The Digital Detriment

Reflections on what might have been

Digital Inclusion – Time for a rethink?

It’s debatable whether 2010 will be remembered most for being the year when the snow came early or the year when there was a desperate shortage of sprouts the week before Christmas, a consequence of the aforementioned snow. Sprouts are not my usual entre into the world of digital inclusion but it led to a thought. A while back I posted a light hearted blog about the potential for regenerating rural areas with technology and the idea that smart grids had a role in the process. The Big Society is predicated on localism, the idea that communities will take responsibility for their own well being, take power from centralised authorities and shape their own place.

Early in December while the snow was still a twinkle in the forecasters’ eyes I read the exceptional guest blog by Louise Macdonald, Chief Executive of Young Scot the award-winning information charity, on “Click to Exit”, Mark Jennings excellent web site. Entitled “Public Services: Expectations of an iPhone generation?” . The piece had a big impact on me because it clarified one or two things with which I’d been tussling. I have no problem in equating the demands of The Big Society agenda with the benefits of digital inclusion and I put down my thoughts in earlier posts “The Big Digital Society” and “Big Society, Digital Challenge” but I was really struggling with how mobility and apps would fit into the wider picture and I expressed those concerns in “Enter the App”.

Macdonald’s piece put things into a better perspective for me: “What is changing – thanks to technology – is how young people interact with information – how they access it, how they share it, how they act on it.”  She went on to encapsulate the key features that underpin those interactions:

  • Always, always ON. Always available, always connected.
  • No longer need to store info,
  • No gatekeepers
  • Young people learn and create amongst themselves
  • They immediately scrutinise information or a service via discussion forums, comparison sites or social networks
  • No barriers to finding communities
  • Networks don’t need industrial scale infrastructure – they are loose-knit and non-hierarchical
  • Connectivity is seen as a right.

This reminded me of a piece in “The State of the eUnion” a series of essays published by 21Gov.net   with an introduction by Don Tapscott, where four pressures for change in the public sector were identified as:

  • The technology revolution of Web 2.0 which is changing patterns of production and consumption
  • The demographic revolution of the “Net Generation”
  • Social Networking
  • The economic revolution, how collaboration is changing innovation.

It was a signpost from Fast Company though that led me to a report by the Institute for The Future called “A Planet of Civic Laboratories, The Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion”  which coalesced my thinking. There is much in the report which should have a health warning; it’s based on experience in the developing world, it’s strongly city focussed and I have my doubts about forecasting techniques (there are lies, damn lies and statistics, then there is forecasting). I particularly don’t like the term “pro-poor”. The report is, however, an impressive agglomeration of ideas about technology and open data which forces one to think again about the impact of mobile technology and how we live. It’s hard to escape the synergies with what Louise MacDonald and 21Gov.net were saying.

In particular it comes to grips with the idea of public value; what it is and how it’s created. The report focuses on four drivers which it calls: Commons, markets, design and planning and governance. These relate to self organisation, demand and supply, open platforms for decision making and public oversight. Within each of these drivers the report considers the scale of intervention: People, Networks and Environments. Within these axes the report goes on to consider how mobility, data production and data consumption affect the way we design, implement and consume services and, in particular, how policies need to be “pro-poor”; namely that by enabling those who most need public services to contribute to the design of those services, informed by open data that is part of a continuous stream of outputs from the city infrastructure, we help them and we help the cities.

This idea of public value and ICT is reflected in a series of reports from the World Economic Foundation published in 2009 which highlighted the need to recognise the non-linear behaviour of networked economies and the impact of mobile:

 “Designing for inclusion entails the need to focus on human-centric value creation in all phases of the lifecycle. Given the highly personal nature of mobile communications, in-depth market sensing, rapid prototyping, community led distribution and sound feedback loops are all needed to ensure that services are appropriately tailored to meet the complex and changing needs of the poor.”

World Economic Forum. (2009). Scaling Opportunity: Information and Communications Technology for Social Inclusion.

This brings me back to the idea of The Big Society, Localism and smart grids. Is it time we re-evaluated what we mean by digital inclusion? Should we be asking ourselves the question in what are we including people? Is the set of values that underpin our approach to getting people on line rooted somewhere in the past and have we reached the point where we should be moving away from the ‘get everybody on line to access services’ approach and rethink along the lines of public value creation and design? I don’t say this lightly but I do have concerns that our current approach to digital exclusion is based on ideas from ten years ago. Things have moved on and the digital agenda doesn’t seem to have kept pace. I’m *not* saying that skills are not important what I am saying is that it’s time to re-open the debate about what we mean by digital inclusion.

On January 6th 2011 The Democratic society posted a blog on “Creating democratic, scalable innovation” a response to Dave Briggs blogpost “Is there a need for a local government skunkworks?” . Should there be a safe place in which we can openly debate how people engage with local government? I believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes” and the debate on digital inclusion and public value should be part of that.

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6 comments on “Digital Inclusion – Time for a rethink?

  1. cyberdoyle
    January 6, 2011

    as ever, none of this is going to happen until everyone has an always on everywhere connection. Currently there is still a third of the UK can’t get a decent connection to the internet. Every time I see a blog about digital inclusion I feel honour bound to mention this.
    Carry on.
    chris

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  3. Peter Roberts
    January 7, 2011

    And I remind people (constantly) that 1 in 6 or even 1 in 5 of the UK population is functionally illiterate. You need to use video or some sort of written-to-spoken text app.

    I had discussions with the Digital Inclusion Unit some time ago about running a timebanking pilot using cable television but it would have been text-based. That would have excluded perhaps as many as half of my current time bank members…

    • admin
      January 7, 2011

      A good point Peter but does functional literacy *have* to be a pre condition of digital inclusion. I don’t think so, odd though that may seem. Your point about video is well made but in terms of public value it’s the capacity to produce content and share it in terms of human stories that inform service design that is key, and who knows, may be a route into literacy and skills.

      Once again, this isn’t saying that functional literacy isn’t important, of course it is but your point underlines the need for how we view digital inclusion and the role of progression in current thinking and whether or not we need to review.

      Thank you for your thoughts.

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This entry was posted on January 6, 2011 by in Digital Inclusion and tagged , .
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