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Bringing Digital & Place Together – The Importance of Community

July 2, 2020

Our post Covid world will be different, but no-one really knows how. Yet there is a general consensus that digital will play an increasingly important role. People will travel for work less and use video conferencing and messaging systems more. Local businesses are increasingly going online, whether it’s for order management, new business reach or to enable socially-distanced local customer support. 

Digital was also being ‘blamed’ for the hollowing out of the retail sector and the destruction of the high street and town centres before Covid came along.  It is certainly an agent of change and Covid is an economic accelerant adding fuel to the destructive fire that digital partially lit.

In responding to Covid, people have reached for the familiar and used their social platforms to replace an increasingly greater part of their social interactions, and businesses are following hoping to more tightly knit themselves into those groups.  But are these social platforms adding more fuel to the destructive fire? They pull people away from place and endorse a concept of a virtualised world, where people are just digital avatars and consumers of transactional opportunity, and yet…

People make Places

So we have a conundrum – digital connects the people, yet pulls them away from place – the internet business model specifically turns people into global consumers able to access anything anywhere.

So is digital part of the retail and town centre problem?  Obviously yes, but could it be part of the solution too? To answer that question we have to look at what digital, and specifically existing social platforms, is replacing in the real world.

We believe the answer is community.  So what is community? And what do we risk losing if we rush to current social platforms to replace it? The wiki definition states “A community is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity. Communities may share a sense of place situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a country, village, town, or neighbourhood) or in virtual space through communication platforms.”  It is the idea that a community can be virtual that leads people to assume they can just shift to online without consequence.  But reading the full definition highlights a critical component: Some “communities may share a sense of place”.

When virtual communities cannot ensure visitors/participants are from the place, you immediately lose the concept of a sense of place.

In other words we lose the real world connection.  When we meet people in the real world we know people are at least interested enough to visit, either due to tourist attractions, commercial opportunity or friend/family connections, or they live here.  While existing social platforms are good at getting people to a place (used as marketing channels), we should question if these platforms are appropriate for sustaining the connection to place and community. So a post Covid world that needs more digital capability to assist in recovery needs to consider how place and community can be sustained or even enhanced digitally.  To do this we must look at the values community supports and seek to explicitly support them digitally.

Social Norms

Again, Wiki precisely summarises things; “Social norms are regarded as collective representations of acceptable group conduct as well as individual perceptions of particular group conduct.[1] They can be viewed as cultural products (including values, customs, and traditions)[2] which represent individuals’ basic knowledge of what others do and think that they should do.[3] From a sociological perspective, social norms are informal understandings that govern the behaviour of members of a society.[4]

This definition neatly skewers why platforms like Twitter and Facebook fail to represent place in community.  Both are actively seeking to moderate content to ‘social norms’, but these are effectively dictated by law; large scale issues, largely of their own making, such as fake news, trolling and hate speech.  They are totally incapable of representing the nuanced values of place or community because they are not of the place or community, plus there is no way to ensure participants are of the place or community other than tracking location and where you reside – something people generally understand is an insightful piece of data best kept to oneself.

Without the context of place social norms that underpin community cannot thrive

This implies that an appropriate degree of oversight or orchestration of the digital community needs to be from within the community, otherwise instinctive social norms cannot be represented or upheld. Localisation of digital community management is critical to sustain social norms – such management usually manifests in terms of services that the community feels are needed or are appropriate – they tend to be about real world effects, not digital ones, such as how safe do I feel? Or how clean is the space?, or how vibrant and engaging it is, am “I”cared for?  The social norms for a shopping mall or zoo should probably be managed by the mall/zoo operators, but the social norms for a high street should probably reside with a BID (Business Improvement District)  or a local council, yet the acceptable norms for a café should be definable by the café owner should they so wish to assert such norms for the digital space that represents the community (customers) of their physical place. 

We need to shift empowerment over the digital community platform to the local level

Yet at the same time, we need to enable a hierarchy of communities that make up wider communities – with the café being part of a mall or high street community, which may be part of a wider town or city community.  By enabling such a hierarchy, we also introduce another critically important element largely missing from social platforms like Facebook/Twitter – competition.  The better a community orchestrates and supports the norms of its community the more likely people of the community will participate.  If the mall does a poor job of this but the high street community does it well, then the people of that place will engage more with the high street community. Digital can and should be part of making a place feel vibrant, well serviced and engaging, but it needs to integrate the context of place and empower localised oversight.

Identity and Community

One of the big management issues for global social platforms is identity. Most insist on some level of identity, with Facebook making it clear your full identity is required. But what identity is required for community?  We would suggest that the only identity requirements should be that you are uniquely represented (i.e. your digital name is unique to you as a user) and that you are ‘of the place’.

By being of the place you have authority to speak in the place.

In this context a digital community platform is more like Twitter with respect to identity.

