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Hazel Ashton writes:

When the sun rose after the early morning earthquake in Canterbury, many people walked around their neighbourhood.

I’ve never seen so many people walking.

During the week that followed there were lots of reports of community, of people coming together and caring for each other.

Re-building social infrastructure

A day or so after the earthquake, when it was realised possessions but not lives were lost Victoria Matthews, the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch said,

we have just learnt the lesson that material possessions matter rather less than we thought. They are less substantial and reliable, than we imagined… (John McCrone, Focus on self-help best answer, The Press, Christchurch September 11, 2010)

She and others spoke of the need for re-building a social as well as a physical fabric.

What would re-building a social fabric involve, what would it look like?

Communication technologies help restore social connections

According to John Wardle, an insightful and effective community practitioner and thinker, “community needs good information and good communication.”

Christchurch is fortunate to have a solid technology and communications infrastructure that makes it easy to communicate and access information.

In his Blog Thank you Telecom, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter, Peter Walker speaks for many in Christchurch who are thankful for such communication facilities so soon after the earthquake. He writes of mobile phones:

I sent a text to my mother in Hamilton at about 5am Saturday. I sent numerous texts to the ones I love and felt concern for in Christchurch, and, even better, in most cases I heard back from them soon after. While I was able to work on securing the house and my family, check out some of the neighbours, and look for damage around the outside of the house and on the street, I was getting texts from people letting me know they were safe, and making sure we were, too. Hard to imagine how that would have gone if I was restricted to a two metre phone cord in the kitchen. If the landlines were working at all.

And he wrote of when the power was restored – the national television then internet:

The significance of what had happened really became apparent, thanks to the LIVE images TV1 was showing. With that in the background, though, I turned on my laptop and a larger, but much more personal world opened up. Not only was I getting the selective reporting TVNZ decided I needed to see, now my friends – real people I know and love – were telling me their detailed stories and feelings.

And Flickr:

I uploaded to Flickr photos of the “destruction” in our house. My family in Hamilton could see them instantly, whereas they would not have seen them for weeks – if ever – were it not for the Internet. TVNZ certainly wasn’t coming to my house.


It was important to me that I could contribute to, and even initiate conversations. Actively involved or not, it was calming to see the conversations happening. No matter what time of the night or day, they were there, always with new updates.

In his article Core agencies could have used web better after quake, eCommerce manager Mike O’Donnell expressed disappointment about the

complete absence of an attempt by any of the authorities to harness the huge conversation empowered by the web to create an online community … voices which could be heard, conversations had, questions asked and responded to.

He hoped for support for “empowering the online voice of the affected, so people can help themselves as well.”

I agree.

I also wish local places all over the city could have had on-line conversations, and a direct sharing of stories and images (such as we were able to have in 2002 in St Albans when there was a terrible storm bringing down trees and power lines).

Post-crisis re-building with old infrastructure or new?

I think most people have appreciated the leadership of Mayor Bob Parker and Prime Minister John Key. Their message that we are not alone and local and central government would be there to help with money and support was very reassuring.

I think their media presence and messages would have helped many of us through the earthquake and aftershocks, but in my opinion, the real test is yet to come.

Harvard Business Review Blogger Umair Haque suggests what is needed in the 21st century are not leaders, but builders. He says:

What leaders “lead” are yesterday’s organizations. But yesterday’s organizations … are broken. Today’s biggest human challenge isn’t leading broken organizations slightly better. It’s building better organizations in the first place. It isn’t about leadership: it’s about “buildership”…

What might such “buildership”, especially for community building/rebuilding look like given 21st century needs and possibilities?

A useful clue worth noting is the way official decision-makers are able to network personnel and resources to reconstruct the city. They are networked locally, nationally and even beyond for co-coordinated decision-making that is able to be flexible, focused and powerful. They deploy whatever technologies enable them to work this way.

Consequently, one key component for an effective strategy for effective buildership today is the creative and focused adaptation of networking technologies for building a new social and physical infrastructure.

In an age of networking technologies, villagers, as well as official decision-makers, need to recognize together the limitations of depending simply on face-to-face networks and/or centralized organizations and bricks and mortar building to rebuild communities.

Whose ideas for re-building social and physical fabric?

If Haque is right what are needed are re-builders who are up with the new challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. In other words, decision-makers who can understand the concepts and projects needed to create well networked villages.

Chris Trotter, a New Zealand commentator quotes neoliberal economist Milton Friedman:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change and when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.

Referring to the research of Canadian social activist Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, Trotter suggests it could be easy for decision makers to pick up certain ideas and “take advantage of the population’s temporary disorientation and distress and force through radical (and often unwanted) changes.”

Christchurch is still under civil emergency and the government has already passed legislation under urgency making it easier to stream-line planning decisions. How many people, and who in particular, will be influential in making these decisions? Do they come from any particular networks? What is known about any relevant agendas they might have?

Before acting, pause to learn

The temptation is to move fast, but former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore cautions not to rush, or over-react, “we have an opportunity to rebuild in an inclusive and constructive way.”

He says:

If we are to rebuild our city then we need to adopt techniques, which make the rebuilding collaborative and engaging. To achieve this will require a dialogue, which will take time … We have an opportunity to create a new city, which is state of the art and green. We should learn from what was wrong with what we were living in before September 4, 2010, and rectify it….

Participatory structures?

I think Garry Moore is on the right track.

However, not long ago when he was Mayor it wasn’t so easy for communities to collaborate with his council at political or institutional levels and from what I observe it’s still not at all easy.

From the 1998’s I’ve tried to support a particular local community on initiatives which would have supported the local economy, strengthened the social fabric and lowered the carbon footprint.

I have quite a paper trail of their efforts … submissions, meetings, letters, consultations …

Addressing social isolation

In spite of all the uplifting references in the media to community and solidarity, people have been expressing to me how desperately lonely they feel.

I’m reminded of a blog I wrote about the vulnerable child where I quoted from a submission local community made to council in 1998:

We have in our part of town many lonely children, children with families stretched beyond endurance; families that have had to move again and again and again.

People from this local community had ideas for building the social fabric, for making it easier for community to help itself. They were ignored. They continue to be ignored.

I think Victoria Mathews is right when she says,

now is when we should be asking about what it is we want to rebuild. We face bigger questions than how we are going to put all the bricks and mortar of the city back together attain. Now rebuilding is social as well as physical.

I think we’ve heard enough from leaders and would-be leaders who advocate re-building yesterday’s organizations.

I think we need to hear more from the new builders, especially those that would like to help build effective local networks.

The technologies are available to support civic participation in effective decision-making. Villagers have much to offer. Villagers appreciate help. But I think Mike O’Donnell is right, they also want to help themselves.

I hope there will now be more interest in understanding at all levels in how villagers can empower themselves and one another in new and effective ways.

Let me know what you think? Your contributions and comments (below) most welcome.

See: Community bond displayed The Press, 10-09-10

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