Reflections on what might have been
One of the lessons learned from the Digital Challenge was that three years is a long, long time in the digital world. I started work on the Challenge in 2003/4. The ideas we envisaged were simple but the technology to deliver was complex; access to personalised services for the most socially excluded through channels of choice. Of course, by the time Sunderland was declared the winner in 2005/6 the digital world was waking up to the possibilities of the app, open data and Gov 2.0 The ideas we had in 2003/4 were realised but the technology to deliver had revolutionised the whole approach.
Like impatient children on a long journey we say “are we there yet?” To which the reply comes, “nearly” but should we be asking what else should be changing along the way? I’m a digital optimist: I believe that digital technologies can change lives though for me that means tackling the barriers to change at the organisational level. Digital politics are deeply embedded in the social fabric and shifting the balance in favour of the majority will not come quickly or easily.
Digital inclusion increases the opportunities for communities to learn and learning communities build social capital which in turn becomes the basis for innovation. This is a Big Society theme and is a strong rational for Digital Inclusion to be part of Big Society thinking. Digital enhances community voice; it multiplies the channels of communication, it amplifies and extends the reach of community voice. It’s another platform for opinions and stories which are there to inform service provision but can also reflect the political mood of that section of the community for those who care to engage and listen. Using digital to inform decisions will become increasingly important in the next year. Communities must be positioned to make informed decisions about which services they wish to take from local authorities, which services they wish to take from someone else and which they need to take over for themselves. The transfer of community assets can only be effective against a backdrop of information and that information needs to be accessible by the whole community and not just the Parish Council.
Ask any business and you will be told that making money is about adding value. (We can discuss whether exploiting shortages and buying market share by driving down margins count as sustainable money making strategies over a beer sometime.) Whether it’s taking raw material and producing goods or making finished goods available in a faster, cleaner, easier or more attractive way. It’s the amount of value that you add that people will pay for and that’s how you make money. If whatever it is you’re doing isn’t adding value then it’s time to revisit your business plan. The same is true with knowledge in the knowledge economy. If you describe yourself as a knowledge worker then at some point you must, by definition, take information and do something to it that adds value. It is our success at adding value to knowledge that places us at the top of the value chain whether that is by creating new intellectual property from pure research, whether it’s mining information for new insights or finding new ways to present information so that others can benefit or add value.
Politics is about power and digital politics seeks to keep a traditional power power base. Consciously or even unconsciously the desire to retain power facilitates the creation of barriers to a true digital society and a more democratic distribution of digital benefits. The Big Society has to get past the fundamental mind set of service providers that it is their role to deliver to people rather than to deliver with people. To achieve the latter you have to be able to listen, and that means listening to a number of channels at once and it means that you have to inform decision making and that means providing information openly and facilitating the interpretation of that data.
As a nation we retain an industrial mind set. The daily commute is a perfect example; how many people who travel from home to workplace every day at the same time as everybody else physically need to be there? Setting aside social and emotional needs why do we persist in work practises that have more to do with the mill towns of the industrial revolution that a 21st century digital economy? The principle of only being able to manage people when you can see the whites of their eyes has spawned an associate economy of support industries: sandwich sellers, flower sellers, free news papers and so on. In truth we don’t have to do this and the related economy would be doing more good if it grew in the communities from which the people travelled thereby contributing more to sustainable community development. The Knowledge economy is, to some extent, a location independent economy. The industrial mindset that brings people to the centre of production instead of seeing people as the centre of production brought together through a digital collaborative infrastructure also generates the kind of thinking that undervalues rural communities seeing them purely as centres of digital consumption rather than production. The perception is that rural markets need to be stimulated to create conditions for infrastructure development instead of being enabled as contributors to the economy as a whole.
In the midst of all of this we have the national initiative to get everybody on line by the time the Olympics start which brings me, in true James Burke style, back to where it all began and the impact of changing technology. Despite its altruistic origins in giving a voice to individuals and communities the plan to get everybody on line owes more to accessing services cheaply and efficiently than it does to digital democratisation. Enter the App. Increasingly the use of mobile services and apps are supplanting the Internet as a provider of services. It’s a small step to visualising a low cost smart phone with basic functionality which holds the Apps that provide access to services for that 20% of society for whom the social safety net is a vital lifeline. Apps for accessing benefits can be downloaded as easily as those for accessing i Tunes. Log in with your handy 12 digit GSI password and away you go. Face it, people were never going to realise the benefits of cheap flights, and discounted shopping in the face of all of their other problems, were they?
Hopefully, by now, you’re asking yourself, what’s wrong with this picture? We’re losing sight of digital literacy. We’re de skilling the Internet. We may well have a generation of digital natives but with their Facebook pages and You Tube videos and multiple Twitter streams can they add value? It’s not enough to get everybody on line; we have to face up to a political tension in the digital domain to keep everything as it is, a 19th century industrial society when we didn’t teach workers to measure, we simply gave them a stick and told them to work to its length. Technology is changing, and that’s a good thing, but political and economic attitudes are entrenched in self interest and we have to find ways to change those as we adapt our approaches to make the most of digital opportunities. As we come to grips with the Big Society and the implications of CSR 2010 we should ask ourselves are we going to do this best with a 19th Century approach or are we going to grasp the full potential of a digital society and grow inclusive, supportive, sustainable and vibrant 21st Century communities.