Broadband Ecosystems

August 15, 2009

Ever since I read Martha Fuentes-Bautista and Nobuya Inagaki’s 2005 paper on wireless internet in Austin, TX I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ‘broadband ecosystems’.   They don’t use this phrase to describe their work, but I think it encapsulates their method. Almost all academic studies of broadband networks focus on only one part of the system – a government trying to get financing for fiber, the impact of a community networking center, or identification of the needs of the underserved. These are all valuable studies, but they often don’t take into account the big picture. Fuentes-Bautista and Inagaki break that mold.

To put their study in context, the research duo explored the connections between private, public and non-profit organizations in Austin involved in wireless deployment, as well as the impact of the tech community, socioeconomic divisions, and legislation on the wireless environment.  Likewise, a ‘broadband ecosystems’ approach wouldn’t just look at individual groups or laws, but would focus on the links (or barriers) between them to understand how various actors and factors come together to produce a particular broadband reality.  Who knows who? Whose goals compliment/contradict each other? What affects everyone? Understanding these connections is a good first step to really understanding how to improve a local communications infrastructure.

An ecosystems approach resonates with British designer John Wood’s concept of meta-design. Meta-design teams look at the big picture, find connections within a system, and identify synergies between actors or elements.  That is, when we create teams of people who are able to look a macro level while others work on the smaller parts, we can start to see how seemingly unrelated things can actually work together – for example, partnering weatherization efforts to make houses more energy efficient with ICT connectivity efforts (e.g. weatherize houses, and get them online at the same time).

Meta-design can be applied almost anywhere – to the business of a sneaker manufacturer, an elementary school, household finances, a city public health system, etc. While meta-design attempts to take a systemic view, it isn’t the same thing as top-down planning. Wood encapsulates this in his concept of “micro-utopias”. There isn’t one big Utopia that fits everyone, but designers/users working together, or users-as-designers can create, or at least envision, how we personally want to live.

I interpret meta-design as a tool that doesn’t say “one way is best”, but rather provides helpful frameworks and guidelines for people to adapt locally, at the grassroots level. Another component of meta-design may involve looking at and listening to what is going on at the local level and synthesizing a picture of this activity that those working at the grassroots can then look at and use to see where they may be missing information or to help them see potential connections/synergies between the work they and others are doing.

An example of the first kind of meta-role – designing a model – would be something like my framework for broadband networks in the public interest or the BALLE network, which provides a guide for building living economies that can be taken up and put to use in a myriad of ways at the local level. An example of the second kind of meta-role – observing and reflecting back – would be something like our taxonomy paper, Dharma’s ICANN internet user survey, or Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest, in which he collects and categorizes thousands of social change initiatives to give a major overview of what civil society is today.

A third kind of meta-role might involve being a more active match-maker, making connections between people in a larger ecosystem. For instance, there are a number of social technology applications built for this purpose, like the SSRC Media Research Hub, which connects people working in social science and media, or Wiser Earth, which connects groups that share similar sustainability-related goals.  Playing the role of making connections through good old-fashioned match-making (via personal connections, gatherings, conferences, etc.) may also have its value.

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