by Åsa Isacson
The tools for groups of people to find, manage and develop their own communities just as they want them has radically changed in the last 20 years. We first try to understand communities, then look at what prevents us from using new tools, and finally give tips towards a tentative toolbox to try out, a la carte.
Imagine ten thousand widely diverse habitats circling a planet, each experimenting with their own way of life. This is a scenario by the sci-fi author Alistair Reynolds — a concept he calls ‘The Glitter Band’.
…this image reminds me that there is never one correct way to do things, and it keeps coming back to me when I dig deeper into how decentralised intentional communities can act as laboratories of change.
My research aims to explore ways to make it easier to experiment with and adopt a truly wide variety of alternative ways of living, right here on Earth. Basically, how we might create diverse options for the future.
I recently wrote a paper on how the toolbox of communities has changed drastically in the last 20 years, the background to which can be illustrated by a quote from one of the participants in the study:
“I mean, 20 years ago, if I was starting a community, it would be like I’m going fully offline. I’m going to create my little bubble with my friends. Whereas today […] we are digitally connected”.
Originally, the paper was supposed to be based on a survey on what tech these communities are currently using, an attempt to ‘map the field’ — but it quickly became clear that this was (rather completely) the wrong approach.
I needed to first get to know the communities. Understand them better, learn their hurdles, and reflect on why they should use technology at all.
So I dropped the survey. Instead I found seven people with extensive experience of both community and tech and picked their wonderful brains. They represented a spectrum of communities, from more classically managed intentional communities such as Can Masdeu (Spain) and Weaving Water (US) to more digitally experimental communities such as Uddebo (Sweden) and the regenerative village Traditional Dream Factory (Portugal).
The below is inspired by what I learnt in the process of writing that paper. First there’s a bit on understanding community, then on why we might not be using digital layers (even though we could), and finally some tips on how digital layers can be useful: compiled as a practical pick-and-choose toolbox for communities who wish to look into how to start using them.
Let us start by trying to understand the environment such digital layers would be entering. There are four main points here.
1. Communities are not companies
First, where companies strive for simplicity communities tend to go for and value complexity. Communities represented in the interviews described themselves as having a membrane — the obvious reason that keeps them together — but within this membrane the focus was on internal creative human chaos — the ever evolving webs of relationships— that is at the heart (and fun) of community.
Takeaway: Communities and companies are different animals. As a result, where companies benefit from certain structures, trying to transplant the same organisational styles to communities might kill the organism.
2. Communities tend to self-organise
So within the community membrane it was essential to not have too much organisation since “none of us are joining community so that we can make more spreadsheets”. The preferred way of organising was instead self-organisation, a process described in the interviews as “a messy, rich stumbling towards grace”. But complex self-organisation is hard. And the people who pick up the practical management of a community can end up exhausted by the weight of not only driving the idea but also the burden of having to take on five different (unpaid) jobs to make it all work.
Takeaway: Too much organisation and you kill the joy of community — the creative human chaos. But too little organisation and the ‘Eldsjälar‘ (a Swedish word best translated as ‘Fire souls’) who drive the community can burn out from the sheer administrative weight of it all. Digital layers used should strive to simplify self-organisation.
3. Communities involve conflict
People getting together means conflicting views, personalities, wants and needs. Anyone who has been in a community knows this can translate to conflict. But rather than wanting to stomp out conflict“enough diversity, tension, maybe even disagreement, fighting” was seen as a natural process that let the community work out sore points and handle new challenges — building resilience. “And if it doesn’t work out well, the whole community doesn’t just go away. Right? There’s not a catastrophic failure“.
Takeaway: Attempting to create conflict-free communities can kill the dynamics that can lead to resilience. Channeling conflict into constructive avenues is an art though, one which potentially can be supported by the right digital layers.
4. Communities are not static
This embracing of conflict might be seen as a way to develop a flexible approach to change. Communities are constantly evolving and adjusting:“I’m very skeptical of utopias. Anything that has perfect harmony is dead, or at least not going to be very resilient.”
Takeaway: At their very core these communities embody change. Changing themselves, changing approaches, changing systems. For digital layers to be truly supportive they will need to reflect this — supporting their evolution instead of trying to lock communities into one convenient form.
Why aren’t we using digital layers
Let’s hypothesize that some digital layers could help make self-organisation easier, channel conflict into constructive channels and support the constant change process of communities. Is anything stopping communities from using them? Sure there is.
It’s not for us
Communities tend to strive for other values than companies focused on growth. Perhaps this might hint as to why some of the participants talked of the ecovillage movement in particular as ‘technophobic’. “I’m the only one who is even remotely tech savvy, most (in my community) are downright luddites”. This is of course not true for all. But perhaps, because ‘evil’ companies use tech for their goals, for some communities all digital layers are tainted.
Takeaway: There might be (understandable) prejudice towards using digital layers.
