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                Reinventing Community Networks as Economic Development Solutions
                                 by Frank Odasz, frank@lone-eagles.com

The history of community networking can be characterized as early adapters with a vision for their communities creating online collaborative systems intended to empower a majority of the local community, but finding themselves unable to capture the imaginations and participation of more than a small number of citizens. Of the hundreds of innovative community networking projects which have been created over the past decade most proved unable to inspire a growing number of citizens without the support and validation of the existing community leadership and media. The politics of control have limited public perception of the profoundly empowering collaborative community Internet applications that are possible.


In both urban and rural communities we have a new need for new knowledge on an ongoing basis to keep from falling further behind in a world of accelerating change. Growing civic intelligence requires new community learning systems. Community innovation systems are needed to stimulate widespread innovations.


Local grassroots champions are often “prophets without honor in their home lands.”  How can we reach the point where the majority consensus finally accepts the validity of their visions and innovations? To realize the greatest potential for community networking the ongoing support of both the media, and our leadership at all levels, is fundamentally necessary.


Now that we’ve had over a decade to become familiar with the Internet, the evolutionary process of creating widespread awareness of common sense community Internet applications appears to be at an important turning point. Costs for computer and Internet access have steadily declined and Internet speeds have steadily increased. Today, we’re seeing rapidly growing Internet applications in all sectors of commerce and society.


The dramatic economic decline of rural America in particular has created new pressures to find innovative solutions. Our past economy depended primarily on big corporations, but today the reverse is true, the real growth is in microenterprises. Our key developable resource is the learning potential of each and every citizen.


Ecommerce is steadily being re-recognized as a viable option to tap into global markets. Outsourcing jobs to India has certainly validated telework. The U.S. government has passed legislation to dramatically promote telework for federal employees. Individual entrepreneurs using eBay number 114 million, now too many to ignore, exchanging 28 billion in goods per year, with 430,000 persons self-employed full-time using eBay.


Rural communities around the world, many now with equal Internet access to American communities, are aggressively embracing their newfound global market potential. No longer do U.S. communities enjoy a ten-year first-to-market advantage of local Internet access over our global rural competition.

Awareness is steadily growing that if we were all able to share a common vision and pull together, great things are truly possible. The barn-raising metaphor fits here, as web-raisings could be held with everyone working together to share that new knowledge most needed to deal with accelerating change. Creating communities that can learn to competently manage new knowledge on an ongoing basis, to become real learning communities, has become both necessary and viable.


The key lesson we can draw from the evolution of community networking projects is that “The devil is in the details!” It won’t happen based on good intentions alone, but only through careful planning and widespread authentic community collaboration at all levels.


Return On Investment

The challenge for community networks continues to be the incentive for participation. Individuals need to be willing to commit their time based on the personal satisfaction that their donated time produces real value and is socially recognized. Value needs to be quantified as visible measurable outcomes that can be celebrated. “Less is more” in the age of information overload. Having everyone create a personal web log is not necessarily the answer.


Information condenses to knowledge which condenses to wisdom and VALUE is created in the age of information overload.


Once the process of creating value is demonstrated, the two key issues become

1. Which tools and specific best practices produce the greatest value leveraging    
     the time and energy of citizens? In other words “What applications produce
     the greatest value “return on investment” for time and effort?”

2. How are citizens most effectively engaged in sustained collaborative learning
    activity to produce steadily greater value per time invested as they increase
    their skills and knowledge regarding the diverse tools and proven best practices?


This is a double-barreled opportunity, creating a progressively more powerful community skills base that produces exponentially greater value as more citizens contribute by collaboratively sharing new knowledge. We need to quantify the effectiveness of the successive levels of tools and best practices with an eye toward the accelerating evolution of more diverse and powerful applications.


The authenticity of genuine participation will be measured by the demonstration of effective training coupled with rather immediate visible outcomes everyone can understand and celebrate. The challenge will be to demonstrate the most effective use of volunteered time to create the most outstanding resources providing the greatest possible benefit to others. Whether the first successful models come from foreign communities or from our own, is up to us. It is just a matter of who and when.


A case study: Donnie Morrison, a grassroots champion of the Outer Hebrides Islands in Northern Scotland, saw dwindling populations in his regional communities. Young people were moving away, schools were losing students, the local economies were dying. Donnie was successful bringing high speed Internet to his communities and high-paying telework jobs, and today the communities are once again healthy and growing. http://www.work-global.com By Donnie's own report, his most successful innovation and key to his success was his creation of a community skills registry database.


The questions we’re at last starting to ask are  “What’s the best our community can do for itself based on new knowledge of the best successful innovations already working for other communities?”  What does our community do to inhibit innovations? and what have other communities done successfully to encourage and support innovation?


The challenge shared by the Association for Community Networking http://www.afcn.org, Lone Eagle Consulting http://lone-eagles.com/  and potentially all communities is “What’s the best way to routinely gather and share the best innovations as they emerge to benefit all communities?”


Here’s a quick self-quiz for both urban and rural communities:


Are all local business web sites listed in one place to support local online shopping and to generate awareness as to which local businesses are now doing business on the Internet? Y/N


Are all local Ecommerce support businesses listed in one place so anyone can easily find the expertise they need to bring their business online? Y/N


Are local experts and community mentors celebrated for the value they bring to the community and listed where people can find them? Y/N


Does your local media regularly celebrate local Ecommerce success stories, Y/N - or are they ignored? Y/N


Are successful innovations from similar communities to yours readily shared locally by any means? Y/N


Are entry-level Ecommerce education training opportunities (such as eBay) and peer mentoring programs readily available in your community? Y/N


If your community is “learning disabled” and without effective ways of sharing new knowledge you’re invited to explore the resources of the Association for Community Networking http://www.afcn.org and Lone Eagle Consulting http://lone-eagles.com/articles/articles.htm


If you have innovations to share, please feel specifically invited to do so, and join the Association for Community Networking for $25 at http://www.afcn.org


Interested in reading more?

American Innovation Challenged by America's Lose-Lose Dilemma


Just How Smart IS Your Rural Community?
Includes a community smartness self-quiz, sample solutions, and an extensive listing of community networking resources.