innovative approaches are a lot of work, there is often a language barrier to be overcome, etc.
The range of potential funders does become much larger this way, e.g. government, corporate funding.
Ethical issues need to be taken care of very well: the communities participating are not in a zoo! What are legitimate ways of involving them?
The communities being researched should get a permanent community representation within the overal C&T community, so that trust can be built, criticism can be seen and shared, lessons can be learnt, more legitimate and useful longitudinal research can be done. E.g. the communities could have their own space within the overall C& community space, where they can present themselves in multimedia ways, comment on the research being done with them etc.
Various types of conferences: E.g. thematic conferences with invited people from the issues being focused on with dedicated funding, the overall academic conference should not be overall thematically-focused.
Boundary-spanning activities between various communities would be very valuable as a research (conference) strategy.
The Community Informatics community is large and diverse enough by now to help out contributing at least time-wise. Represent many different communities, a great context to work with.
We need to work on a (communications & activity) commons around which the Communities & Technologies and Community Informatics communities start to find more common ground.