Designing Democratic Community Networks: Involving Communities through Civil Participation

By Peter Day, School of Information Management, Faculty of Information Technology, University of Brighton.
Outlining issues of significance from investigations of a range of community ICT initiatives in the UK and Scandinavia, this paper presents a normative framework of democratic design criteria of relevance to community networks. Community networking or community informatics as it is increasingly called, provides the platform for a more participatory and democratic vision of the network society. However, before the opportunities presented by this vision can be embraced, the challenges of embedding such initiatives in community practice to stimulate community ownership and identity must first be addressed. Additionally, the enthusiasm of emergent
community informatics practitioners should be informed by the experiences of early community ICT initiative pioneers. The issues presented in this paper provide salutary lessons for community networkers, researchers and policymakers alike. Around the world, civil society and local communities are utilizing ICTs to underpin the creation of a more participatory and democratic vision of the network society. A growing interest in the social and technical form and function of these community ICT initiatives has led to the emergence of a movement of practitioners and researchers engaged in community networking and community informatics. Grounded in and drawing from a diversity of socio-economic cultures, this movement concerns itself primarily with the social shaping of ICTs as tools that underpin and support existing social networks in geographic communities and assist in developing new ones.
The notion that the digital city metaphor can be used as a platform for such activities is conceptually of great academic interest and certainly worthy of investigation. However, it is contested here that any consideration of the future of community networks, whether as digital cities or some other form of socio-technical manifestation, should seek to understand and learn from the experiences of community ICT initiatives both past and present.