Institute for Planetary Renewal

Community Information Networks

A New Approach to Community Development

The foremost need for community development is information and communications technology. Consider what must be accomplished to achieve economic development:

Basic resources such as materials, local talents, money, real estate, buildings, work space, natural resources, etc. must be identified, documented, categorized, quantified, and organized into a productive system. This information doesn't reside in any one person's head. It is the collective knowledge of the people of the community.

It takes planning to best utilize these resources. Effective community planning can be enormously facilitated through a community information network where ideas, plans, schedules, and material resources can be organized and accessed from any computer in the community. The internet now allows thousands of people in any community to work together in these new and powerful ways. Incorporate a community database and voila! Organizing power is multiplied manyfold. With current technology this information can easily reside in databases on a small computer. Everyone simply puts in their contribution.

Actually, every small community in the U.S. already has the computer equipment they need to provide this information system! In fact, with internet access, it doesn't even matter where the information resides. Every community in the world which has internet access could develop such a system. Or it could be scaled down to work on a single computer for just a neighborhood or village. Once the system has been created, it can be easily replicated, adapted, and distributed to other localities. Ideally, the system would consist of a dial-up network to provide the following services:


Electronic Conferencing

Business Development Forums:

Electronic Mail

Community Scheduling Calendar

Information Databases

A community information network can pull together the diverse talents in any community and serve as an integrating system which will inspire the talents of the community to work together in an entrepreneurial community spirit to create jobs, effectively utilize local resources, protect and restore the environment, and revive community interests, cohesion, and lifestyle.

How the System Could Work

New Venture Creation
Every new venture starts with an idea in one person's mind. That person then looks for verification of their idea and tries to find additional talents and resources to bring the venture into manifestation. How do entrepreneurs find the resources to begin an enterprise? ...through networks. They may be a member of an association devoted to the same topics of interest. They may belong to a club of like-minded people. These associations and clubs are networks.

In business, as in other walks of life, people meet people and locate resources through networking. It's sometimes effective, but oftentimes haphazard and unreliable. In some communities these networks don't exist or are poorly developed. Even when they do exist they may only be utilized by the established business leaders. What if the person needed for the startup of a new business venture doesn't happen to join the club or doesn't attend the breakfast meeting? What if they are not introduced?

At present there is no effective way for people of common interest in any community (large or small) to easily find each other. To stimulate today's economy, we propose a new system of community resource management which can rapidly foster the development of new businesses -- a system which can identify and maximize local resources.

All the requirements for the development of new enterprises such as skills, talents, land, buildings, equipment, finances, market research, etc. can be listed, categorized and stored on a searchable on-line database allowing instant access by entrepreneurs, community leaders, and interested community members. People can meet through forums devoted to topics of common interest. Ideas can be shared. Face to face meetings can be scheduled. Electronic mail and online forums can rapidly develop ideas and plans for local development.

Information Searches & the Entrepreneur
Have you ever searched for a book at the public library? In most modern libraries, you sit at a terminal and enter your search by author, subject, or title. It's so easy a child can do it. Within seconds you know if a needed book is available. Suppose you could just as easily locate a job? Or post a job? Suppose you could just as easily find business partners, contacts, referrals, clients, suppliers, etc. for your existing business. Or perhaps locate others of similar interest regarding the start up of a new business?

Herein lies the power of a local information network. It brings people, ideas, and resources together. This is exactly what every community needs to stimulate new business formation, accelerate the growth of existing businesses, and serve as a forum for community direction and involvement.

Economic development depends primarily on what may be termed "information density." Information density simply means a high rate of quality contacts and information exchanges between people -- bringing people, ideas, and community resources together, quickly and efficiently.

In order for an economy to develop and function effectively, people must be able to find each other, as well as locate information and resources in a timely manner. Imagine how difficult conducting business would be if the telephone system were suddenly disabled, requiring travel to each location just to see if someone could talk. Or what if the mail system were to suddenly cease?

In either case, business enterprise would grind to a halt. Yet this is exactly the frustration today for developing new businesses because there exists no "yellow pages" for locating people's interests, ideas, resources, talents, motivations, and availability. Business enterprise and community development depends more on rapid, effective communications and information than on any other single factor. But the present systems are woefully inadequate.

The telephone system acts as a kind of nervous system for communities which to some extent fulfills the communications and information need, but it alone is far too limited:

A more effective means of communications for economic development can be constructed using the telephone network plus computer technology to create a community information network. Such an information system could provide many services to stimulate economic development which are presently not available.

