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Digital innovation and social resilience: How can COVID-19 help us prepare for the next crisis?

Dr Gregory Asmolov

Lecturer in Crisis Communication

05 May 2020

Social bonds forged using technology during the coronavirus lockdown have brought communities closer together, with neighbours joining forces to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. But how do we preserve the social capital built up during the last few months? Dr Gregory Asmolov looks deeper at the hyper-local revolution and how it might help us prepare for future crises.

The role of communication in a crisis has traditionally been a means of informing the public about an emergency in order to achieve a desired behaviour - take ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ for example.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has demonstrated that the role of crisis communication has now gone far beyond communicating the risk to a broad audience and mitigating the negative consequences of disinformation.

Crisis communication in the digitally-mediated information space has been concerned mostly with offering different relationships between crisis and people. The public is no longer considered a passive audience, but an active participant.

Technology has offered a variety of opportunities for engagement with the crisis and has continuously increased the scope for participation in terms of both the range of people who can participate and the diversity of the tasks they can fulfill.
This practice of digital mobilisation of human resources, also known as crowdsourcing, has allowed us to address several challenges.

While crisis-related mobilisation that relies on digital tools is not a new phenomenon, COVID-19 has been an unprecedented accelerator of digital innovation related to participation in the crisis response.
One of the reasons for this is the global scope of the crisis, which has touched almost everyone. Another reason is that, due to the lockdowns, our everyday lives have become increasingly digitally mediated.

For instance, hundreds of online projects have allowed us to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), not only by crowdfunding which has allowed the purchasing of equipment for medical needs, but also through the production of various types of PPE through relying on the open-code development of various digital prototypes and on 3D printing.The wide range of online activities that address the crisis can also be categorised as a mobilisation of collective intelligence. At the same time, thousands of hyperlocal mutual-aid groups have been launched in the UK, relying on WhatsApp and Facebook technology. These groups have been able to address the needs of people affected by the crisis. Special platforms  have allowed people to find or add a hyper-local group in their own immediate area.

According to Simon Kaye, from King’s College London, “mutual aid groups emerged more quickly and remain a more advanced response than any of the centrally coordinated volunteer organisation efforts that have been started in parallel".

If this crisis opens a window of opportunity into a better society, the question is how do we make sure that this window remains open after the crisis?– Dr Gregory Asmolov

The crisis has unlocked the generative potential of the internet to bring about what Jonathan Zittrain has described as "unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences". It has also produced a wave of innovation that is enabling new forms of participation, collaboration and problem-solving.

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit argues that disasters introduce alternative ways of maintaining social order while rejecting social alienation. However, as pointed out by sociologist Allen Barton, an emergency-related social system that relies on altruism will fade away: when “people get tired of helping activities, the enthusiasm wanes, the normal antagonisms revive”.

In such a case, Barton says, “unless the social system re-stimulates the original experience or supports the first emotional reactions with other motivations, the behaviour evoked by the disaster will gradually be reduced”.

If this crisis opens a window of opportunity into a better society, the question is how do we make sure that this window remains open after the crisis?

This question is particularly important in light of the next crisis yet to come. Even if we are able to leave the current crisis behind us in the next few months, it may create a cascading effect and lead us to an unpredictable chain of crises. Scholars also warn that COVID-19 isn't our biggest threat.

There is a high degree of certainty that we will not be able to see the next crisis, but we can still prepare and learn from the current crisis.

According to Shahar Avin and his colleagues, catastrophic global scenarios can be divided into three key components: critical systems that can be affected by a crisis; the spreading mechanism of the threat that can make it global, and the means of mitigation that can allow us to protect the systems and limit the spread. On the one hand, complex global networks as spreading mechanisms certainly increase our vulnerability to various threats. On the other hand, the digital innovation seen in response to COVID-19 helps us to build new technological and social mitigation mechanisms.

The question is how to maintain and sustain these mechanisms. We need to support the potential for self-organisation, as well as to mitigate the factors that restrict our capacity for addressing these challenges. Perhaps there are no clear answers about how to do this, but starting to think about it right now is essential.

One of the major phenomena of the current crisis is the revival of hyper-local communities. Many social scientists have noted the decline of traditional face-to-face communities in the urban environment, particularly in big cities.

Some digital platforms have offered us a space of continuous connectivity and made us members of numerous online communities but these communities have, in most cases, disconnected from our physical living spaces. The internet is said by sociologist Barry Wellman to have transformed traditional communities into individualised networks.

Hyper-local online communities, however, have resolved this contradiction by offering a tool for getting in touch with the people around us. In a situation of crisis, hyper-local community is the first resource that can be mobilised to address any need, and the first responder. Crisis-related rituals, as in the case of clapping from our windows for the NHS every Thursday, has also contributed to the face-to-face contact that makes hyper-local community stronger. This type of ceremony has contributed to the emergence of a shared hyper-local identity.

Supporting new networks

To ensure the rebuilding of society through hyper-local mobilisation and networks has more than a relatively short-term effect, these new networks of mutual aid need to be supported and sustained as a major resource for social resilience.
Keeping the momentum may require some additional technological enhancements, although most successful hyper-local communities rely on popular tools like Facebook and WhatsApp while dedicated solutions seem to fail to attract enough people.

However, the most important aspects go beyond technologies. These communities rely on opportunity structures for mutual aid and the addressing of mutual needs. In order to flourish, hyper-local communities require a shared agenda and a continuous reason to exist.

The sustainability of these networks can be supported through policies that approach hyper-local communities as key actors. At the same time, a mitigation of the negative aspects of community is required.  As pointed out by Amitai Etzioni, “the pandemic reveals a much more complex, and sometimes darker, side of communities”, including harassment and a radical manifestation of digital vigilantism that is justified by the wellbeing of the community.

The latter suggests that neighbours are being addressed not as a subject requiring help, but as a potential threat and an object of control. Concerns such as privacy, security and inclusivity have to be tackled, while, as Myria Georgiou points out, some of the most vulnerable still remain outside hyperlocal communities.

Transforming the crisis-related mobilisation of entrepreneurs and tech communities into better social resilience will also require institutional support for bottom-up innovations. For instance, following the success of the makers community in dealing with the lack of PPE, more investment in the infrastructures that enables decentralised, peer-to-peer forms of 3D production is needed.

The need to make sure that different policies allow the harnessing of collective intelligence in times of crisis has also been highlighted by Nesta. At the same time, we also need to think about how to restrict regulation that may diminish the capacity of the internet to address new challenges.

Looking to the future

At the moment, we continue to be focused on the solution to the COVID-19 crisis. But now is the critical time to start thinking about how to preserve the innovative and social capital that has been developed during these last months, in order to make us more resilient in face of the crises yet to come.

Already, the New America Foundation has started to develop a database of the best innovative practices that can contribute to rebuilding beyond the pandemic. But much more will need to be done.

It will require strategic thinking about how to enhance people’s capacity to mobilise and participate in crisis response, and protect, in the post-crisis situation, the new social formations that have emerged in response to COVID-19.

Once we start to come back to normal everyday life – even if it is a ‘new normal’ – eventually the window of opportunity into a better society will close. However, the latent resources of the previous crisis may stay with us and help to open the window fast enough to address the next one.

In this story

Gregory  Asmolov

Gregory Asmolov

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow


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