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15/04/2020 Digital solutions to revolutionise community empowerment

For Hope in the Dark, her acclaimed study of human responses to uncertainty, Rebecca Solnit collected testimony from a century of crises. Contrary to common assumptions, she found that, when facing adversity, “most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and creative”. Her observations have proved true for Covid-19. While the pandemic forces us into isolation, imposed or voluntary, the gloom has been punctured by sparks of solidarity – a flaring of community engagement, volunteering and local organisation.

Around the world, we have seen a grassroots mobilisation to help those in need. In the US, restaurants have become community kitchens and groups organised to pick up shopping for elderly neighbours. Across the Atlantic, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, which supports responses to the virus, has registered nearly 3,000 local groups.

These hyperlocal movements are resourceful, agile and deliver solutions tailored to meet local needs. What they lack are the tools to optimise local mobilisation. Many rely on social media platforms, which, while accessible, are designed to connect like-minded people globally rather than reach everyone within a specific locality. They certainly do not provide for coordination between informal community groups, businesses and local authorities – an important avenue for allocating resources, scaling responses and ensuring the experience of those on the ground is reflected in policy decisions.

At the other end of the scale, top-down responses to the crisis swing from complacent to draconian. China contained the virus by forcibly confining people to home, while countries such as Israel and South Korea sparked privacy concerns through their tracking of interactions with infected individuals. Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, the virus was allowed to spread while policymakers delayed politically difficult decisions. Neither of these approaches provides an effective blueprint for crisis response. While one fails to protect citizens, the other risks violating rights and can be difficult to implement without forceful policing.

 Harmonising top-down policies and grassroots organisation

The best responses to Covid-19 have harmonised top-down policies and grassroots organisation, with government and business providing platforms for action and innovation at a local level. In the UK, more than 700,000 volunteers for the National Health Service are being organised through GoodSAM – an app that, like many gig economy platforms, allows individuals to switch on their availability for delivering supplies to vulnerable people or driving discharged patients to their homes.

In Estonia, the government’s Hacking the Crisis programme brought together officials, businesses and individuals to rapidly launch a map to visualise Health Board data, a chatbot to answer queries on the virus and a website connecting local hospitals to volunteers with medical backgrounds. Perhaps the best example is Taiwan, where officials have kept the rate of infection to a fraction of that in the US or even highly-rated Singapore.

Coordinating public and private groups, the country has deployed a range of online services, including a sophisticated system for mapping and allocating rationed face masks developed by Digital Minister Audrey Tang and members of an online hacktivist chatroom. As Microsoft’s Jaron Lainer and E. Glen Weyl write in their analysis of the response, “by spreading participation in digital development broadly through society, Taiwan avoided both technocracy and technophobia, maintaining trust and the two-way flow of information”.

The importance of digital tools

Effective responses to the crisis have shown the value of an inclusive government and hinted at a more resilient model for managing our communities. So far, the process of co-creation between governments, businesses and individuals has involved pooling resources to deliver a country-wide response. However, this approach should be pushed further to establish a model of hyperlocalised community empowerment. Digital tools should be provided to communities to organise themselves, develop locally tailored solutions and get involved in the governance of their town or neighbourhood.

This new governance model requires open communication between local people and the organisations responsible for administrating neighbourhoods – be they government institutions or private businesses. Such solutions are already in use around the world, including in Planet Smart City’s developments in Italy and Brazil, where the Planet App provided to all residents serves as a local message board and interface for citizens and community managers.  

Once established, this communication platform provides significant opportunities for optimising crisis response and elevating quality of life. For example, a popular solution for market vendors or bodega owners forced to close by Covid-19 has been to offer delivery services. This not only benefits local businesses, who are able to weather the economic storm, but also local people, who can access essential supplies without visiting overcrowded superstores or waiting for deliveries from overcapacity online grocery sites. While grassroots movements have largely been left to organise themselves, this is a missed opportunity for collaboration with local administrators.

By communicating with businesses, the administrator can not only establish an online platform allowing companies to advertise and coordinate their services locally, but also to connect them with other people in the area to help deliver the service, such as van owners who may be able to loan their vehicles. Moreover, the administrator can collect feedback from residents and businesses on local infrastructure needed to improve the service, such as installing communal cold lockers for receiving groceries even when no-one is home.

A new governance model

By integrating this model into the day-to-day governance of our communities, we can unite grassroots community action with top-down resources, empowering local people to co-own the evolution of their neighbourhoods and helping administrators prioritise projects that maximise quality of life.

As Solnit wrote: “A disaster is a lot like a revolution when it comes to disruption and improvisation.” Pushed to their limits, countries around the world are pioneering new ways of coordinating local and national action. From this wave of innovation, we have an opportunity to empower communities, providing them with the tools to become more resilient in crises, more inclusive in their governance and more engaged in the determination of their future.

 

Alan Marcus
Chief Digital Officer of Planet Smart City