These include:
Community-Based Electronic Conferencing
To provide an environment for discussions and meetings on many topics simultaneously. Participants may "time shift" their participation, that is, participate at a time which is personally convenient. A written record is maintained allowing review of previous discussions for new participants. This would be a huge time saver and money saver because organizing and traveling to meetings is expensive and difficult to coordinate, especially for rural members.
Electronic Mail
Provides rapid private communications, workgroup communications, and public notices. The cost savings of electronic communications over the mail system is substantial and infinitely faster.
Job Posting & Locating
Many people losing jobs as the economy changes have skills which could be marketable in new businesses. New businesses need a labor pool with a wide variety of skills. This feature could match an employer's requirements with employee skills and could save the substantial costs of unemployment assistance and other public assistance. The newly unemployed could locate others interested in forming new businesses.
New Opportunities Identification
Allows the posting of business news and new business opportunities. Market trends and market research could be filed and retrieved.
Resources Identification
Provides an inventory and access to local resources related to economic development. This would facilitate the exchange, collaboration, joint venture, or sale of business equipment and other local resources.
Community Calendar
A comprehensive scheduling calendar to prevent scheduling conflicts with other organizations. This feature could save the embarrassment and costs of scheduling conflicts throughout the community. It would provide a common listing of every event in a community updated to the minute.
Community News & Information
News items and community information could be posted. Success stories of local business development efforts would inspire.
Local Government Feedback System
Provides community feedback to local leaders on current and projected government policies through an electronic government mailbox. This feature could save thousands of dollars in market research costs by providing a way for community members to cast straw votes on issues and suggest solutions to community problems.
Community Needs Analysis & Planning
Most community planning is still not anticipatory. This forum would allow discussion and suggestions on community needs and provide a way to plan for their fulfillment.
Document Storage & Retrieval
To store and share documents, allowing group access and review. Private files could be established for groups or businesses.
Other Uses
These uses, while impressive, only touch the surface of what could be accomplished with an information system. Other uses might include medical information in case of emergencies. Weather information or weather warnings. Educational possibilities include distribution of educational materials, class schedules, neighborhood tutoring locations, and mass transit schedules, club membership recruitment, civic organization participation, and venture capital development. The possibilities are numerous.

How Would The System Be Used?

Right now, there are numerous microcomputers in every small community. Local libraries as well as most local businesses have a computer and thousands of individuals have computers as well. All elementary and high schools have at least a few computers. Selected computers in homes, businesses, or public buildings could be listed in each neighborhood for convenient neighborhood access.

Even a simple personal computer or terminal costing, at most, a few hundred dollars is all that is needed for access. These abound in closets all over America. The internet is easily accessed from these systems.

Cost Of Developing The System
The concept of an information utility is not new, we began promoting the idea back in the early 1980's. But the technology to create one locally at low cost is here now. The cost of sophisticated, powerful computer hardware has dropped dramatically in the past few years. Computer power which even ten years ago costs millions can now be had for a few thousand. New storage drives capable of storing billions of characters of information formerly costing tens of thousands of dollars can now be purchased for less than $300.

These breakthroughs in costs enable a small community information system to be put in place for very little. The software is available "off the shelf" for building the system. Once established, the system can be placed anywhere on the internet. Operating costs would consist of a physical location for the computer (unless donated), monthly access costs, and support for one system administrator to manage the system. It could even be tied in with existing private, city, or state computer networks (Internet) for almost no cost in new hardware.

Income Sources and Economic Value
Income for the system could be derived in the following ways:
Yet, the real economic value will be the synergy in communications within the community. If the system provided each participant only one valuable contact per year which brought new income to the community, the result would be awesome. History has proven that increases in communication speed, power, flexibility, and capacity increases wealth rapidly.

Community Support
Every community organization and governmental organization which has reviewed this idea has endorsed it in concept. This includes county commissioners, city managers and mayors of towns in other states. Virtually no one who has reviewed the proposal has found fault with it.

The scheduling calendar has prompted "rave reviews" because everyone would like to have a central, up-to-date source of information on what's going on in the community. The only complaint is that it would cost money, but this is actually more of a reason to go forward.

Timeline for Implementation
Because this system uses off-the-shelf components and standard software packages, we project that the system could be up and running in less than 90 days.

Rural Development
Rural communities would benefit as well. There is virtually no community or business which would not benefit from an information utility. Many rural business leaders and government leaders have expressed a desire to participate in such a system.

As a concept, the proposed information network offers a potential for widespread replication throughout the nation and world as a methodology for tying communities together and fostering rapid and organized community development. Rural communities have wanted a mechanism for integration into the 21st century and a way to compete on par with more sophisticated communities. This idea could work for them.

