In the neighbourhood

Applications are almost due for the Bold Ideas, Better Lives challenge.

I was thinking to submit an idea – something that came out of reading Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence. But I haven’t done enough research or had enough (as in, any!) feedback to know if it’s worthwhile. And I just realised that on top of writing a 1900-word intro to the idea, you’re meant to put in a 3-minute pitch. Then there’s the small issue that I’m not sure I’m keen to champion this idea to the point of implementation. I’d use it. I’d be happy if it worked! And I’d be more than willing to help make it manifest. But the idea of talking it up through the whole process of shortlisting and selection… Well, I’m probably just not that much of a champion. In that regard, anyway.

So instead, I offer the first 700 words of an idea to anyone who happens to read this, and hope for some (constructive) critical feedback, or at least some expressions of interest.

What is your idea? (100 words)

I’d like to strengthen communities by facilitating real-world interactions through an online hyper-local aggregator and hub. Enter The Neighbourhood – a platform for creating a directory, noticeboard and town square for residents, visitors, business-people and local government to exchange information and ideas about local conditions, events, opportunities and ideas. It would feed information about the weather, infrastructural and social issues, jobs, trade, community activities. It would invite and enable people to share goods, ideas, and media – in other words, to funnel relevant parts of our current activities for the benefit of the community around our physical home.

What is the social need or challenge your idea could address? (300 words)

City living can be isolating – especially in very car-oriented cities – and in many neighbourhoods people are almost unknown to each other, having very little contact. We have opportunities to share information, experiences, goods and ideas through workplaces, distributed networks of family and friends, and digital communities. But where we live is important; our local community is potentially a rich source of interaction. If we have a lost pet, or surplus home-grown zucchinis, if we are creating an art installation, or need a new footpath – in all these circumstances, a good outcome can depend on the quality of our local relationships. Our individual and communal wellbeing could be dramatically improved by a digital town square that facilitated real-world relationships. If we know each other better, we would be in a better position to take good care of each other – to look after our neighbours’ house, garden, or pets when we’re away; to look out for the neighbourhood children; to care for, listen to and learn from our old folk.

The Neighbourhood would build constructive real-world relationships – and thereby improve collective wellbeing – through a simple and useful aggregation of relevant information, and hub for activity both online and in physical space. As well as the community benefits, an actively engaged community would be advantageous for businesses and governments. For businesses, it would constitute a highly effective channel for communicating with residents, promoting local products and services, and tailoring them in accordance with feedback. As the dawn of Government 2.0 approaches, access to a hyper-local community network would also be highly beneficial for two-way communications – genuine dialogue – to identify priorities, refine policies and so on.

The Neighbourhood would cultivate goodwill and generate social capital.

What inspired you to come up with your idea in the first place? (300 words)

This idea was inspired by Steven Johnson’s book Emergence. He looks at how swarms or networks operate in micro-organisms, insect colonies, human cities and the internet, and finds that at every scale – and in the absence of a master planner – local interactions suffice to bring about emergence – a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I was thinking about this notion of emergence in relation to my own neighbourhood. I live on the main street in a suburb of Canberra, where although people do walk past, most traffic is motorised and, particularly on Friday nights, vandalism and ‘criminal damage’ are common. (I know this from experience but also because my street makes a regular appearance in the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter.) I don’t believe people are the problem here. I think our cities and lifestyles are serving us poorly, and we need a solution based on goodwill rather than fear. Surely, the more we interact locally, the better off as a community we’ll be.

Steven Johnson has in fact implemented a similar idea in Outside In – a platform for aggregating hyperlocal news, blogs and discussion. From my perspective, however, it is limited in that it’s not focused on the physical world except insofar as it uses location to organise the news feeds, and it’s not intended to facilitate interaction, only to supply information.

I’m actually surprised there isn’t yet a thing such as The Neighbourhood already. Aggregation; social media; cloud computing; we-think; and emergence – all these capacities enhance our potential to improve the way physical neighbourhoods operate. It seems we could all benefit by augmenting our physical communities with a digital overlay – by using our digital networks to enhance and empower our local communities. Such would be the point of The Neighbourhood.

8 thoughts on “In the neighbourhood

  1. This point you make I think can be extended – “As the dawn of Government 2.0 approaches, access to a hyper-local community network would also be highly beneficial for two-way communications – genuine dialogue – to identify priorities, refine policies and so on.” Dialogue I agree is important, and by becoming deliberation, it makes possible the next REALLY important step – taking a collective decision, voting – not for people/personality but for policy/action. If the community can decide democratically then the power and interests of a priveleged minority can be conscioulsy examined, and those with less social power (whether majority of minority) can assert themsleves by appealing to the rest of the community for solidarity, and by voting for a change. I am looking for digital design that really integrates democracy as collective decision making.

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