Community spirit

Article first published August 2000

A Hulme estate has become the UK's first virtual online community. Kate Zamir reports

The Bentley House estate is one of the few remaining parts of Hulme, Manchester, not to have undergone regeneration through demolition and new build.

Six blocks of three storeys high flats remain, with 248 homes in total. They were built around 1950 of red brick - hence the local name of 'Redbricks'.

The average population of the estate has remained constant, but the impetus for retaining community spirit had been lost. Supportive structures have not been maintained and the estate has fallen into disrepair. Many residents had suffered from a poverty of expectations, particularly with regard to opportunities to assist in change.

Eighteen months ago, a social and technological experiment began on the estate.

There were no announcements, no media coverage, just the quiet measured pulse of a community regenerating from the only possible starting point - within.

The technical face of Redbricks, the first virtual online community in the UK, is a network of 70 homes linked by computers to the internet, using and sharing an internally designed and developed intranet.

A small group of visionaries, mainly with non-technical backgrounds, dreamed of simply stopping the erosion of deprivation. Redbricks was their home and neighbourhood so they had most to gain from the regeneration, or to lose through continuing degeneration. Redbricks Online was one of the innovations, but other more familiar mechanisms were also established: LETSystems, recycling and a Permaculture group.

Some of the original group claim Redbricks Online is a happy accident, the right people, in the right place, at the right time. There was no major planning exercise involving the whole community - conversations in the local pub were considered initial consultation. The result is an exceptional example of social entrepreneurs committing hundreds of unpaid hours and some of their own income to prove the viability of the project.

The community on the estate owns Redbricks Online. They are not a constituted body; there are no committees or bank accounts; no public funding has been used to finance Redbricks Online; no outputs were promised; and there were no restrictions imposed by funding agreements.

No one knocked on doors asking people to come on line, no leaflets were distributed, and there were no public meetings. The physical and social network spread as individuals encouraged family, friends and neighbours to share something they valued. Endorsement by word of mouth worked just fine.

Computers and connection cables have been installed without any public grants, while nearly all the residents are unemployed or on low incomes. A small charge of £12 per month is paid for unlimited internet use.

As many of the computers have been recovered for reuse, the total price is within everyone's reach at about £100 each. The more participants use the service, the more cost effective it becomes to share the cost of the lease line.

A few residents had computer or internet experience, a few others had attended related courses. New users can generally find a neighbour to advise them.

Hulme is infamous as an area of violent crime, but like all reputations, part of this is earned and some is exaggerated. The intranet has a 'shout' mechanism, which sends a warning to everyone. Redbricks Online is building the first virtual neighbourhood watch with plans to have a number of cameras covering shared walkway areas. These will provide a simple message to anyone intent on crime: 'There are a number of online residents with cameras, some of them may be looking at their computer screens right now - how lucky do you feel today?'

From the beginning, the initiators felt that if the Redbricks experiment was to mean anything, it must have a practical application and be reproduced elsewhere.

Introducing the technology without the social infrastructure development would be as unwise as throwing vast sums of regeneration money into an area without taking the community on board.

Redbricks has established a development agency, OverMet, to help other areas to achieve success. OverMet offers a complete development package, from the initial introduction of cables, hardware, and software, to engaging local residents in the design and implementation.

Kate Zamir is the development adviser at Redbricks,, OverMet Ltd, tel: 0161 236 7242

P.S.: Thanks to British doctors and businessmen for help in a difficult moments the authors website.