We only use what we already know
This is a big one. The strongest tendency when it came to using digital layers was that people only tend to use what they already know. If you’ve used WhatsApp in your family group, you’ll likely try to set one up for your community. The issue with this is that many of the daily technologies for private use are meant for small groups to communicate on simple matters, and community organisation is not simple.
…there’s suddenly 80 people in the [WhatsApp] group and you can’t even friggin follow the conversation because people are talking so fast, there’s so many conversations going on that it just becomes a friggin waste of time […] you send a message and it’s gone forever”
This form of ‘single thread’ communication seems to be particularly unsuited for communities. Although it may seem convenient that you already know the platform and that your friends are already there, attempting to shoehorn your community needs into the tools you already know often leads to attempting to have a conversation with 80 people at once [shudder].
Takeaway: You tend to only use what you already know, despite if it actually works well or not.
We’ll just make our own
Developing software is time and money consuming, and the work that goes into even a simple solution is often underestimated. Besides this, having your own solutions might look good as an idea, but it requires more than a nephew who’s good with computers to implement properly — at minimum someone who is good with frontend, someone who knows backend, a UX/UI person, a project manager… — and don’t forget that once the solution is finally developed, it will need continuous maintenance for the rest of its days. Disclaimer: If you DO have the technical expertise and resources to code yourself, go ahead, but make sure you know what you’re doing and getting yourself into, and do please make the code open source to share with other communities.
Takeaway: Communities can end up spending a lot of money and effort on creating their own solutions, and thoroughly underestimate the need to then continuously update and manage such software.
How do I find it?
Ideally, we could all pick and choose from a buffet of interoperable technologies that are maintained by a global community of developers, with open source designs that specifically lets communities change and evolve however they wish and don’t attempt to lock us into any fixed form (or steal our data). However, attempts at this are still in their infancy, and the shining stars who dedicate themselves to it might (understandably) not focus on communicating how such digital layers works for laymen or where to find them.
Takeaway: If you do not have the technical expertise in your community to access and contribute to the open source solutions out there, a likely best alternative is to use commercial solutions, but to choose them carefully to actually fit your own needs. Tip: Many commercial platforms offer free or discounted subscriptions for non-profits if you contact them directly (credit to Neil at FIC ❤️).
No one wants to learn a new system
I mean who has the time and energy. To motivate why this is worth the Effort you need to make sure you trust the choices you make and have a proper plan for introducing it.
Takeaway: How to introduce digital layers is hugely important. Find more on how you may handle it under “How to introduce new digital layers”.
A toolbox of tentative tips
Below I’ve gathered some tips of digital layers that might be of interest to use as an intentional community, considering the lessons learnt above.
The focus is on simple, low threshold digital layers that are tried and tested, which anyone can find and use and which just makes life a little bit easier — making more time for the heart work. It’s intended as an introduction to how to add digital layers.
…this approach means a section I had hoped to include in this post — on interoperability and the philosophy behind developing digital layers for communities — won’t be included, since it is a complex subject that deserves its own space. My deep thanks to the great people who talked on this in the interviews, especially the Holochain advocates. I hope to specifically dedicate a future post to this topic alone. Some other topics were also excluded in order to not make this post a novel, for example a section on the Enshittification of online platforms and a whole discussion on the potentials of the decentralised web. Can’t fit it all.
Before we start
I want to point out one important thing. As you can see in the ‘Understanding community’ section above, a key aspect of community was the need for constant change — communities are not static. This was repeatedly pointed out in the interviews, and was paired with observations that digital layers attempting to be ‘one stop shops’ might not be the most suitable, because by their nature they tend to try to fit all communities into one relatively fixed form.
Instead, digital layers that focus on solving smaller, particular problems were preferred. This to allow communities to select and replace supporting layers as they are needed, not opting into one solution that tries to do it all – sometimes even doing too much. This is why more encompassing digital layers are not focused on here. We instead look at choices that can upgrade particular aspects of your community, as actually needed, and lets you evolve as you wish.
So let us get into some easy ways to upgrade your toolbox as a community. This includes how to communicate better, self-organise easier, improve your financing mechanisms, be more visible and share what you learn.
How to communicate better
Self-organisation can be hard and time consuming. Especially if your community values everyone’s input and are open to new ideas. We don’t want to structure community so much that the spontaneity and fun disappears, but we do want to channel the human creative chaos into constructive avenues, to make sure ideas can more easily become reality.
Thats why if I were to recommend adding just one digital layer to a community, a channelled communication tool would be it. It is easy to set up and can greatly support self-organisation, transparency, collaboration and decision-making.
- Do not default into using WhatsApp, Messenger, Signal or Telegram — See why under ‘We only use what we already know’ above.
- Do use channeled communication tools such as Slack or Discord. Slack is easier to learn but paid and more corporate oriented. Discord is built with the user and community in mind, offers free options and great features, such as a voice/video channel (effectively replacing Zoom). But there is a slightly higher threshold to learn Discord than Slack, be aware.
