It’s very easy to experience whiplash if you hang out at the academic institutions of Cambridge, MA. I spent the day in the basement of Harvard’s wood-panelled faculty club, in a discussion about the future(s) of the Berkman Center, then took the T two stops to MIT for the Communications Forum, where students in MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media program are presenting recent work, held in the deeply non-Euclidean Stata Center.
Once my head stops spinning from looking for a local vertical, I’ll do my best to report on the new work put forward by Chris Csikszentmihalyi’s students and collaborators. (Chris is leading today’s discussion, but points out that CFCM is led by Mitch Resnick and William Uricchio as well.) Chris describes the event as a “lightning round”, five minute tastes of the work. CFCM’s focus, Chris tells us, is to build technologies that strengthen social bonds and build communities, with a focus on real-world communities.
CFCM is funded by the Knight Foundation via the Knight News Challenge, part of Knight Foundation’s strategy of moving beyond journalism education to building new tools to serve community’s information needs. Chris explains that CFCM is looking for ways that tools and systems can provide the services journalists have provided to a free society. 20th century journalism in the United States was a unique moment, and might be an exemplar, he argues, but might not be the only way to get towards a free and just society.
CFCM’s collaborations have included a focus on reporting on the narcowars in Mexico, working with the US state department, work with kids in the West Bank and Gaza, a study of product sourcing in Scotland, and research on the introduction of YouTube in the Amazon. Not all projects are so far from home – one focuses on encouraging “intracommunity tourism” in nearby Framingham, Massachusetts, in the hopes of reducing violence.
Reflecting on the lessons learned in the past few years of CFCM, Chris offers the following:
- Allowing for local knowledge is key to a system’s adoption
- Switch between local and global contexts
- Use community-driven design to enable community sustainability
- Monitor over time – a successful technical project is a continuous commitment
- New technologies can make new social practices more acceptable
- Collaborative community initiatives can circumvent problems in existing social and technical structures
- People only engage when they see an effect
This last point it a real challenge – web2.0 tools only work when you’ve got a group of people – how do you get a group of people when they don’t yet see the effect of the tools?
Introducing the speakers, Chris points to a new CFCM initiative – a blog focused on the tech tools the group is developing and disseminating – looks well worth a look.