Economic Implications
As most people are aware, each community competes with other communities (often worldwide), for the fixed wealth in the world-wide economic system. Widely diversified small businesses and cottage industries can respond with resiliency to rapidly changing times. They can best support vibrant communities and provide for local needs with local resources. These factors taken together produce a severe need for economic diversification and a need for new employment opportunities at the local level. Unemployment figures continue to rise and there is a continued increase in homeless families worldwide.

Applicable Resources
One advantage of this system is that it does not require extensive ongoing computer staff, funding, or other external inputs to be effective. No offices, no receptionist, no workers, no bosses, no staff except for the system administrator which can be minimal once the system is fully implemented.

The system is self documenting because the people who provide the information for the databases are the same people who have an interest in keeping their own information current. This self regulating and easy maintenance system is a valuable and powerful democratic tool for any community.

Project Operations
The project should consist of a user-friendly, self-guiding, information system using current internet technology and standard off-the-shelf software. It should consist of a high speed internet connection to a small microcomputer (with failsafe RAID hard disks). The system can be located virtually anywhere.

Action Items
Because the budget requirement is low and the implementation only requires commonly available software, the project should be developed in the following way:

The project is estimated to take about 90 days from the date of inception. Future installations (in other parts of the state for instance) could be achieved in a matter of days since the software configuration, hardware definition, and installation procedure would already be defined. Future systems would require only choosing an internet server and copying the files to replicate the system.

The system uses known technology, is not hypothetical, and does not require highly custom software development.

Potential benefits are substantial from such a system. Many economic development programs have been tried by local governments throughout the country over many years. Most have been expensive and most have not produced the value anticipated. Previous programs have required large expensive staffs, dedicated resources such as office space and equipment, high ongoing maintenance costs, and expensive consultants.

This approach is different and innovative. It uses modest technologies to create a grass roots forum for peer to peer communications and problem solving among the people who will actually be the business founders and idea generators within the communities. It is empowering because knowledge is power -- especially if that knowledge is organized and communicated. This system will allow people to communicate with each other to solve their own problems through a low-cost communications utility.

The total budget for the entire project is under $10,000. This can be used to create the system and refine it so that it is easily maintained. Continuing the operation of the system requires only modest funds for access and maintenance. This may seem unrealistically low, but the technologies involved are relatively simple and have been proven reliable.

Many internet systems have been running for years with only minimal physical maintenance. Most likely small donations from many sources (business memberships) would be adequate for future funding.

Question and Answers

Will people really use it?
The first attraction for using a community information utility is an up-to-date schedule of events. In our investigation, it was found that everyone wanted to have a complete calendar of events to allow them to plan more effectively and help them organize more effective participation in community events.

Electronic mail allows community members, business owners, and government leaders to communicate quickly at no cost. While larger governments have enjoyed such efficiency, smaller outlying communities are drawn to a system which helps them work better since they have not been able to develop such systems on their own.

Many intelligent people in all communities have good ideas with no effective forum to deliver and refine them. We believe that societies consistently underestimate the value of ideas and the willingness of people to contribute if given the opportunity.

For example, a computer system installed in Marin County, CA in the early 1990's for large scale community communication quickly had over 3000 active users from the community. Valuable ideas were contributed to the local government and were implemented.

Won't people have to become computer experts to use the system?
Many people in every community are already on the internet. They just do not have local input for local needs. The system would not even require computer literacy. Current internet applications are now very easy to use.

Internet access is available even in small town libraries. Terminals are already set up to access the internet.

Many people don't have a computer. What will they do?
Most people, when asked, know someone who does have a computer or terminal. All schools, most libraries, and most businesses have computers. In every neighborhood, many people have a computer. Non-profit, public service organizations often have computers. These computers could be used to access, record, and print out the most important community schedules and post them in each neighborhood. Neighborhood organizations could designate a place for access within each neighborhood. The libraries could serve as neighborhood nodes. These are just a few ideas to expand access for those without computer resources of their own.

We should not wait, however, until everyone in society is fully computer literate with their own system to begin developing a community information resource. As always, there will be leaders and followers, innovators and defenders of the status quo. The value to those who use it will be great and everyone benefits from a better local economy.

We offer an innovative solution to a long-standing problem of how to develop the economic vitality of a community. All communities, regardless of size, need better ways of managing their resources and fostering creative solutions for community development. These are information problems which are most effectively addressed through information technologies. Now that computer systems have become powerful enough and low-cost enough, it is time to apply this solution to the problems at hand for the benefit of all communities who are often desperately seeking better ways to manage their affairs. IPR would be happy to consult with any group to implement a community information strategy.

Our Address:
Institute for Planetary Renewal
1060 Tyler Road
Walnut Cove, NC 27052

Please e-mail Sarvasri, IPR Director:

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