People-Centered Internet Contributions to Community Resilience

By Dr. Linton Wells II, Executive Advisor to the Community Resilience Lab at George Mason University and President of Global Resilience Strategies

The People-Centered Internet’s (PCI) aim  is to “put humanity at the center of the Internet”, and a large part of this objective includes, “Providing support and expertise for projects that demonstrably improve people’s lives and livelihoods using the Internet.”   

FIGURE 1.  CONCEPTUAL DIAGRAM FOR MEASURING VULNERABILITY AND RESILIENCE

One way to improve people’s lives and livelihoods is to increase their resilience, and not  just restore a ‘status quo ante’ as it was before a series of stresses or shocks, but rather to leave the people and their community better prepared to meet the challenges of the world they face in going forward.  In surmise, “Be prepared to bounce forward better.” This is shown in the graph below: 

The Internet can be a powerful force for building resilience.  As often has been pointed out, many more people can now be part of conversations about their future, bringing their ideas and innovations to bear, while being in a position to evaluate alternatives.  This diversity however, can be disruptive.  Stakeholders need to be engaged in constructive ways that support community concepts of dignity, justice, and fairness, and fit within the framework of available resources, and infrastructure. Community resilience can lead to global opportunities, but mechanisms for collaboration and coordination must also be made available.  

This past summer PCI members put forward a number of recommendations for ways in which to use digital technology to promote revitalization in Puerto Rico.. These include: 

  • Creating a roadmap for digital transformation, and determining priorities, assessing needs, costs, and feasibility for a government-wide digital transformation strategy. 
  • Establishing Wi-fi hotspots at various municipal and local levels to address digital disparities and provide priority connection points after a disaster.
  • Expanding data collection and standardization for disaster preparedness and emergency response as a public-private partnership to improve situational awareness.
  • Studying models and public acceptance of a secure digital identity, including dependencies on power and communications to facilitate government and private-sector transactions.
  • Building economic innovation and strengthening human capital through a public-private initiative to provide digital skills training, entrepreneurship programs, and access to new technologies across the island. 
  • Providing robust health care connectivity to strengthen resilience and disaster preparedness. 
  • Creating a Resiliency Innovation Network to build on existing scientific and university facilities to develop, teach, test, and refine resiliency products and services, potentially leading to the development of a resiliency industry.
  • Establishing a Resilience/e-Construction Learning Lab as a pilot project in partnership with universities to digitize resilient construction assessment, permitting, and reporting processes.
  • Expanding the focus on citizen-centered services and prioritize a “one-stop-shop” experience for accessing government services and information in an easy-to-use fashion.
  • Establishing people-centered digital design and data science teams within the government to tackle ‘cross-cutting’ policy and operational challenges, and coordinate among agencies.

These PCI initiatives can be applied almost anywhere.  The benefits of the Internet, and information and communications technology (ICT) in general, can also enhance the value of other technologies, or “platforms.”  These include areas such as energy, shelter, water, and sanitation, food security, and public health.  In turn, each of these is supported by education, logistics, and digital enabling technologies, such as open source geospatial imagery, distributed ledgers (such as blockchain) for transparency and accountability, and identity management.  This offers many exciting trans-disciplinary collaborative opportunities, from diverse types of engineering to communications, public policy, business, conflict resolution, and nursing,.  

Always recognize however, that sociology tops technology.  Successful projects need skilled communicators who can translate community needs into a narrative that systems thinkers can use to integrate platforms, and then convey the technical results back to the community so they see the proposals as meeting their needs. The effective governance structures that will be needed also depend in part, on modernized communications, data, and infrastructure.

Chances for success can be increased by implementing projects through a bottom-up approach, based on local engagement and leadership – and using a five-step process: 

  1. Needs Identification: Identifying a set of high-level regional needs for increased resilience that could benefit from PCI approaches. Regions can be located within the United States (US), or abroad.
  2. Localization Evaluation: Localizing these needs to communities, validate the needs, and compare them to existing resilience models.
  3. Option Proposals: Proposing local solutions (only a few of the above “platforms” would be chosen for each community project).
  4. Socio-cultural Integration: Integrating “platforms” with socio-cultural approaches to address local conditions and deliver capabilities to communities.  Each project has a distinct name, such as “Digital Puerto Rico” or “Appalachia Advancing,” and is locally led and managed, to focus on relevant issues of interest to the community, while drawing on experiences from other projects elsewhere.
  5. Iterate: Adjusting as needed and re-approach.

This approach is shown graphically below.  It is being used by George Mason University’s Community Resilience Laboratory.

FIGURE 2:  IMPLEMENTATION OF COMMUNITY RESILIENCE PROJECTS

A detailed engagement template guides each of these steps to maximize the prospects for success.

Clearly, expansion of the Internet will proceed independently of any project, but it can be such a powerful force both for building resilience and for disruption that efforts should be made to shape the outcome positively.  Community resilience is one approach, and PCI can contribute.

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