Exploring the risks and benefits of independently owned and made technologies
This blog post is the second of three outlining the research that Promising Trouble has undertaken for Power to Change, answering the question, “How can Power to Change inspire greater uptake of Community Tech?”.
Community Hardware and Software is technology that is owned and/or managed by communities that supports the delivery of their values and preferred ways of working.
It includes technology:
- Created by a community organisation for its own use
- Created by a community organisation for reuse by others
- Created by a community organisation as infrastructure to support a broader community of practice
In our research for Power to Change, the most common kinds of community-made tech we found were replacements for more traditional B2B software: the kinds of tools and services that help community organisations deliver their mission and create change. This includes back-office tools such as community and membership management, publishing workflows, payment systems, ticketing, and project management.
We also spoke with community infrastructure organisations who create specialist technology that is reused across communities of practice. This is almost a halfway house between traditional enterprise/B2B software and more bespoke community tech: it is specifically created for reuse, but the scale is limited by the relatively small size of the addressable market, and the infrastructure organisations’ values tend to be aligned with community values. Examples of this include Wikihouse and the Open Food Network.
Some of the community organisations we spoke to also support Fab Labs, spaces for small-scale manufacturing. Although Fab Labs run relatively sophisticated technology, are part of a global network and offer some level of reproducibility, the intention behind them is to “democratise fabrication” (Fab Foundation) and create a space “where individuals have the opportunity to develop and produce custom-made things which are not accessible by conventional industrial scale technologies” (Gadjanski, 2015). Using technology to create change at local (rather than planetary) scale with a high level of customisation is consistent with the way that community businesses also use software.
Community tech is sometimes, but not always, open source, reusable by others, and decentralised.
What are the risks?
Technology orthodoxy would say that an ecosystem with many distinct tools and products that cannot interoperate and which might duplicate effort is a problem. However, we believe there are clear cultural advantages for community businesses to create, manage and own their own technology. Moreover, the Community Tech ecosystem does not just provide a useful set of services for community organisations, but a vital counterbalance to the monopoly characteristics of big tech.
That is not to say it does not come without risks.
Firstly, maintenance and manageability. Technology that has been created by a single developer in a small organisation risks being esoteric and difficult to hand over; it may, for instance, lack documentation and not conform to external standards, and be out of step with modern technologies.
Bespoke technology also risks being built in an incremental and additive way, becoming overly complex and inefficient to run, manage and host, and difficult for others to use and update. This could make repair difficult or impossible, or form a risk to everyday operational delivery.
We are still exploring what the climate impact of this policy might be, and what measures might need to be in place to mitigate waste and duplication, but — as the Green Web Foundation’s Chris Adams put it when I spoke with him:
if you can access digital services without the onerous terms dictated by big tech companies, then there’s a space to build digital services with different values embedded, where you do not expose people to harms and risks along the way that we have just accepted with the mainstream options.
Other possible risks of cultivating a culture of community-owned hardware and software include a proliferation of set-ups in which one person is the “expert” on a system, or there is a lack of exposure to a broader community of practice, but this is where a funder like Power to Change can help to make a big difference: incentivising the development of a community of practice and supporting knowledge sharing across organisations.
Community Data and AI
Lastly, the existence of disaggregated Community Data Sets poses an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, the lack of aggregation is a useful counterbalance to the growing surveillance and convenience economy; on the other, there is a risk that Community Data could be excluded from inclusion in important data sets that drive national policies and decisions.
This could mean that communities’ needs could be overlooked as AI and ML are increasingly relied upon to deliver public and corporate products and services. One mitigation for this would be the development of a community of practice to advocate for appropriate data sharing, but community organisations — that sit outside of the market and the state — have an important role in creating alternatives. Creating alternatives to big, shared data sets and holding a space outside of surveillance culture is an important role for community organisations, and this is an issue that deserves greater engagement from policy makers, finders and communities across the UK.
Developing a community of practice to support community organisations that are already developing community tech will help bolster the great work that is already taking place. This community could share skills and resources and develop shared values and standards to lay the foundations for greater technology reuse across the sector.
Growing community tech capabilities would also reap broader social benefits, as it would offer meaningful alternatives to Big Tech platforms — and not just any alternatives, ones that have been directly developed by communities driven by social purpose. Rather than having to minimise the negative impacts of technologies like facial recognition, more effort could be put into lifting up the positive application of Community Tech. There’s a huge opportunity for Power to Change and other funders to invest and support in purposeful — not just profitable — people and technologies.