Sustainable Community Development Networks: Strategic Community-Based Models for Multisector Networks in the North and South

Gregory Searle
International Development Research Center
CommonSpace Interactive, Canada


Two years ago in the small Canadian county of Wellington, a community coalition of social service organizations, community groups, businesses, public sector agencies, and private citizens set out to develop a "next generation" community network--the Wellington FreeSpace. Meanwhile, across Canada, many communities were banding together to create FreeNets and community networks that would provide broad access for the public.

Today, many of these networks have succeeded, some have atrophied, and others have vanished completely. At the core of this trend to create community networks is a vibrant, popular movement of community communicators. The lessons learned from their experiences are invaluable to other North American communities and also to the many people around the world who are desperately struggling to close the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor.

Using the Wellington FreeSpace as a case study, this paper arrives at some fundamental conclusions about successful models for nurturing multisector partnerships to promote widespread access to information infrastructure. The result is the Sustainable Community Development Network (SCDN) model:

  1. Begin with a philosophy of participatory community development, not infrastructure development.
  2. Avoid duplication in the infrastructures of urban centers, businesses, government agencies, social services, community groups, the educational system, and the health sector whenever possible.
  3. Start building the infrastructure today with as much input as possible from a wide range of stakeholders, but do not drag the development process out.
  4. Start from the bottom up. Large, government-initiated, top-down networking efforts have a high failure rate, are often unsustainable, and are costly.
  5. Build an energetic multisector steering committee tasked with creating a viable coalition, not an infrastructure.
  6. Use local expertise whenever possible.
  7. Take a business-like approach. Take sustainability seriously.
  8. Insist upon multisector community ownership. Build the network with and for your local community.
  9. Ensure that there is community management.
  10. Whenever possible, involve students and young people.
  11. Aim for equitable access.
  12. Train volunteers to train new users.
  13. Share resources, ideas, and lessons learned with other community networks.

SCDNs offer free or low-cost access for a broad cross-section of the community, promote economic development and national competitiveness, respond quickly to the needs of people within communities, foster citizen participation in governance and community development, and create avenues for lifelong learning, cultural growth, and preservation. The development of an SCDN will ensure that a community will be able to make informed decisions in the information age and develop significant competitive advantages. SCDNs can help ensure that in communities around the world, people are guaranteed the right to communicate within the emerging global knowledge society.