David Wilcox and Drew Mackie Draft May 2015 | Contact
Summary: thinking about communities as social ecosystems provides a framework for understanding what makes up a community, and how the use of network mapping and digital apps for organising and communicating can improve the effectiveness of community building. Stories and conversations, online and face-to-face, contribute content.
Any local community embodies lots of relationships between people and organisations, who are exchanging information and ideas using a host of different methods, and engaging in a multitude of activities.
If we wish to help build more or better relationships, make the most of what we have, and support more activity, it may be useful to think of the community as a social ecosystem.
We have developed a proposal for a major funder using the framework below to take forward findings from our exploration into Living Well in the Digital Age. The Living Well Kit and Labs is being piloted in Croydon, and designed to support the Grey Cells Open Policy Making Initiative for local digital services.
It is also designed to integrate with asset-based community development programmes - like the one we are working with in Croydon - that focus on the work of local community builders and volunteer connectors.
So far tech enabling of local community building has usually focused on social media, civic apps and digital storytelling. This framework introduces network mapping, and integrates all elements. We have run a number of workshop games and simulations to test and illustrate the approach, particularly in relation to digital inclusion, social isolation and wellbeing.
A local ecosystem will have these main components:
People with different interests, motivations, experience, and disposition and skills. Some will have a wide network of relationships, some less; some will share ideas openly, others not.
Groups and organisations that may or may not have a culture of sharing, good or poor internal communications, hierarchical or networked structures.
Networks that define the relationships between people and organisations.
Content in different formats and media: ranging from books and essays to blog posts and tweets; highly structured or snippets; formal or informal.
Types of exchange which may be conversational or formal; stories or documents.
Social spaces where people meet or just bump into each other - churches and mosques, supermarkets, pubs and school gates, community centres and sports venues.
Online platforms for sharing: big systems like Google, Facebook and Twitter that provide the platform for much exchange; closed systems within organisations; self-hosted systems.
Tools: social media and other tools that allow us to share content on platforms as well as face-to-face conversations, phone calls, paper-based communications, radio, TV.
Resources in the community - which may be places, funds, repositories of knowledge and expertise, for example.
Activities using resources, undertaken by people and organisations, that may become projects.
With this framework, we can:
The diagram shows how we can use fictitious personas, or case studies drawn from local experience, to describe typical individuals and families in co-design workshops together with network maps of local resources, and stories about real situations. Technology can then be chosen to support community builders, connectors, and others to help build local systems and relationships. See below for workshop games exploring this process.
Traditionally community builders have understood and developed community ecosystems by a range of activities including:
These activities can be enhanced by the use of technologies to improving communication, and by adding a new dimension to mapping.
Using simple survey questionnaires, online or on paper, we can ask people to provide information about the networks they are in, or know about. We might ask them:
From this information it is possible to use network mapping software to do a number of things:
Many of the activities of community builders and connectors can be carried out more easily and effectively using digital tools - many of them mobile phone apps. For example:
We have used games and simulations to demonstrate and plan how mapping and social apps can be used