“Two households, both alike in dignity,”

Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1 William Shakespeare


While growing older may have given me a more considered view of life there are some things that even now will drive me into a rant. One such thing is people in responsible, public facing roles who grab a headline by stating the obvious. Take, for instance, Eddie Copeland Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/people/research/item/eddie-copeland . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog http://policybytes.org.uk and an impressive CV ranging from being a Parliamentary Researcher, a Congressional Intern, and Project Manager of large infrastructure projects and so on.

His offense on this occasion is his recommendation, widely publicised in the press and on the BBC last Tuesday, that the Government should offer the elderly lessons in the internet to encourage them to ‘discover life online’. I know that this is a sound bite from the Policy Exchange Manifesto which suggests that £875m is the figure required to get the final 17% online but aren’t we entering into a world of unreality here? Actually I would challenge the idea that we need £875m to tackle the problem of the final 17% (approximately 6.2 million people); that’s £141.13p per person more or less – what’s the 13p for I wonder?

It’s not that I would deny people working in the field of digital inclusion access to a slice £875m it’s an agenda that’s very close to my heart and I do not for one minute underestimate the importance of the work; it’s the approach and the short sighted attitude that makes me so cross. This is a technology manifesto intended to influence Government policy and the headline grabber is get older people online to help with problems of loneliness.

Contrast this with the interview on Giga Om with Usman Haque on May 20th just one week earlier: https://gigaom.com/2014/05/20/thingful-wants-to-crawl-the-internet-of-things-but-is-this-the-right-model/ . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium http://www.umberellium.co.uk , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform Pachube.com. He is an architect, creates responsive environments and dozens of mass-participation initiatives in cities, festivals and galleries throughout the world.

His view is that being on line empowers people and gives them the opportunity to take control of their environment. He is interested in how cities can talk to people and how people can interact with where they live. While there is a view that you have to have the skills before you can interact – a little obvious – that view misses the point. If you are setting out policy you are driving something forward not focussing on remediation of the obvious problem. If the vision for the future is realistic and enticing then the means will be found to redress the issues but if the focus sets out that we have to do A before we can progress to B then we may never realise the vision never mind succeed in including the final 17%.

Policy Exchange also falls into the skills trap: teach the skills and surely the rest will follow. It is widely recognised today that skills only approaches have pretty much failed – which is why we still have the 17%, the long tail that grows ever longer. We have to address the issues of trust, confidence, and belief and benefit which means that skill is just one piece and it doesn’t follow that it has to come first.

Policy Exchange and Eddie Copeland are seeing people as passive participants in the digital world; consumers and employees. The trick is to see people as active participants who are taking control and realising value in a digital economy. In the digital world full time mono occupations have gone forever and we need to be agile, self reliant, just in time learners. Let us look at the means to achieve that as a headline.


The Superfast and the Furious Rural England

mary poppinsAs Dick Van Dyke says in Mary Poppins just before they jump into the chalk drawing: “You do a wink and a double blink …” Now a double blink is what I did when I read:  “HS2 could help spread high-speed broadband, minister says” in The Guardian this morning I only needed to add the wink and I could have joined Dick, the children and Mary Poppins in cartoon world. Adding benefits such as infrastructure distribution to major engineering projects is, and should be, a given side benefit though the minister in question, Simon Burns, doesn’t go into how they might differentiate the public subsidy from the private investment in order to get around the State Aid implications of this. In a desperate attempt to re-position HS2 after the demolition of the business case the government is still showing that they just don’t “get it”.

HS2 is not going to pass through my back yard so I confess to a somewhat disconnected view of the whole affair. At a push I can see the importance of central government investment in public works to stimulate the economy; at a bit more of a push I can see a benefit of a direct fast link from major cities to Heathrow though equally I can’t see that the amount of investment will yield the level of benefit claimed. What irks more than anything else though is that the government and local authorities can commit to £30+ billion of investment in a flimsy business case and yet they cannot invest more than £500m – leveraged to £1Bn eventually – in broadband technology where the business case has been repeatedly proven time after time.

