The Association For Community Networking Incubator
by Frank Odasz
The key issue for national proliferation of sustainable community networks is the duplicative burden on each community required for the evaluation of the most effective collaborative social, technical, and financial models. At issue is the best way to share this essential, continually changing information across communities, on an ongoing basis.
This paper proposes creation of a 'Community Network Incubator' to provide a national Internet showcase of the most effective collaborative software environments and collaborative social dynamics behind Community Networking, with economies of scale shared with communities for startup network innovations through a minigrants program, as recommended by the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
A centralized community networking incubator could easily provide the best available collaborative software modules for review and quick, affordable implementation for budding community networking initiatives while serving as a national clearinghouse for management guidelines, training models, and relevant expertise and resources.
This uniquely American national resource would create and offer online courses on use of technology for self-empowerment, self-directed lifelong learning, community building, and electronic democracy...and would serve as a model for networked democracy worldwide.
The Congressional Office of Technology (OTA) report, "Making Government Work; Electronic Delivery of Federal Services" correctly states "The diversity of applications required for a successful National Information Infrastructure can only come from the citizens themselves."
This OTA report specifically suggests federal minigrant set-asides for this purpose; hence this initiative hosts a minigrants model inspired by this report. Canada has adopted this model and is supporting 1,500 minigrants for rural communities.
The grassroots community networking movement which has generated hundreds of innovative community networks through the efforts of local champions is today at a critical juncture. There exists a dire need for vocal, organized, national advocacy of the real benefits of citizen-driven community networks; a national Association For Community Networking.
Due in part to the rapid technological advancement of the Internet, community networking has undergone significant recent changes. Many community networks are folding due to high overhead and lack of widespread understanding by citizens as to their real and potential benefits. The societal benefits of community networks cannot be sacrificed to strictly for-profit commercial models.
While most locally-created community networks have focused on the leveraging the public good electronically, many have been threatened with being overshadowed by commercial ventures focused only on profits.
The technological playing field has changed. The first community networks in the mid-eighties focused on providing affordable local Internet access, when there was none. Today, widely available affordable local Internet access has made maintaining modem banks an often unnecessary, costly activity, while opening up new, more affordable opportunities.
A well-developed centralized server offers the big advantage of providing widespread availability for multiple collaborative software options for direct review and adoption by communities. Communities need an ongoing means of easily keeping current with, and upgrading their networks to utilize, the latest in collaborative technologies.
An incubator to allow communities to customize their own network features from a selection of high quality software modules, with the option to move the system to a local server if the additional costs can be borne, makes good sense for most of our nation's 10,000+ communities.
Citizens and community organizations, have a need to learn what's working regarding community networking in other communities; a need for solution-sharing; storytelling, dialog, partnering models; cost-sharing, and co-development. Typically, very little money is available to purchase expertise.
Corporations, foundations, government and local, regional, state and national organizations promoting community networking and Internet entrepreneurship initiatives have a vested need to understand the potential and evolving nature of CNs; tracking the evolution to find potential markets and focuses for product development, access to CN markets.
An aggressive research and development component with a unique integrated market research model will make this project specifically valuable to corporations and organization wishing to understand the emerging markets and potential of 'social computing.' The joint challenge becomes optimizing social capital with effective applications of technology, training and vision.
1. CREATE A COMMUNITY NETWORKING INCUBATOR ON THE INTERNET to provide direct experience as to how other communities are effectively using collaborative Internet tools and are realizing specific empowering capabilities from online learning communities.
2. CREATE A MINI-GRANTS INNOVATIONS PROGRAM to offer select communities the opportunity to initiate their own explorative innovations using software available on the central system to generate demonstrations of the potential for all communities, nationally. Grant-writing, policy awareness, and system management guidelines assistance is fundamental and must be readily available as this type of expertise is not uniformly available for all communities.
3. CREATE THE ASSOCIATION FOR COMMUNITY NETWORKING This project's very necessary activities could not take place without the leadership and coordination of a national organization. The Association For Community Networking will be formed as a non-profit membership organization. AFCN has already spent over a year organizing and preparing, with a working board of national community networking leaders and a long list of supporting community networks and organizations.
4. CREATE A CONSULTANT'S BUREAU AND CLEARINGHOUSE.
A. The best field guides and organization structures.
B. The best models with summative explanations as to specific software features and social motivational programs.
C. The best awareness raising activities, articles, starter collaborative activities, and online training models.
D. The best civic initiative, multicultural models, electronic democracy models, economic development and web entrepreneurship models
E. The best web-based learning tours of community network successes and special features.
5. CREATE A MEMBERSHIP INCLUSION PROGRAM Individual community networks would become resource sharing partners by posting their web page with a statement of what the best is they have to share with others. Those interested would be invited to participate in multiple online conferences and in building a robust archive of carefully organized and evaluated resources, thus creating a community of communities and a free resources program in support of CNs.
- Conferencing allowing interaction between members with weekly posting of summaries of these and other top community networking discussion groups
- Presentation resources for raising community awareness of the possibilities by showing the best current models and a number of the newer technical interface capabilities.
- Anecdotal stories showcasing what's possible for various community organizations with weekly highlights on a different community network innovation each week.
- A realistic appraisal of all that's involved in creating and sustaining a community network, with emphasis on the risks and conditions for failure.
- List best community technology center models, technology transfer programs, and international community network, models
- Those actually creating or running networks would benefit from ongoing access to summarized accounts of what's working in other communities, free resources, entrepreneurial modeling and support.
A community networking resources clearinghouse and 'products pipeline' will be created with emphasis on those services and products that support communities in benefiting from online technologies, particularly those created by individuals and communities.
We, the members of AFCN, hold these truths to be self-evident:
- that increased connectivity among caring people will build local community social and organizational capacity
- that resources and effective practices are evolving rapidly and need to be systematically shared between communities
- that inclusion of members is the source of energy for AFCN and that new methods are needed and we should be consciously evolving innovative inclusive strategies.
- that the pace of technological evolution demands ongoing research and development; collection and evaluation of what's being done and dissemination of what's found most effective.
- that the social challenges are greater than the technological challenges
- that we can learn more together than separately
- that our collaborative effectiveness will increase as we all gain experience and as the tools improve
- that we must and can invent new ways of inclusive organization
All five incubator components will occur simultaneously with high visibility and emphasis on the fact that new forms of open learning communities and 'learning organizations' must evolve quickly to realize the educational, social and democratic potential of community networks and community networking. This is a plan to meet this need in the short term.