Grass-roots Digital Social Innovation

How do we enable individuals and small groups to get involved in digital social innovation in Scotland, and to become self-sustaining? What can, or should, government, local authorities and and other backers do to create the right conditions? And how do we assist interested parties to self-organise?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few months, and the triggers for that reflection have been several and overlapping.

Those of you who know me well will know that one of my strengths is in getting things started. For example, about 6 years ago I identified like-minded individuals in Aberdeen and we started running informal hack weekends. I co-founded Code The City three years ago with those same collaborators — and we started the first node of the ODI in Scotland a year ago. In all of these cases what drove me, and continues to drive me, is the potetntial that digital offers to bring about positive social change.

Scottish Local Authorities took part in Code For Europe 2014–15

In my day job, at Aberdeen City Council, I published the first open data for any local authority in Scotland. I got us involved in two Nesta-supported programmes including participation in Code For Europe 2014–2015. Beyond that I set up a coding club in our local authority, and I helped to get the Python Aberdeen group off the ground, and a bunch of other stuff. So much for starting things.

But it has become clear that starting things, and growing self-sustaining communities, are quite different challenges. When, two years ago, I travelled with Nesta and others to Amsterdam, Barcelona and Helsinki we studied how the municipalities worked with Amsterdam’s Waag Society, and Helsinki’s Forum Virium, and numerous small co-operative groups, to develop local ecosystems. It was clear that there are wide gaps between what is happening on the continent, and how things are developing in Scotland generally. My observation is that there was, and continues to be, a dearth of self-organising grass-roots groups this side of the North Sea.

It was clear that there are wide gaps between what is happening on the continent, and how things are developing in Scotland generally.

Of late, I have been involved in two things which have rekindled my thinking in this area. One is in helping plan what a collaborative, innovation space might look like in Aberdeen. This is very exciting — but I can’t say too much about that for now. The other is in pushing for the creation of a Code For Scotland programme and what form that might take. Of that too, more, I hope, soon.

Reflecting on all of this, as I wrote at the start of this piece, I was struck by how few self-sustaining digital communities there are in Scotland. At present I am leading an Open Data project for all 7 of Scotland’s cities, under the aegis of the Scottish Cities Alliance. One of the outcomes we are aiming for is the supported development of an open data eco-system for Scotland.

Based on my own experience, and generalising hugely, my feeling is that in many cases people want things run for them, rather than being prepared to pitch in and run things co-operatively.

An example of that is Code The City. We set this up with four trustees and we continue to run it in that way. Our event are very well-attended, sometimes over-subscribed, and we get positive feedback from those who come along, but we are hardly innundated with offers to help, to volunteer, or to self-organise.

The Python Aberdeen group is another example where 2 or 3 of us got it started — and while we three were prepared to keep pushing, setting up events, finding places to meet, setting an agenda or syllabus it went really well, but as soon as we took our foot off the gas, as it were, the attendance dropped and attendees fell away. There was no sense of an evolving self-sustaining community arising.

So, I wonder, if this something peculiarly Aberdonian, or Scottish? It certainly is at odds with my impression of what happens on the continent.

Incidentally we had a great Scottish Nesta presence in Dundee. It fulfilled something of the Waag or Forum Virium for Scottish cities; but we no longer have that. There is a void there — and an opportunity for something to fill it.

A Code The City event

What do government, local councils or other agencies need to do? Whatever they do will it be enough? Or will top-down efforts wither and die through a lack of an engaged citizenry? This post by Waag’s Gijs Boerwinkel highlights some of the great work being done in Amsterdam to help bottom-up approaches.

Where is the push from the bottom: the coders groups, the data advocates, those who want social change, the citizen journalists, the hackers, the activists? I don’t see much evidence of a significant, growing ground-swell in these areas either locally or nationally How are they networking and supporting one another? Where is that growing eco-system?

This piece deliberately this poses many more questions than it answers. We need a dialogue to underpin what happens in the digial social space in Scotland — and I want everyone to be engaged in that dialogue. I want you, if you have a view, to respond to these questions by commenting on this piece.

We need a dialogue to underpin what happens in the digial social space in Scotland — and I want you to be engaged in that dialogue.

Finally, only last week a friend and I were remarking on how serendipity plays a part in much of what we do. The gestation of this article is no exception. While I had it in draft I recieved an email from Nesta earlier today inviting me to register for this event. How is that for timing? Naturally, I have registered. Maybe I will see you there and we can get a dialogue going!


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