Copycat system for community action plans

The advantages of community engagement for local authorities:

Wrexham Borough Council Leader Aled Roberts showed through a series of examples how his own local authority had benefited from involving residents in setting up and running local services. This experience also demonstrated that there is no single model of neighbourhood regeneration because communities are best placed to decide how it should be done. Quoted from ‘’Bringing Neighbourhood Centre Stage in Wales; 2008′

1 The basics of networking

When the UK strategy for sustainable development was first launched, the idea of a national citizen’s environmental network was proposed.  The aim was to unite people to share their ideas and achievements in making and running community action plans for living sustainably.  It was envisaged that the ‘copycat network’ should be initiated and controlled at the community level.  However, the idea as it was originally proposed did not materialise.

An environmental network needs to have the following two features:

·         A system for social networking

·         A freely accessible database for presenting the community’s planning process and its current state of progress towards meeting outcomes of citizen-led environmental improvements.   

The Internet is now available to accommodate these two features on line.  The first requirement is exemplified by text-based screen presentations such as  ‘wikis’, blogs and ‘conversational threads’; the second is illustrated by the ‘web viewer’ for presenting versions of the relational databases that are used to record planning as a process, which can both be interrogated on line.  

An Internet community consists of:

• People, who act socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating.

• A shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a facility for the community.

• Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s interactions.

• Software systems, to support and mediate social interactions and facilitate a sense of togetherness”

These common activities help to create a sense of community by providing a common feeling of identity, with which the members of the community can associate themselves. This growth of trust between members of a community is an important factor in the success of an online community, and those common factors that help shape the behaviour of community members become practiced habits which help to construct the norms and identity of the community as a whole.  The strength of the network is frequently perceived to impart a heightened vitality to the community, and contributes to a strong sense of community identity.

2  Social networking

Social networking is the process of initiating, developing and maintaining friendships and collegial or project sharing relationships for mutual benefit. Current discussions surrounding social networking deal with web-based or technology-mediated tools, interactions, and related phenomena, but social networking really takes place in many forms, including face to face.

Much technology-facilitated social networking is done in the form of person-to-person exchanges that can be classified as question and answer, point and counterpoint, announcement and support.

Technologies that facilitate social networking tend to emphasize ease of use, spontaneity, personalization, exchange of contacts, and low-end voyeurism. .Some technologies that are often considered social networking technologies may not be socially oriented in and of themselves, but the communities that form around such technologies often demonstrate key elements of social networking (for example, the discussion communities that form around collaboratively authored wiki content).

Online community networks are often developed and deployed to supplement residential communities in an effort to revitalise and grow neighbourhoods and to revive civic engagement and local community identity in society. In this context, the ubiquity of the Internet enables and encourages users to pursue ‘personalized networking’ which leads to the emergence of private ‘portfolios of sociability’. ‘Proximity’ is the factor in on line residential communities which produces networked individualism.  This gives online residential communities a competitive advantage over dispersed online communities. Residential networks allow residents to interact online and to continue developing online interaction offline, in real life and face to face. This offline and place-based dimension introduces challenges to the design, development and rollout of online community networks.

Reaching a critical mass of users is considered to be the key criterion of success and has been reported as one of the most common stumbling blocks: “If you build it, they will not necessarily come”. However, other studies have shown that a critical mass of interconnected users alone is not sufficient for a community network to live up to higher expectations, such as increasing social capital in the community, fostering sociability and establishing community identity.  Those geographic communities already rich in social capital may become richer thanks to community networks, and those communities poor in social capital may remain poor, or simply put, connectivity does not ensure community.  Something else has to be done.  The Internet neither destroys nor creates social capital,  people do, and the Internet will not automatically offset the decline in more conventional forms of social capital, but  it has that potential.

Some examples of popular social networking technologies include:

  • asynchronous discussions via discussion boards or newsgroup
  • instant messaging, e.g. MSN, AIM, and ICQ
  • text-messaging or SMS
  • message logging and sharing, such as Twitter
  • document sharing and controlled collaborative authoring, such as Zoho or Google Docs & Spreadsheets
  • loosely structured collaborative authoring and information sharing, such as wikis.
  • photo sharing, such as Flickr and Picasa
  • video sharing, such as YouTube
  • blogs (life-sharing, news analysis, and editorializing)
  • online communities, such as Nings, Facebook, etc.
  • Second Life – sort of a combination of many of the above communication and collaborative tools

3  Planning

An understanding of planning logic is necessary for all human activities, from baking a cake to running a multi national corporation.  The basic procedure for making a community action plan is to set a measurable objective, schedule the work to be done to meet it, and report what was actually done. Monitoring is then carried out to check how close the outcome is to the objective. Plans are essentially diaries of what to do, what was done and what remains to be done.

