Sometimes communities aren’t ready for the changes being thrust upon them. Stuck in the traditional way of doing things, they embrace any kind of new change in ways that actually place that new dynamic back within the constraints of old paradigms.

The information superhighway was meant to connect us to one another at blinding speed, posing the possibility of a new kind of citizenship that was both immediate and compelling. Instead, the powers that be absorbed it into pre-patterned mechanisms that directed us toward online movies, gaming, online products, and personal revelations that ran the risk of undermining the new citizenship before it even got out the gate.

This happened in times previous when major transportation routes linked to existing corridors in ways that expanded a suburbia which we can no longer supply or sustain. The primal motive was speed – lots of it. While portions of our communities were deteriorating around us, we excelled at getting to the box stores and malls with haste, purchasing ever-larger vehicles to get us there in ease and ferry the endless products home. It was great. Our residences were filled with the newest gadgets even as old family farms were dying out, healthy foods were banished to the perimeter, community was scattered beyond meaningfulness, and citizens morphed into endless wanderers, especially during shopping hours. Sadly, what could have been a tool to draw us together instead propelled us centrifugally outward until we only saw one another in passing.

Communities in similar fashion have absorbed the Internet. Instead of permitting it to lead us into a new way of community life, we permitted it to successfully accomplish what we were already doing, only faster. More information was flying around than ever, but it wasn’t necessary data about building better communities as it was a menu of options to fulfill our own pursuits even more quickly. Futurist Robert Theobald pointed out the possibility in the digital world’s early years when he noted:

“We are building it before we have a local knowledge system in place. We shall therefore reinforce an already existing pathology of looking outside our own systems for ideas we need rather than finding competence with our own communities.”

What we ended up with were flattened communities, flattened economies, and flattened citizens going ever faster for the latest offer, more consumed by the destination than the journey. Ultimately, as Theobald assured us would happen, we spent more time racing about the community than building it, permitting corporate entities and fixed policies to determine our quality of life.

We might now be living in a time when that is all changing. In London, Ontario, my community, the fixation with foreign investment and domestic policies designed to attract it are slowly giving way to a new method of looking within ourselves to discover and build the resources necessary for our future. We are city quietly being reborn.
And the chief resource for accomplishing this has the digital world, in its various forms and possibilities.

A case in point has been the reaction of citizens to the shutting down of the ElectroMotive plant in London. It has been devastating and troubling in equal measure. But while traditional methods of recourse shook their fists at one another, offering blame instead of sacrifice and solutions, local citizens and firms began using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, websites and smartphones. Instead of flattening citizens out, it brought them together – initially on the Net, and then physically. And everywhere the discussion threads were about helping the workers, deriding Caterpillar, suggesting solutions, sending notes of sympathy, or creating digital petitions. As a result of a blog posting, one group – Emerging Leaders of London – took the lead in building a “compact,” in which citizens and businesses signed a deal online that would see them work together to form a better and more prosperous community by coming together rather than remaining in the traditional consumer/seller relationship.

The effects ran even deeper, as workers communicated by email with interested citizens, requesting solidarity or practical assistance in a time of great need. One well-known legal firm – Harrison Pensa – used their Facebook page to generate resource for the London Food Bank by encouraging citizens to just push “like” on the page and a pound of food would be donated. Given that the food donated will find its way inevitably into the cupboards of the laid-off workers, it was a practical use of digital technology to bolster humanity and build a community response at the same time.

You see what I mean, don’t you? Almost overnight, and due to a traumatic event in our community life, London is redesigning itself via the remarkable power of the digital domain. One dynamic service provider – Orpheum Solutions – is providing low rates for those citizens wishing to use podcasts, videos, blogs, etc., to improve the quality of life in our city. Our best known economist is using his blog and Facebook entries to help average citizens understand the current economic decline and is working with Emerging Leaders to refocus community attention on those smaller and medium-sized local businesses and their importance for our future economic health.

Most of all this is happening outside the historic patterns of response and serve as a complementary response to a community in need. Almost overnight we are realizing we are a community in the process of being reborn through a digital world we once weren’t ready for but which is now changing us for the better.