The theme of this year's A Good Week - 'Tech for Good' - got me thinking. As an environmentalist who prioritises low-carbon living and local economies, I used to tarnish most technological developments with the same skeptical brush: resource-demanding processes that contribute to disturbing levels of e-waste, drive globalisation at the expense of local networks and result in more unequal societies separated along the digital divide.
What I was less able to recognise is the important role that technologies can play in doing good, from knowledge exchange to cutting carbon to increasing social capital. In the technology adoption lifecycle, I am most definitely a late adopter.
A great example of tech for good is Good for Nothing, a diverse collection of people who solve challenges collaboratively, on and offline, pooling people's knowledge and skills for wider social benefit.
In the case of Streetbank, the online sharing platform where I currently work, we're using technology to build greater community cohesion. The question "how can online communities help foster offline communities?" is at the forefront of our minds as we explore how to develop a website that lets you find and share anything in your neighbourhood. Lately, we've been working with the excellent team at Public Zone, the pro-social specialists who help not-for-profits surf the digital seas, to answer this.
Communities matter. For a start, they make you happy, as anecdotal discussions with Streetbank members and research-led reports like this excellent one from The Big Lunch have demonstrated. Over time, urban living has become increasingly associated with individual living and we've started to take it as given that individualism is a good thing. In fact, much of the time, individualism encourages isolation. The Big Lunch report (pg.4) cites a 2010 survey carried out by Legal and General which found that 61% of British residents don't socialise with their neighbours. Meanwhile, a study carried out by Harvard Medical School found that happiness spreads through social networks. In other words, engaging with those around us is important for our well-being.
Communities matter for a whole host of other reasons too. By being able to share things with those nearby, we're able to save money and live within our environmental means. Imagine a street or block of flats where every household has a vacuum, a couple of bikes, a ladder, a drill and a tent, for example. Now picture the same street but this time neighbours share a handful of those items amongst themselves.
Streetbank, therefore, is a useful yet simple and efficient distributor of a neighbourhood's 'stuff' - a technical way of driving online activity in order to foster offline community. And while it connects people together, it's the people who then make it what it is, a hub of community activity. Indeed, the best Streetbank exchanges are the ones where neighbours no longer need Streetbank after they've met once or twice because they're happy just to go and knock on one another's doors or send a quick text before meeting up.
In some ways, you could say we're working to make ourselves obsolete...