Building sustainable community networks: lessons from Italy

Gigi Tagliapietra, who founded Italy’s first community network 13 years ago, shares his thoughts on the qualities needed to sustain civic networks through changes in political administrations and challenges to funding.When Gigi Tagliapietra speaks, I listen.

Gigi has been on the forefront of community networking since he launched MediaTeca, Italy’s first community computing lab and its associated network, Onde.net, in his hometown of Desenzano13 years ago. Gigi was one of Italy’s first systems integrators. Now retired, he remains involved in IT issues as the president of CLUSIT, the Italian Association for Information Security, an advisor to the European Union on information security issues, and an outspoken proponent of community networks.

I had the good fortune to share thoughts on community networks with him during his visit this week to the MediaTech in Flemington, N.J. which was designed (though Americanized) after the model Gigi developed in Italy.

What was of greatest interest to me in my conversation with Gigi was his thoughts on the qualities that have sustained the Onde.net/MediaTeca through 13 years of changing city administrations and challenges to its funding. Gigi believes five qualities have made the project such a vital force within the community, with 6000 registered users/participants, that it is now able to operate independently of the vicissitudes of politics. (By the way, he believes the worst reason for deploying a civic network is “the mayor promising the citizens something for free so he can say he gave something to them.” That makes the network a target for political enemies and presents no proposition for developing the network as a valued community resource.)

Here are Gigi’s five qualities for success. As always, I invite your comments.

  • Information awareness. An understanding within the community of the network’s importance and impact on its future. “People have to understand what’s going on. It’s not just a matter of knowing the technology and the social implications of it; it is understanding the implications of being included or excluded from it, of being able to compete. For the citizens it is a matter of participating in the community. For a company, it’s a matter of being in or out of business.”
  • Infrastructure. “For the city, investing in infrastructure is exactly like investing in sewers or electricity. It affects the life of business. It affects the life of the family. It affects the entire community. With technology, the question always comes up whether it is worth the price. But would you ever hear about a mayor or city council not investing in a fire station? No. There is no need of a fire station until there is a fire but no one questions the necessity of building it. There is no question, too, about the necessity of the Internet. The question is not ‘can you afford to do it.’ It is ‘can you not afford to do it.'”
  • Usage. There is no such thing as if-you-build-it, they-will-come .”You not only have to teach people to use technology, you have to give them the space to use it.” In the interest of inclusion, the MediaTeca opened an elder house, specifically designed to assist senior citizens with their computing needs, to raise their awareness of computer security, and to engage them in creating content and collaborating on projects facilitated by the Onde.net network. “The idea is not to showcase technology but to have people use it for their own sakes. It’s not just that they know. It’s that they do.”
  • Education. MediaTeca offers special training for parents to demonstrate ways in which they use technology to work with their children on family projects and to support learning activities in a home-school connection and it collaborates with the local schools on projects with teachers. According to Gigi, “special attention must be given to schools, not to make computer science part of the curricula but to put technology in the hands of students to use as a tool. This is where the ubiquity of wireless kicks in.”
  • The network must be a civic tool. “The challenge is creating a special place for people to connect to build a ‘community of values.’ There is a risk that the Internet will become an individual tool, that it will make you a powerful cell.” The challenge for a muni network, he said, is “how do we make it a community resource. People have to use the network to share knowledge, to work together. You are not just a business; you are a resource for the community. My wife is not just a parent who uses the Internet; she is someone who shares valuable information on parenting.” Onde.net features a variety of forums and message boards for registered users, allowing community residents, businesses, social, educational, religious organizations and visitors to interact. Its 6000 registered members represent a significant voting block in the town of 23,000 which Gigi realistically credits as the reason why the project has risen above politics to become a non-partisan civic institution.
  • A word about the Onde.net/MediaTeca project. It is not a city-wide muni wireless project. The project offers free hotspot access in the vicinity of the downtown community building where the MediaTeca computing center is located. A separate initiative, sponsored by the surrounding province of Brescia will connect Desenzano and 78 other cities in the province in a massive muni wireless project for the region around Lago di Garda in Italy’s lake district.

    You can click here to access Onde.net. If you can read Italian, you’ll get a sense of the breadth of its civic involvements.