I sensed two models below the surface of discussion at last night's London launch of Proxicommunication - ICT and the Local Public Realm. One harked back to the US Freenets and community networks of the 1980s and 1990s, when pioneering enthusiasts promoted bulletin boards and later the Internet to help rebuild local community, provide services, promote debate, offer new learning opportunities. The essential components of that model were some planned provision, support and management of content and interactions.
The other model - or perspective - was of the growing use of personal multimedia and social networking online, and a fairly unstructured development of services offered by public agencies and a host of nonprofit intermediaries.
It seemed to me that the report's author Will Davies was looking for some clearer local governance and planning in his analogy of the public park as a way of thinking about the online commons. He was also arguing for a new breed of technology professionals equivalent to the architects, urban designers and civil engineers who have shaped our physical infrastructure.
The panel of Matt Locke, from BBC New Media, Derek Wyatt MP, and Chris Yapp from Microsoft, contributed perspectives ranging from digital storytelling through the role of libraries to the importance of personal learning and development.
Unfortunately there was no-one on the panel - and little reference in the report - to people and projects who had been grappling with just these issues in the UK over the past 10 years. In the audience were Richard Stubbs, Michael Mulquin, Malcolm Forbes and others who who have developed and run local community networks - and who, back in the mid 1990s, helped start Communities Online as (at that time) a network for community technology professionals. (Declaration of interest, I was involved then too.) It would have been instructive to have some insights into why the community networking movement has not flourished in the UK - or North America - after great hopes of the 1990s. There is mention in the report of Redbricks, Manchester, but I think that is a rather unusual DIY model driven and sustained by a group of community hackers (if they will excuse the term) not generally found elsewhere.
What's happened is that those pioneers have moved on to develop projects that don't fall into any one model, but are perhaps pieces of the original vision. That's another story. The main, instructive, reasons - I think - that community networks generally failed was that there was no business model, and - just as important - it is incredibly time consuming to try and get the many local civic interests to understand and subscribe to some technology-based shared vision and plan to take it forward.
Imagine trying to get everyone to agree to create a new urban park today. It can be done - but someone has to fund the process and pay for its maintenance. Virtual space isn't like? Don't you believe it - there's no escape from real world politics and territorialism.
In Chapter 6 in the report Will asks "ICT in the public realm: who is responsible?". I remember when I lived in Brighton a group of us were trying in the mid-1990s to develop a partnership to address just that issue. The pages about this are still available. Particularly relevant is a contribution by David Greenop, who worked at BT as a futurist, on the idea of a Digital Development Trust, modeled on the types of regeneration trusts now familiar around the country. Why not have local digital trusts, and a sort of digital National Trust? (Apologies for outdated links in the pages... if I can find the ftp login I'll make some changes).
Anyway, the point of all this is not to say 'Will, why don't you reference so and so' but rather to reflect that, as usual, the same old issues resurface every few years, and the fact that the old stuff is online doesn't mean it will be read. In fact, it probably won't be, because as my old pages show it is buried and messy. Indeed, I may be off track in thinking that the community network model is now relevant to Will's report. I need to take a longer read.
What is do feel, after 10 years, is that looking at these issues through a technology window isn't very useful any more. It is just part of the mix. In my view technology does three things: offers some new tools, changes the landscape, and reawakens some old issues. I don't think it gives us a new way of modelling community governance - and we probably shouldn't expect to create neat ways of managing the messiness. I believe there's some discussions on 'emergence' elsewhere I should look at to get a better handle on this.
I do think it is important that, if we are concerned about the bottom-up, citizen-centred, issues in all this we should look at the work that Matt Locke mentioned on digital storytelling - in particular Capture Wales. We may get some more interesting insights into ICT and the public realm when the public get more of a say by telling their own stories of the past, present and future. Digitally.
Previously: Just how relevant is the Net locally - as a model and a tool?
More on this blog about community technology and knowledge sharing, and also community media
What's now happening in Brighton and Hove - Goodbye Wired Up Communities, hello civic KM