Regardless of which channelled tool you choose, they all work the same way: you create channels for different topics, then are able to organise the answer under each post in threads — making it way easier to keep track of and find what is discussed. Once you start using this kind of communication tool it’s hard to imagine how you lived without it.
How to self-organise easier
Self-organisation can have several levels. Solving small practical things — like, who takes care of dinner – can be done through channelled communication tools: just set up a channel called #whats-for-dinner and that ought to do it, but for larger projects that require more organisation, to do lists, and documentation it might be worth looking into a project management tool.
These are useful to set up Wikis, manage projects, tasks, time, roadmaps…
- Set up a project management system. Warning though: don’t overdo it — only set up what is really needed and make sure to adjust it whenever something feels either missing or too much — again, we don’t want so much structure that the fun disappears. My personal recommendation here would be to use Notion, since it is very flexible, has a bunch of integrations and also includes easy ways to set up and customise to do lists. For those who don’t know Notion: I’m creating a starter template for a community I’m involved with, and will share it in a post here when it’s done as an example.
- Use cloud based files that all can collaborate on. Think Google drive or similar, not static files on your computer.
- Take inspiration from startups — Look at the tools they are using to organise themselves. Definitely not all will match how community works (see ‘Communities are not companies’ above) but you might be able to tweak some of their approaches so they fit you. Just make sure the tools you end up using allow you to be flexible and continuously develop as a community. An example of the opposite is using Facebook — which rigidly shapes how you can interact, hostages your data and actively works against you ever being able to leave.
How to improve your financing mechanisms
One of the biggest issues with being in community can be the economy, in particular securing land ownership and financing the cost of community projects.
There are emerging ways of how to self-organise around this. For example, you can coordinate around collectively buying land and co-finance projects where each member of the community puts in a small part of the whole.
- Co-financing. Although there are several platforms for this, an interesting example that came up in the interviews which shows how to collect, spend and manage money together is Open Collective. Here’s a look at how a community called Alversjö are co-handling their finances simply, openly and transparently on the platform: setting up and managing memberships, projects and events.
- Community currencies and DAO’s. Want to look deeper into financial mechanism and decentralised organisation? This is a longer subject than fits here, so I recommend to check out this post on DAO’s and intentional communities.
How to be visible and share what you learn
I was recently in a conference where a community movement criticised itself for mostly consisting of white, well-educated middle-class. Humans tend towards insider/outsider groups, which means that before the internet, creating and joining community was dependent on who you knew, your physical context and frankly, luck. In the interviews, using the internet to improve visibility and access to community was seen as being able to affect these dynamics, radically changing who gets to imagine and try out alternative versions of how we can live in the future, by making it simpler for people to “identify around certain values and purposes rather than just by where they’re born.”
- Make sure your community is visible — register on sites that puts you on the map, some examples: The community directory at the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC), The ecovillage map at the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), and national alternatives such as Baugemeinshaft communities in Sweden — Bygga och Bo ihop (BOB).
- Engage in global collaborative forums — use the power to learn from each other and build collective knowledge bases. There are a multitude of options here, a good place to start might be the FIC forum where you can discuss anything related to community.
- Make sure you set up your own open knowledge base — both so you can discuss topics more relevant to your particular community, and to share what you learn with others. Examples of how communities are doing this: LifeItself research public forum, Traditional Dream Factory learning hub.
How to introduce new digital layers
… in no way is the above section exhaustive of available tools, and there are of course many more advanced layers that you could add. But that’s just the point. The digital layers you choose should work for your community. See the multitudes of current available options as an a la carte, and make sure to choose wisely based on your particular dietary restrictions.
Once you’ve chosen, there comes the daunting task of introducing the technology, and do be aware it can be “like pulling teeth to get people to even make an account”.
I’ll be dedicating a future paper to how to choose and introduce digital layers but from what I’ve found out so far this is a guess as to which steps to consider:
1. Make sure the tech is appropriate — otherwise you won’t be building any trust in it and people won’t feel they need to use it.
2. Make sure you introduce it properly — schedule a training session so all learn it.
3. Make sure the decision to use it is delivered by someone people look to — someone who has the mandate to say this is the tool to use.
4. Have some early adopters — people who show how it should be done. They populate and add trust.
5. Reach critical mass — when enough people use it, the ball starts rolling.
6. Be consistent — don’t switch between email and Discord and WhatsApp: if you use Discord remind that all goes through Discord now until it all actually does. Stay on it until everyone is on board.
So getting back to the question of why communities should use technologies at all — let me try to summarise this with one of my favorite clips from Aliens.
…look at digital layers in community like Ripley’s exoskeleton. She might be fine without it, but with it she can do a great deal more. She is stronger, she is mightier, she can fight monsters.
By adding appropriate digital layers we can make it easier to setup, organise and continuously evolve our communities. We can self-organise better, translate more ideas into reality, self-finance, unburden our fire souls, translate our values into decentralised institutions, as well as connect and learn from each other. In all — making it slightly easier to create our own diverse glitter band of alternative futures.