Plans can be made on paper, but using software is better.  The planning logic in the Copycat System for making community action plans is based on the conservation management system, the CMS, used by UK Environment Agencies to produce conservation management plans for nature sites.  In a wider community context, conservation management is equated with planning for sustainability in all aspects of community life.  Every neighbourhood becomes a distinctive place worthy of environmental improvement. A community action plan can be modelled on the preservation or enhancement of its core green heritage assets, no matter how small. The plan can then be extended to include the management of other community assets/issues, such as health, transport, security, energy use, tidiness, and opportunities for employment and recreation.  In this context the basic planning logic unifies action and recording across sectorial boundaries.

Making a start with local ‘green’ issues is good beginning because the increase and maintenance of local biodiversity is the central principle of sustainable development on all  geographical scales. . In this respect, ‘Come Outside!’ is a Wales-wide scheme, which enables communities to gain the benefits that the outdoors has to offer. By addressing community needs and aspirations through outdoor activities, participation becomes valued and the benefits are sustained.   Dave Horton, Senior Community Development Worker Ely/Caerau, where this scheme was trailed in Cardiff, said:

 “This project is aimed at uniting the communities of Ely and Caerau and giving people the confidence to enjoy their local environment.

“It also offers the local community a chance to learn new conservation skills such as planning and managing green spaces.”

4  Planning and recording logic

To plan to make a difference we need to know and record the answers to the following sequence of 10 questions. 

1 What is the current condition or state of the issue, system or object?

2 What is its desirable or favourable state?

3 What has to be done to achieve that state?

4 Who is to do it?

5 What do they need to do it?

6 When is it to be done?

7 How is it to be done?

8 What was actually done?

9 What difference did it make?

10 Who needs to know?

This is the planning logic of the CMS and in this sense the software is basically an interactive, dedicated PC diary.

The operational procedure to implement a Copycat System for action planning  is to:

a) Direct community leaders to a local nature reserve that is already running the planning system according to the above planning logic for a demonstration.

b) Use the reserve’s plan to show resident’s groups how to apply the planning logic to produce their own action plans.

5 Planning for a good ‘sense of place’

Sense of place encompasses the meanings that a given place holds for people and the attachments that people develop for that place. It is expressed when people say they feel good about where they live.

There is an environmental element, pinpointed by what have come to be known as ‘front door issues of environmental poverty’ and an economic element (the ‘back kitchen’ issues of traditional poverty.

Environmental justice seeks solutions to front door issues of environmental poverty.

These issues are usually defined in the ‘square mile’ where people live, walk and socialise.

The objective is therefore ‘to increase the proportion of people who feel good about their square mile’. Success in achieving this objective is measured with before and after social surveys. Valid and reliable surveys for measuring sense of place exist and have been tested successfully as assessment instruments. These yield outcome performance indicators.

The factors that influence the objective are many and varied. They fall into four groups:

i Sociability, which includes:

Number of women, children and elderly

Social networks


Evening use of the neighbourhood

Street life

ii Uses and activities, which includes:

Ownership of local business

Land use patterns

Property values

Rent levels


iii Comfort and image, which includes


Sanitation rating

Littering/refuse collection

Condition of buildings

Trees, gardens and grass


Local history/heritage highlights


Recreation/play areas

Creative arts groups

iv Access and linkages, which includes


Public transport

Pedestrian and cycling activity

Condition of roads and pavements

Parking patterns

Success in creating a good sense of place depends on bringing many different providers together to address one or more of above factors in an action plan. The factors can be monitored from time to time through neighbourhood surveys to measure the effectiveness of plans dealing with specific issues. Before and after attitudinal surveys provide performance indicator to check out progress towards the community’s overall planning objective of establishing a good sense of place

6  Global Copycat

The management of rice growing has been revolutionised by a new  copycat movement that shares knowledge between growers in a community commons.  This is the SRI system that essentially promotes rice production using low planting densities with low water input.  The system is diametrically opposed to traditional methods.  The SRI group is diverse and accommodates different viewpoints and is open about conflicting viewpoints. There are members who support hybrid rice and mechanisation, and others who vigorously champion traditional varieties, organic methods, and hand tools. Yet, the group has shown tremendous participation in sharing and creating common resources. This was called upon recently when the National Food Security Mission (NFSM) was engaging with civil society organisations, and there was an urgent need to quickly put together information on the number of farmers using SRI methods and their acreage. A database was created in a very short span of time online across the country. Such a task would have otherwise taken weeks, if not months. It would be folly to see the use of internet in isolation, however. The SRI network uses it as a tool for networking, learning and sharing, and it is not a substitute for real face to face work in the field. In fact, some of the more active SRI promoters have little time and access to the net and cannot contribute to the e-group, but yet they do keep following the conversations.

There is a case for exploring how such networks function as conduits for knowledge and information flows and the process of co-creation of knowledge that can be applied to a range of environmental improvements that require the spreading of grass roots know how.  This is the need throughout the world, where communities of all kinds are working to preserve local lifestyles, encourage their core values and maintain the distinct sense of place that matters to them. People can only protect what they hold most dear in their community by bringing important local stories into play in ways that help create a better widespread understanding of where they live and what they can do to protect and enhance community assets.

Some examples of Copycat networking tools are:

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