A new initiative supporting communities to develop digital assets

There’s often a big gap between those working in innovative ways in communities to develop our physical assets of land and buildings, and those with the tech skills to use public data and online systems to develop local digital assets.

So I’m delighted to welcome the launch of Our digital community which aims to bring the two together. It is led by two people with complementary skills – Annemarie Naylor, who established the Asset Transfer Unit at Locality, and Marc De’ath of The Creative Co-op – with supporting partners including the Nominet Trust, one of my clients.

Annemarie has now set up Community Futures, where she writes that technological advancements are transforming the operating context for community asset ownership:

Increasingly, most people expect 24/7 service delivered online via mobile devices. The UK Government is wedded to implementing a digital-by-default approach to public service delivery, and is investing significant public funds in open and big data alongside cutting-edge technological innovation. The digital disruption that undermined the music and movie industries a decade ago, is fast impacting our perception of the value offered by our public libraries. Our high streets are endeavouring to withstand the combined pressures of economic austerity and a burgeoning internet economy. Meanwhile, the Creative Industries are flourishing, and a local manufacturing revolution borne of the hacker and maker movements is increasingly discernible.

There are, potentially, very serious ramifications for deprived communities – whether we’re talking about accessibility, affordability or confidence, knowledge and skills. Equally, there are concerns about the preparedness of the third sector for the revolution that is already well underway. But, there are also significant opportunities and scope for all concerned to identify with the principles of openness and mutuality that underpin so much that is good about our ‘brave new world’.

In the first instance Our Digital Community is inviting expressions of interest from people who would like to join a peer network about developing digital assets and enterprises to deliver social impact. I asked Annemarie and Marc to expand on that in response to my questions:

What sort of organisations are you hoping will be involved?

The Our Digital Community Learning Programme will work with social and community enterprises eager to:

  • Secure contracts to deliver services that involve a digital component;
  • Enhance one or more existing services they already offer using technology;
  • Develop new digital services to contribute to their mission;
  • Establish internet-based enterprises to generate additional income; or
  • Make use of public open data (prospectively, in partnership with public data owners) to deliver social impact and generate an income.

Could the programme help connect a wider network of people interested in how to use digital tech for local benefit?

In addition to directly supporting 15-20 community groups via our Learning Programme, a Resource Library and Blog will be published online and made available for anyone to use. Our Digital Community will also host a directory – ‘The Knowledge Bank’ – which will serve as an online marketplace where socially conscious technology practitioners and community groups interested in digital asset and enterprise development can meet, network and join forces around new ventures.

Why now?

For too long, digital innovation has been the preserve of tech entrepreneurs and the private sector. The Creative Coop, Common Futures and our programme partners believe there is a significant opportunity to provide early stage support direct to community groups. Our Digital Community will encourage them to explore the development of digital assets and enterprises capable of attracting inward investment – both to deliver social impact and to improve their long term income generation prospects.

What examples do you have of the sort of digital assets that might be developed?

There are a number of examples already –

  • The Lyme Regis Development Trust built the UK’s largest pop-up wireless network to enhance the experience of visitors to the annual Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, and is now undertaking a feasibility study to explore the potential to establish a more substantial network on a permanent basis, linked to its efforts to build an ambitious Jurassic Coast Studies Centre in the area. It has also worked with its partners, the Natural History Museum, to develop a number of related apps.
  • Toynbee Hall helps organisations and individuals tackle financial exclusion through a range of consultancy, training and financial capability services, and is exploring the potential to enhance its offline service using technology – in particular, to deliver better for less outcomes in respect of its Financial Inclusion health check: http://www.communityknowledgetransfer.org.uk/blog/brief-overview-toynbee-halls-first-digital-asset
  • The White Rock Trust is taking ownership of Hastings pier to kick-start local regeneration efforts. Integral to its work, the Trust plans to establish a ‘Living Pier’ – that is, an intelligent physical space that is seamlessly connected with its surroundings, using smart information and communication technologies to create a fully immersive, interactive and educational visitor experience. In the first instance, it has plans to develop a series of augmented reality embedded postcards.

I’m particularly glad to see this development because it links my personal interests … going back to work on development trusts in the 1980s, and then local community technology from the mid 1990s. I blagged my way across to a Ties that Bind conference in Apple HQ in Cupertino in 1996 where several hundred mainly North American pioneers of civic tech were talking about Free-Nets and Community Networks, often run using pre-web dial-up systems. I came back full of enthusiasm to work with others to set up UK Communities Online. Some archive here. In retrospect, I was rather naive about the work needed to turn vision into reality.

Development trusts, supported by Locality, have shown how it is possible to package resources and a wide range of commercial and non-commercial activities to create sustainable nonprofit agencies for local renewal. It’s been more difficult to do that on the digital side … maybe because people expect stuff to be free.

What’s exciting in Our Digital Community is to see people with experience on both sides of our civic asset base offering an opportunity to spark a fresh round of innovation.

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