Rapidity (fast fast fast) and scale (ALL THE COMMUNITIES). These are two of the most common metrics for modern civic impact, and while I hear (and have been part of) many watercooler chats on the subject, I’m fascinated by the lack of public-facing dialogue exploring and productively critiquing the mediocrity of these measures.
Evaluation is destiny. The ways in which we determine success, who’s judging, and how, dictate the promises we make, the values we elevate, and the methods we choose to do our work. This is true whether you’re a start-up courting venture capitalists, a non-profit courting funders, or a co-op courting new members. Metrics and measures exist to hold us accountable to the promises we make, but they also serve to translate our intention, giving potential partners, investors, and comrads the chance to get where we’re coming from and see where we’re going.
Soooooo, what’s the best way to evaluate community development? What are the best metrics for measuring social impact? Are there universal social impact/community measures?
Put another way: Is it enough to consider how quickly ideas spread (which is the present default, especially when it comes to tech development) or should we also review their stay power?
And just who should be behind the wheel of this review?
In a post from last September, my colleagues Greta Byrum (of New America) and Diana Nucera (of the Allied Media Projects) chewed over what it means to “scale” community technology, which they define as “locally-led and organized initiatives that demystify and open technology up for all kinds of people to use and modify.” The community tech they work with the most is community mesh wireless networks.
One question we hear all the time from community members, funders, and government representatives is: how do these networks scale? People always seem understandably frustrated with the best answer we can give them: it depends.
But it does. It depends on who wants to scale, and why. And it depends on what exactly they want to scale: a particular network, a particular technological solution, the impact of a technology project, or a social process for building a technology.
Scale, in a certain stretch of the American imagination today, is not just a measure of impact, but a proxy for it. It’s an understanding of popularity based on ubiquity. Omnipresence.
But while this framework might be well-suited to, say, Shepard Fairey’s OBEY stickers or iPhones (and other units of Stuff), as Byrum and Nucera note, it isn’t well-suited to translate the benefits of civic or community initiatives, which, as compound social units, are far more complex than products are.
Remember: communities are relationships. They’re social units built from shared values and experiences. While there are commonalities between the ecosystems they create (because humans), they are not static or homogenous, so neither should our approach to working with communities or “impacting them” be.
Let’s put on our social smarts hat, the one that gives us the power of nuance, and once again ask, “What does it look like to cause social change ‘at scale’?”
I think the answer has less to do with factory distribution of The Same Thing Everywhere At The Same Time and a lot more to do with what I call “patterns” and what my friend Josh Stearns calls “replicable knowledge” — basically, learnings and practices that communities can teach and share with each other and adapt to fit their lives and context best. Scale, here, becomes a measure of proliferation that looks at depth, symbiosis, and relevance rather than a measure of proliferation based on speed and quantity.
That’s how community technology, as Byrum and Nucera talk about it, works: patterns. Replicable knowledge. Learning modules adapted from one community to another (sometimes with third-party institution support and sometimes not) that allow communities to take an idea or tool and design, build, and steward its integration into their local context.
How we incentivize that kind of scale…at scale…in civic work? How can we talk more critically about the impact of measurement on the way we approach impact work? (OMG recursion.) And what does that impact look like?