Reflections on what might have been
Somebody once wrote, or maybe I heard it on the radio, that if you put all of the world’s top eye surgeons in a room and told them to come up with the perfect surgical tool not one of them would think of the laser. The principle has been highlighted this week by the circulation of a piece by the “Infinite Bandwidth, Zero Latency” Project. The project has a web site and there is an excellent Vimeo . There’s also an underpinning academic paper about the way the research is being done on the Open Research Online website. It’s interesting because it’s not about bandwidth, or latency for that matter it’s about how we generate innovation, particularly in the digital domain.
Amongst the other pieces that have surfaced this week is the study by Ellen J Helsper from the LSE: “The Emergence of a Digital Underclass, Digital Policies in the UK and Evidence for Inclusion” . The briefing emphasizes the emergence of a digital underclass and the “entrenched” exclusion of the most vulnerable groups with serious consequences:
“These individuals are those that rely most on the government services that are now becoming ‘digital by default’ and will continue to do so. Those who need access to services most, from where the biggest cost savings through the digitisation of services are supposed to come, are the least likely to take these up even when access is available.”
The shift of policy away from supporting the inclusion of the most excluded groups increases the risk for those groups and puts in jeopardy the potential for cost savings from the digitisation of services. The piece highlights the fact that the long tail of digitally excluded people is showing signs of the law of diminishing returns and while exclusion may be getting narrower, it is getting deeper and this is something that the current initiatives are not able to address. This is something I highlighted in a piece earlier this year.
There is a view at large that all we really need to do is get everybody on line and the problem will be solved; I’ve even heard it said that once the current generation has passed then the digital natives will be at home with the technology which they have experienced since birth. This is not the case, nor has it ever been. Andreas Whittam-Smith wrote a tantalising piece in the Independent last week in which he points out that the real promise of a knowledge economy will, in reality, only be realised by a few. The question is what do we do about it? While Whittam-Smith ponders the redistribution of wealth, perhaps through taxation and enforcement of the law he misses out some of the wider issues of social value that we will fail to realize if we don’t bring about a cultural change both in terms of policy and in terms of our expectations of what a knowledge society is able to bring. In short our knowledge economy is, once again, becoming divorced from our knowledge society.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, many times no doubt, unless you have a digital society then the impact of the digital economy will not be fully realized. William Gibson’s adage The future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed is becoming a metaphor for the British digital landscape and we ignore that prospect at our peril There was a time when content was king; I’ve used that phrase often enough myself but as with life the digital landscape moves on. A piece in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins; “Welcome to the post-digitalworld…” makes the point that “the web is not a destination in itself but a route map to somewhere real”. While I think this is a cynical piece it does have a positive message to it; just as in Gibson’s world society has literally moved on line we are seeing the potential for the web to bring us together off line. As Jaron Lanier says “You are not a gadget” you have choice.
All of this is important; why? I attended two distinctly different events this week but both concerned the same issue: healthcare. It’s no secret, we’re living longer and having to deal with everything that old age means in a world that has less resources. The first event was the Coprodnet North West in Stockport where I was able to listen to how the mental health support team together with Adult Social Care services is using co-production to support people in a challenging environment. The second was in my own local authority, Shropshire, where the emerging Health and Wellbeing Board brought together stakeholders in an appeal for ideas and information to inform the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment so that they could understand what was needed so that they could plan how to provide services. Behind these two approaches are two different cultures; the first seeks to empower the individual and to support them to support themselves; the second seeks to listen to the individual through support organisations and to help them by providing resources. It’s the difference between doing ‘with’ and doing ‘for’ and ‘to’.
Why is this relevant here? I have been encouraging interested people to look at a piece by Vidhya Alakeson and Simon Duffy called “Health Efficiencies, The Possible Impact of Personalisation in Healthcare” in which they start to map the supply chains for social care into the future. It’s a powerful piece which stresses the importance of personal wealth, that which people have and which they can bring to bear in organizing their own care. The approach which depends on co-production improves quality of life and saves resources. It is the approach which is embedded in the mental health support team in Stockport. It is my belief that digital has a role to play for all of the reasons set out above. It has the power to inform, to connect, to crowd source, to provide monitoring and most of all to empower, to give people control.
In true James Burke Connections style this takes us back to where we started; the innovations that will empower individuals in our knowledge society do not necessarily follow on from what we know now but in the world of infinite bandwidth and zero latency where we have faith in the empowerment of individuals who knows what we may find. In such a world where we recognise the potential of an empowered digital underclass to understand its own needs and to craft its own solutions then we start to realize to social value of a knowledge society and the benefits will accrue equitable to the many and not just the few.
It’s time to look again at the policies we have adopted and to un-tick some of the boxes in order to re-visit what we mean by digital inclusion, to understand the importance of a knowledge society and to think again about how we might realize the benefits.