Community Innovation and Community Informatics

Michael Gurstein, PhD

Innovation is the buzzword of the moment. Countries large and small, rich and poor, international agencies, private companies even individuals are pre-occupied with finding the key to “innovation.” What precisely is meant by “innovation” varies – it is difficult to find a hard and fast definition that goes beyond simply referring to “change” of some sort and hopefully change for the better.

Companies everywhere have access to roughly the same amount of information and to the same infrastructure of technical support. Consumers everywhere have access to the global marketplace of goods, new products, and the means of shopping for competitive prices, features, or styles. In this environment, the need to be new, first, different, is seen as the only basis of a competitive edge.

However, while this may be the most visible and the most “hyped” form of “innovation” it is not the only one. There is also “grassroots innovation,” where innovation is concerned not with enabling competition but rather with effectively adapting to changing circumstances.

This type of innovation might be characterized as “community innovation” since so much of it takes place within communities. Community innovation is concerned not with ensuring opportunities for competition in globalized marketplaces but rather with enabling members of these communities to better undertake the tasks for which they normally have responsibility and for undertaking new tasks as they might become necessary  – all within a context of shared community norms, values and goals.

Many of the outstanding challenges that need to be addressed – adapting to climate change, creating meaningful work, managing the environment and resources for future generations – all can only be accomplished through “innovation” at the local level. Therefore “community innovation” is the capacity of those in local communities to find meaningful, efficient and effective ways to respond to their very local and singular challenges but also and equally challenges they share with multiple similar communities globally.

Community Informatics (CI) involves designing appropriate strategies and technology supports for knowledge acquisition, assimilation and processing. With a CI approach, the community has some direction and responsibility or “ownership” in the innovation and the innovation strategy. The use of a CI technology strategy ensures that “innovation” is done by, with and in the community and not simply something that is done “to” or “for” the community. By adopting a CI approach, innovation will become an on-going element of community life and activity. Fostering innovation and innovative capacity at the local level is a prime basis for economic and social development locally as well as a powerful contributor to national strategies for innovation.

Thus the availability of technology supports at the local level can be seen as a significant contributor to the opportunities for local innovation and from the perspective of national governments the investment in the development of local technology infrastructures may be seen within the overall context of a contribution to a national “innovation strategy” and moreover one that is truly contributing to social change and adaptation and not simply to an endless quest for competitive advantage in constantly changing global marketplaces.