Building power in communities

 

Cassie Robinson

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It feels like it’s been quiet in UK funder land in relation to tech. It may just be that I am out of the loop and that there are funding programmes focussed on tech. Or perhaps there are funders for whom tech funding is just embedded across all of what they do — which in some ways would make more sense![1]

When I look at what’s happening elsewhere though, I don’t feel like we have the same ecosystems being developed and resourced. I look at things like The Sovereign Tech Fund in Germany that strengthens digital infrastructure and open-source ecosystems in the public interest. Or the Community Tech Collective, funded by organisations like the Ford Foundation, and whose pioneering work in places like Detroit and New York is “committed to digital justice and to building community power through community-owned infrastructure”.

This isn’t a blog that wants to criticise — I think a lot of funders are feeling overwhelmed at the moment. There is so much need. And hard decisions to make — so the purpose of this blog and the event we want to invite funders to, is to help work out whether and how this is something to contribute resources to.

I scrolled through numerous UK Foundation websites in the early stages of writing this. All of the social justice and community funders have similar strategic aims. They talk about communities being at the heart of change, and communities using their power to make change happen. About local economies working better for the people that live there and communities growing stronger. Another website talks about “a social, economic and environmental justice movement, by communities, for communities.” Others use the language of strengthening civil society, of the commons, of equipping communities to respond to the climate emergency and securing a fairer future.

It’s quite hard to imagine how so many of these can come true without addressing one of the most powerful forces that exists, and that drives much of our capitalist economy — the power of big tech. There are a handful of funders who talk about changing the way that our financial systems operate — recognising the harmful, inequitable and extractive nature of those systems. Yet I haven’t seen any UK funders articulating how technology systems are doing much the same — concentrating extreme wealth and power in the hands of a few.

Similarly, in all the rhetoric about powerful communities and community power, I’ve not seen any acknowledgement of the unlikeliness that communities will have any real power if they are left to run on Amazon, Facebook and others.

What to do about this is far from straightforward — in fact at times it can feel futile because the power of big tech looms over us and seeps through everything around us, in such an unwieldy fashion. However, the answer can’t be to keep ignoring it and just hoping something will change. We can’t rely on Government to regulate technology companies effectively either — that requires a kind of leadership we just don’t have in Westminster right now — and haven’t had for some time. If we’d had better leadership Twitter wouldn’t now be owned by a libertarian Billionaire (trilionaire?!). So like we’re needing to do in many other contexts of our lives, maybe we need to take the big tech challenge into our own hands.

Currently much digital social infrastructure used by place-based communities is dependent on digital services which are profit-making platforms that neither reinvest in nor share governance with the communities that power their service — e.g. Facebook and WhatsApp (both owned by Meta) or NextDoor.

The Case for Community Tech, Promising Trouble, 2022

That’s why I’m so glad that Power to Change is investing in this area with a programme of work around Community Tech and a recently launched Fund[2]. The funding programme is specifically focussed on investing in community organisations who are making and using technologies that generate benefit for and give power to communities. It’s been greatly informed by Promising Trouble’s research, who have a hypothesis that investment in community tech will result in:

  • Increased resilience and autonomy for individual community organisations, collections of community organisations and communities themselves
  • Increased social and economic value for communities
  • Alternative, maintainable infrastructure for places that is not dependent on the business strategies of platforms, or closed, privately owned software
  • An alternative to big tech and platform dominance that contributes to a broader community tech ecosystem, and delivers benefits to society
  • A model for a more maintainable, more climate-friendly approach for the technology industry.

When I look at some of the work I’m doing in philanthropy right now — with wealth holders and Foundations — it’s all about moving resources to more distributed and productive economic patterns. It’s about supporting communities to become less dependent on private philanthropy and instead building alternative infrastructure for investments that build economic power. I wonder why this isn’t happening in parallel with tech? Community Tech is a route to radically redistribute wealth and assets and ensure the longterm resilience of communities. That’s community power.

We are hosting a small event with funders to talk about community tech and to explore the ways it intersects with different strategic aims (like climate, economic democracy, place-based change, the Just Transition etc) on Thursday 19th January from 9.30–11am. This will be in-person in Central London, venue tbc. If you work in funding and would like to attend, please sign up here.

Cassie Robinson works with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, and International Futures Forum.

This article was first published by Cassie Robinson on 11 November 2022. It is being re-shared in Alliance with permission.


Footnotes

  1. ^ There are a few great examples — the Geeks for Social Change Community Tech work, and the Esmee Fairbairn investment in B4RN.
  2. ^ I’m working with Power to Change and Promising Trouble on the Community Tech programme.

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