The Big Digital Society?

I don’t know how many people reading this subscribe to the TED videos. If you don’t, I’d like to suggest that you do I was particularly struck by a piece from Chris Anderson of Wired on “How web video powers global innovation”. In it he puts forward the theory that the wide availability of amateur web based video is fuelling “Crowd accelerated innovation” . The arrival of the Chris Anderson piece in my podcast list was quite incidental but I have been thinking about the role of Digital Inclusion as part of the Big Society discussion. My interest in digital inclusion has always been its potential for empowerment and Big Society is, allegedly, about the same thing, empowering communities.

I have a good friend who is a farmer in Devon he has a grounded view of chaos theory: “There aint no plan, it just ‘appens” and this is how Big Society will develop. Empowerment of individuals and communities as a political objective was a feature of Labour policy albeit as a golden thread rather than a key driver for change (perhaps that’s what was missing) I blogged about it here The difference is that Big Society is driven by necessity and it will happen, believe me.

Big Society is an outcome; it might get by as a vision statement, it’s certainly not a plan and it struggles as a blueprint. Big Society is true to its urban roots, being born out of the streets of Hackney, so the pronouncements that surround it are not particularly universal; living in a smallish village I often hear myself saying “but we do that anyway”. Big Society emphasises the role of Social Capital. Surely social capital is more than one thing. Putnam’s bridging and bonding capital recognised that social capital has a complexity . Secondly, Big Society operates at three levels as exemplified by the coral reef metaphor . Three levels, precisely three? Why not four, or two which would make more sense given the removal of regional layers of influence? “It’s a metaphor!” I hear you shout, okay, it’s a metaphor but I just think we should be wary of over simplification, the implications of Big Society for Small Communities wherever they are will be significant. One of the most detailed speeches on Big Society has come from Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister in which he describes what must take place in each locality: 

  • A process of change and transition
  • Ensure that the vulnerable continue to be supported
  • Capacity building where it is needed

Note the imperative; this is not a “might” it’s a “must”.

There are a number of enablers that will actually happen. There will be a right to data and obligatory crime data publishing. The planning system will be reformed and more weight given to asset transfer and community run services. We will see “official” community organisers. Recent RSA research by the Connected Communities Team highlighted the importance of social networks and the role of key individuals in their formation, development, sustainability and effectiveness. While such individuals can be identified I’m not sure that they can be trained. There will be a transfer of power from the centre to local government who will be given a general power of competence (jokes on a post card please) and, of course, Regional Spatial Strategies will go as planning decisions revert to local councils. People will be encouraged to volunteer and coops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises will be supported.

Under the Brown government digital  was eventually degraded to getting people on line and enabling them to access services because it was cheaper to do it that way. The essence of digital as an empowering force for good was lost, because it’s hard to do. In the midst of all of the culture change, philanthropy, community empowerment, decentralisation and transparency what can digital do?

Digital supports transparency. The UK is finally getting to a place where there is broad acceptance that government data should be available on line and that it can be used in various guises to create applications that have a value for citizens. From timetables to data on local government spending it’s there to use, to inform decision making and to help people help themselves. What is more, it makes decision making transparent and transparency means better governance.

Digital can improve consultation. One of the lost opportunities of the digital age is the failure to make the most of emerging stories. The traditional consultation exercise where we tell people what we are going to do and then ask them if they agree or approve actually tells us little; 80% of owners who expressed a preference said that their cats loved Whiskers. Which means what exactly? Consulting with even a small community takes time and effort. Digital stories do not remove the effort but they do allow for a far richer exposition of the feelings of individuals and groups. The popularity of Social Media Surgeries as a means of engaging with people and developing skills gives us a wonderful opportunity. The availability of free to use web tools as a publication medium and the ability to aggregate those publications provides us with a platform to capture local opinions through the retelling of experience. It just needs someone to listen.

Digital connects. There is no substitute, nor will there ever be, for bringing people together to hear a message and to give a view. What digital brings is the ability to share events more widely and to capture considered views after the event. A-synchronicity has a value because it gives space and time but most importantly it collects views in one place, it crowd sources.

Digital communicates. The rapid growth of social media tools and free at point of use tools to publish content has opened a Pandora’s box of amateur journalism. People can share what they think and their audience can comment. An on line dialogue of news, views and opinions. The growth of hyperlocal sites is testament to the popular recognition of social media as a channel for local views and news. We may, or may not agree with Andrew Keen in “The Cult of the Amateur” that widespread citizen journalism undermines the quality of the printed word and degrades the value of journalism but we cannot deny the right of the citizenry to have their say.

Greater transparency, richer consultation, diverse, a-synchronous  connections between individuals and groups and considered communication yet it still begs the question: Can digital empower? Does giving people a voice that has greater reach than their community empower them to make a difference? Is it enough just to publish on line or does the power of the Googlarchy negate everything in the community domain. Is digital democracy a myth? We cannot expect it to work in isolation. The potential of digital inclusion to give voice to a community has to sit alongside everything else. In the 2010 election it was broadcast media that engaged the majority but it was digital media, the gossip channels of the chattering classes that cohered opinion and established the trends.

The new localism waits in the wings ready to challenge the established order of local government and service delivery. It is about to disrupt the raison d’être of the established third sector and it is opening to door to new forms of organisation and individual action. Perhaps now, the potential for digital inclusion will play a part in the empowerment of communities and crowd accelerated innovation with become the accepted norm.


One thought on “The Big Digital Society?

  1. The potential for a digital society cannot be underestimated. The problem is this can’t happen until all have access to the technology. Our aim must be to make sure everyone in this great country does have access. People in rural areas are currently able to generate electricity and pump fresh water if they aren’t on mains services. There is no way they can create internet connectivity. In many areas there isn’t even a mobile signal. This issue has to be addressed, and the only answer is fibre. Once that fibre gets to them it also means other areas on the route suffering from very poor connections also benefits. Once everyone has decent connectivity then the real digital society will happen. People will use it once its easy. Getting a page to load has to be instant, otherwise people don’t engage.
    I totally agree with your article, localism is already there in the analogue world, and it can become a far greater force for good in the digital one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s