Of course, platforms like Facebook and Twitter closely monitor all your posts to collate more information on who you are and how you think, including who you connect with.  Again a community platform does not need to do this, nor should.  It does not need to know more than you want to explicitly share for the purpose of defining your role in a community and who you are in a community.  Ad targeting is not needed based on your interests.  Your choice of communities to connect and engage with is all the ‘profiling’ needed. If such marketing support is sought it can target the community, not the individual.  However we should allow people to extend their visible profile explicitly so that more granular understanding of who you are can be projected in a community and discovered – but that profile is yours to manage and control and if needed, delete, at any time. Because who you are is linked to place, your ability to ‘pretend’ an identity is limited because the digital and real worlds are now integral and more readily verifiable through subsequent real-world connectivity.  This can enhance trust in the digital context – and as it happens undermines the trolls who thrive in the idea they are anonymous and even if identified are outside of your physical or jurisdictional reach.

Your identity is fungible yet more trustworthy in the context of your community

When place becomes integral to individual digital identity, it becomes a constructive element of community, which is the opposite of the proven and sustained issue of current social platforms which were born in a PC era that pre-dated the mobile phone and actively disconnects people from a real-world community. Because anyone can join and contribute to a Facebook group or a place-based Twitter # thread, community is undermined. That’s not to say such tools don’t have value, they do, as promotional tools to bring people into the physical place where localised RoI can be driven.  But sustained engaged value between the people of the place needs a different digital platform.  One that treats the digital infrastructure around place more as an Intranet available only to the people that are there.  Once you have such digital context you can invest with confidence in place-based community assets and services that can be reflected in the digital context.

The IoT and Community

The IoT are sensors and actuators, responding to highly localised activities.  While it sometimes makes sense for that information to flow to the internet cloud for aggregate comparison or control algorithm development, we would argue that the primary use case is localised.  Hence the information flows should be constrained locally to minimise the risk that the information or the systems themselves can be bent to a purpose outside of the intent or benefit of the community.

Communities need to control their IoT

There is great risk in the IoT that as communities rely more on the technology, that technology can be subverted to objectives it was never deployed for, usually by those that are outside the community, just as todays social platforms have as the Cambridge Analytica debacle exemplified.  Such subversion is largely outside of the control of the community, especially if enacted by another nation state.  But if the IoT device can only participate in community information flows because it’s there, and if the control of it is sustained by the community, we can erect intranet style cyber-barriers that can limit the problems that can occur and thus make them more trusted as technology support pillars for the community.

Let’s take the example of a high-rise buildings clad in ACM – one has to really feel for the thousands of residents stuck in them, knowing they live in death traps, unable to sell or afford to live elsewhere.  Imagine having children in such circumstances.  But now imagine a fire system where a fire in one flat is alerted to all residents with the detail of where it is exactly, not just a general fire alarm sound – but a text/image/map alert with updates every few minutes as each new detector detects the fires spread. Then imagine the fire brigade being able to tap into that community upon arrival, or even before, to obtain instant on the ground information and to broadcast action plans – and their changes of plans, or to be informed of who is hurt and where.  This is a true social platform connected to community need based on place.  The same platform means you now digitally know all your neighbours, you have a communal voice, you are empowered not just at resident meetings, but continuously to raise discuss and promote community issues.

Digital Community Constructs

So what are the key building blocks of digital community?  We believe there are 3 key elements:

  1. A technology model that integrates place into individual identity, yet does not track or even know location, so people can engage in confidence
  2. A trust model that shifts the locus of control and empowerment into the community and away from the social platform provider
  3. A business model that supports 1 and 2 – or more specifically does not monetise people as product, but instead is funded by those who wish to sustain the local engagement in a social norm context appropriate to their community so they can enhance community objectives, not undermine them

In short, digital community control needs to be in the community and needs to align with the business and social models of the community.  Place operators, whether companies or elected officials should be empowered to support their communities and to allow the competitive development of social norms in the digital space that is their communities.

Community Based Digital Value Delivery

So why would I as an individual connect to this digital community?  Its constrained, it does not connect me to the whole world, just to those in a place.  We believe it’s because social norms should dictate how a place is serviced – and that such a platform needs to be extensible to enable service delivery that is contextual to place – whether that’s simpler more accessible connection to security services so I feel safer (for example ask them to use their CCTV to locate my child that ran off), an ability to complain about cleanliness – and be advised when my issue is addressed. It could be about knowing what the venue operations team knows about crowdedness and how safe an area is to visit right now in a socially distanced context. Or whether it’s about deals in the shopping centre available due to stock clearance in a specific shop that are only available because I am there and can collect it and clear it from the shop right now?  Or maybe it’s about the event that’s going on in the town centre, what’s happening, whose there, what spin off local conversations are being had. Such a platform is about the discovery of who’s there, because people make places. It’s about real-time place-contextual conversations and we join in because we are of the community and we want simplified access to the services the community has to offer – services that make this place more interesting and engaging and supportive than other places I go to.

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