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Saturday, 14 November 2009

Blue Pounds & Community Broadband

I wrote this in 2005. With the ever-increasing attention being placed on community broadband projects, it seems very relevant right now as the commercial players leap in to the supposed First Third 'void'. (Call it the Final Third if you wish, but you don't think like that when you live here). In my opinion, much of what is proposed at government and telco level is community asset stripping and can only be detrimental when pursued in line with the current commercially-based thinking encouraged by far too many. ....

This was inspired by New Economic Foundation work, who also laid down the prinicples behind the similarities in railways (moving people) and networks (moving data). For all those designing community networks, large and small, urban and rural, this thinking would seem to apply. Now, perhaps, more than ever.

"Suppose you paint a pound coin blue and watched where it went. Every time it changed hands within a community, it meant income for a local person. If the blue paint were to come off onto people's fingertips, how many people would have blue fingers before the money finally left the community? The more times it changes hands, the better for that community."

Once you start looking at your spending patterns within your own community, ie watching pound coins as they leave your pocket, you realise that not only does that pound coin have an impact on your community - positive or negative depending on where you spend it - but how many of your other actions affect the place you live, and the community you work in.

Social capital has been a big phrase for quite some time and it is very difficult to assess but we all know it is as important sometimes as fiscal capital in its impact on communities. When trying to create a sustainable community project, such as the ones in Bolivia, what other factors will affect them? And what if by the very process of creating a project which is sustainable, you destroy some other vital part of the community by taking away the energy or the pound coins from those facets of life to sustain your project? How much work has been done on the assessment of community projects on the communities they serve?

Many of the projects I have seen or been involved with for deserving communities, even in a peripheral manner, have had initial funding and then folded. The reasons seem to be generally that there wasn't enough revenue funding ie funding the people behind them, and over and over again we see voluntary fatigue. Or the time limit is reached, the boxes are ticked and the project folds gently, or struggles along under its own steam. This constant generation and destruction of community projects must be slowly taking its toll.

What if projects were judged/assessed not on the new jobs they create, or the boxes they tick for NGOs and civil servants, but on how many blue fingers they leave in the community, and how long those fingers stay blue?

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