Designing for Hyperlocal Communities

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Earlier this year, Civil Exchange published the first audit of the Big Society initiative. Unsurprisingly, it contained some pretty damning statistics.   

They illustrate, for example, that in deprived areas of the UK, only 55% of people believe that their community pulls together in times of need. This compares to 78% of those living in affluent areas.           

Or should you come from an ethnic minority and believe that you can trust in your neighbours, you’re amongst a tiny 27% that feel the same way. If you’re white, that figure almost doubles to 52%.           

And if this study is to be believed, 70% of Britons don’t even know who their neighbours are.

It’s fair to say, therefore, that the Big Society has failed in it’s explicit goal of strengthening communities.

And it’s easy to imagine it failing harder and faster: the voluntary sector -on which so much of the success of the Big Society depended- is facing a funding shortfall of £3.3 billion between 2010 and 2016.

Perhaps the implicit goal of saving the treasury some money is fairing a little better…

Still, when opportunity knocks, business often rises to the challenge, and so it has been on this occasion; witness the rise of the social enterprises. These businesses are seeking to pick up the pieces of Big Society, bringing communities together to effect positive change all while making enough money to be self sustaining.

Early on, organisations like Village SOS and Your Square Mile (full disclosure, YSM is a client of ours) latched on to the mind-multiplying, connective benefits of the Internet. They set about building hyperlocal community platforms that would help us to get to know our neighbours better, facilitate the formation of community project groups and open up channels of communication with other communities across the country.

Except they didn’t. Apart from a few isolated successes where digital literacy, access and community spirit was already relatively high, the sites remained largely unused.

So what went wrong?

Well, it seems that in using technology to try and drive community cohesion, too much focus was placed on the technology and not enough on the community itself. It was a classic case of build-it-and-they-will come. Or not. 

I recently had the honour of presenting at the UCD 2012 conference in London on this very conundrum, during a talk titled Designing for Social (Ex)Change. Over the past few years, I’ve helped a number of brands, including Barclays and Intercontinental Hotel Group, understand community building and how it can be used for better brand engagement. I’ve also had the chance to put much of what I’ve learnt to the test, nurturing an online/offline community in the shape of CreativeMornings/London.

The following list captures the four most important things I’ve learnt and what we at Tobias & Tobias are keeping in mind as we work with Your Square Mile.

Here goes:

1. Find the common need

In online, hyperlocal community building, it’s the common need that matters. Note that need is singular. There’s a tendency to want to answer all needs from day one, but to do so risks diluting the dialogue that makes an online community a vibrant, interesting place to be a part of. Working to solve the most galvanising need first helps the community focus their efforts, increasing their chances of success and the positive reinforcement that comes with it. It also allows us to focus our design efforts, ensuring the tools we develop are the right ones for the job at hand.

2. Reflect the swagger

Nothing acts as a barrier to adoption like feeling you’re in an unfamiliar place. Brands use ethnographic research to recognise, assimilate and reflect the way we see our world in their products and services, lowering the barrier to entry. We’re doing the same for the communities we’re working with. We’re unearthing the narratives, personalities and landmarks that make each loacale unique and ensuring that the platforms we build reflect this.

3. Be inclusive

You’d think this was a no-brainer in this day and age but a relentless focus on the sexy channels (app, mobile web and even plain ol’ web, I’m looking at you) means that those with lower levels of literacy or access get left out. We’re making sure that the benefits of the community platforms we design can be accessed via email, SMS and, yes, even paper. This way, we can ensure that citizens who might be SMS literate, seniors for example, can tap into the support available in their local online community. We’re also designing news pages that can be easily printed and distributed to those without regular access to a web terminal.

4. Go bottom-up

Brasilia is known as the three-day city. Despite the stunning Niemeyer-penned architecture, its imposed model of living and working has alienated people to the extent that they can only bear it 72 hours a week before jetting off to somewhere more fun. The imposition of an “ideal” model of online community development has similarly resulted in three-visit sites. While recognising the cost and scalability benefits that come with a top-down approach, we’re not imposing a one-size-fits-all model on the communities we’re working with. Rather, we’re developing a set of modules -think media galleries, news feeds, forums, data collection tools and channel interfaces- that will enable communities to build their online platforms as they see fit, when they see fit.

It’s early days for our engagement with Your Square Mile. But by aligning around these four factors, we’re giving the communities we’re designing for the best chance of success in making the change that they want to see. Which is more than you can say for the Big Society.

Links for further reading:

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