Tag Archives: digienablers

Respecting the importance of emerging community enablers

One of the interesting side discussions sparked at the workshop we ran last week – on how community enablers can use digital tools – was with Eileen Conn, who has developed a very illuminating model of how local residents, groups and agencies interact. Eileen is a little unusual in being a community activist, in south London, who also worked for many years in Government.

Eileen suggests that agencies and organisations that have paid workers operate mainly in vertical, hierarchical mode, because of the accountabilities and procedures inevitably involved, while citizens and small groups operate more horizontally, through relationships. Here’s one of Eileen’s slides:

Trying to work together can be challenging. In my experience residents can get pulled into formal committees and panels where they may be uneasy and end up cut-off from those they are meant to “represent”, while “officials” can find the way groups operate rather frustrating. After an earlier interview – which you can see here – I wrote:

Eileen suggests we should consider the distinction in physics between matter and energy waves – where organisations with staff are the matter, and informal groups are more like energy. Drawing on complexity theory, Eileen suggests thinking about a “social eco-system dance” in which some relationships are primarily vertical hierarchical, and others horizontal peer-to-peer. That may be more useful than bottom-up and top-down.

The problem is that community development workers may be co-opted into the hierarachy – a charge made by Nick Massey of Forever Manchester, who I reported here … which led to further discussion and rebuttal here.

Anyway, the issue surfaced again last week when, as part of the workshop, we invented some local community enablers. That was a generic term I used to cover the various types of community organisers, builders and development workers increasing operating in neighbourhoods. Background here on different models.

One group invented enablers who were “home grown” – that is, they emerged from the local community rather then being part of an external intervention. Eileen makes the point in this interview, after the workshop, that in developing models for community enabling we should pay attention to this emergence. As I reported in my earlier post about the workshop, there’s a bit difference between the development of action in an area that emerges naturally over time, and that which may be accelerated/imposed by external interventions. Anyone who is being paid will have targets and timetables to meet.

This may be also be important when we consider the role of digital media. As Eileen remarks towards the end of the interview, once we came to that part of the process in the workshop there was a tendency to throw in all sorts of tools … even though we had spent a lot of time focussing on the need to be clear about the tasks, and the preferences and capabilities of those involved.

Perhaps thinking about media ecologies in relation to the social eco-system will be helpful. There’s an interesting blog on that here.

Digitally enabling the fictitious communities of Slapham

Our exploration into the skills, roles, and approaches of community enablers – and how they can use digital tools for network building and neighbourhood change – took a big jump forward last week with a workshop of some 20 people to play through these issues in the fictitious town of Slapham.

Local community organiser Mark Parker hosted our event at the recently-rebuilt Cambridge House in Southwark (a terrific venue), and my colleague Drew Mackie tweaked the Slapham game that we first developed for Community Matters, and then used in a workshop with the Forever Manchester Community Builders.

Over five hours we developed stories about what was happening in the four neighbourhoods of Golson, Tarley, Blaybeck and Stobben – and how the community enablers Beatice, Dave, Hawa, Matt and others were helping citizens collaborate to tackle the challenges there, using a mix of methods. This is a first report with the material we generated, to allow participants to add their thoughts if they wish. I’ll do more detailed analysis later.

I started off with a short presentation using some of these slides from the Manchester workshop, including the one above. The main point is that in any situation it is best to consider the context, the purpose you are trying to achieve, the people who will be involved, and only then the nature of the processes and methods that may enable action. Otherwise you may jump to the latest shiny tool. We describe  the process in detail in the book Social by Social.

That’s fine in theory – but how to help people work out what it means in practice? That’s where the Slapham game comes in. Here’s how it was played:

We split into four groups, each taking one of the neighbourhoods on the map below. Scroll down for neighbourhood descriptions.

Slapham Neighbourhoods

There were then three stages to the game:

  • First, groups read the scenario and added extra material to their adopted neighbourhood, including the assets and issues. They then passed this extend scenario to the next group – who inherited the challenges.
  • The groups then took the neighbourhoods that were passed to them and created two characters: community enablers who would help local people address the issues. We asked for names, a cartoon if possible, history, skills, character traits and a summary of what they were trying to achieve.
  • Thirdly, the groups examined a set of cards with tech tools and chose those that the community enablers might use. These were the same as the cards we used in Manchester, coded for personal, group and public use, and rated as basic, intermediate and advanced.

Social reporting game cards

I asked each group to do a short presentation about  their area and enablers, and also captured reporting back on the technology plans. Apologies for the quality of the video in the Stobben tech report back – glare whited it out. I have created a gallery of all flip charts as well.

The game certainly produced a lot of lively conversations during the day, and discussion afterwards. I’ll do a further post on one with Eileen Conn, which I found particularly interesting. Among the points I took away were:

  • Several groups invented enablers who had lived in the area … and their approach could be quite different from those were introduced from outside.
  • There’s a bit difference between the development of action in an area that emerges naturally over time, and that which may be accelerated/imposed by external interventions. Anyone who is being paid will have targets and timetables to meet.
  • Technology can increase the divide between initiatives in a community, because of the different levels of access and skills people have.
  • It is important to use a mix of communication methods, and also to aim to join up the online and face-to-face networks that evolve. The people who are active online are not necessarily those who are active in local projects, and vice-versa.
  • Technology should be used to complement and enhance community activity, not drive it. There’s a danger that those who are familiar with tech tools will push forward with their favourites.
  • However, technology can substantially speed up developments, if used appropriately.
  • We should not believe that young people who may be using Facebook personally will favour that for group use. They are as likely to use Blackberry Messenger for that.

On reflection, we should have offered groups a wider range of both tech and non-tech methods – as we have done in other games. By only offering tech solutions we distorted the plans.

While groups were highly creative in developing tech-enhanced plans, covering one or two years, these were probably unrealistic in practice. Several people made the point that you won’t know what methods to use in the longer-term until you have got started.

In  practice the way that tech tool are used will be highly specific to any situation, enabler and local people … and we need to do far more to explore that complexity in practice.

Overall I think the session worked well – but I’m keen to get more comments from participants!

  • People generally said it was a lot of fun, a chance to meet new people with similar interests, and a creative way to explore the issues.
  • The game was a good way to emphasise “start with context, people, purpose – don’t jump to the tools”
  • We generated a lot of material that we can analyse further
  • The community enabler characters were great … and will find their way into the next version of the Slapham scenario. Drew and I are developing Slapham as a virtual lab for a range of games.

We’ll be talking with Mark and others about the potential for a further large event. Meanwhile, if you wish to run a session yourself do feel free to download the material and go ahead. If you get in touch, Drew and I will be glad to provide some additional guidance … or come and run it with you if you have some budget.

Finally, a big thank you to Mark and Cambridge House for hosting, and to everyone who came and contributed so much on the day.

Update: Interview with Eileen Conn: Respecting the importance of emerging community enablers


Update 2: since 2012 Slapham has become Slipham. You can see here how it as used in May 2016 to explore the role of community connectors in helping older people find services and opportunities in their community.