On 7th January 2013, amidst a day of manic publicity on a “no news day”, we saw the launch of “The superfast and the Furious: Priorities for the future of UK broadband policy” by the Policy Exchange. The report amounted to a policy basis for leaving rural areas in the digital dark ages arguing that people don’t know how much bandwidth they use so they don’t really know what they want.  The report tries to make a case that once the current spend on broadband is over in 2015 the focus should shift to empowering consumers and businesses to make best use of the internet while creating conditions for the private sector to meet the demand through reduced regulation and long term regulatory certainty.

As evidence the report cites a literature review and a survey of 2000 people and 500 businesses but doesn’t say where the survey took place, what the split of rural to urban participants was. Simply that it was weighted to be nationally representative.

Key points where rural is mentioned as a distinguishing feature:

  • Price and reliability matter most to consumers: rural areas see reliability as more of an issue than urban or suburban areas (by 14 percentage points over urban participants) Why is that I wonder? Perhaps because it fails more often in rural areas?
  • On the issue of improved broadband over environmental protection (I guess they’re talking street cabinets here) urban and suburban participants are lumped into one for reasons not given. Virtually no difference in the responses, only 1 percentage point and based on n=875. But wait a minute, wasn’t the previous point based on n=1,752? Similarly for broadband speed over environmental issues virtually no difference.
  • On the issue of access, should everybody have broadband almost total agreement between urban and rural areas. However, where there was a question of cost, unsurprisingly a greater number of rural participants disagreed that they should pay more for access by 11% points with only 16% of rural participants thinking that they should. Are we surprise and by this?
  • Is infrastructure a priority for the public? Almost no difference in the responses between urban, suburban and rural participants. Regarding the case for government spending again almost no difference in the responses between urban and rural participants and also broad agreement that infrastructure is a top priority for business.

Rural responses are not identified in the other questions but despite broad agreement being a feature of all of the above the conclusion is that policy should focus on making the most of what we have.

The executive summary outlines the case that ending support for infrastructure after the current spending round is in line with a localism agenda and that a better policy focus would be on raising the capability of individuals.  The report argues for consumer empowerment which it interprets as helping consumers find the right supplier. The Long View talks about Smart cities, Intelligent transport and future tech and then identifies the route to connectivity for rural areas as WiFi and use of the newly released TV Spectrum. Finally the report argues the case for strengthening the role of the Minister and then highlights the importance of the consumer, the importance of retail and the need to embed connectivity into Government and mainstream business.

The report is flawed in a number of ways and its purpose is simply to justify the further isolation of the rural economy from the mainstream.

The report misrepresents the market place for superfast broadband. It’s hard to argue the case for localism when you have a centralist government that has just disempowered local people in the planning process in favour of developers. What the report ignores is that much as we parade our successful ISPs and the LLU market place it fails to address the fact that we have a single infrastructure provider of significant market power which means that ISPs only offer what is available and people only choose from what they are offered. In short, this is not an argument for stopping central investment. The report also fails to point out that of all the suppliers listed only BT has a significant wholesale offer .

The report fails to understand that the current Internet success is based on a model of consumption – not production. It talks in terms of the empowered consumer not just for broadband services but in terms of a growth in GDP driven by a nation of Internet shoppers. This view of the Internet where the majority consumes whilst the minority produces is not a long term economic driver irrespective of the speed or the symmetry of the broadband connection. Future economic success has to be based on a model of production as well as consumption and rural areas have as much a right and capactiy to participate in that economy as anybody else. The speed and symmetry of the broadband connection are the limitations on innovation that will impact on economic growth.

The report makes much of previous research and as a digest of previous work including the respected Plum report it’s worth a read. I have read the vast majority of these reports, not one of them makes the case for stopping investment or for having rural areas left out of the equation or being treated less equitably.

Another significant failure of this report is that is treats city/urban and rural as separate not only with different perceptions (which is clearly not the case) or with different needs (for which it fails to make the case) but the success of intelligent and smart cities depends on connectivity with a smart rural hinterland. Cities do not exist in isolation, they are connected with and dependent on rural areas for food, water, transit routes, skilled individuals, niche companies, artisan products, leisure facilities, carbon offset and increasingly for power supply routes. You cannot treat them as separate entities. So why would you treat them as lesser entities.

There are individual statements in this report with which you cannot disagree: you cannot disagree with regulatory certainty for instance not can you disagree with the needs of business or the expectations of Government service delivery. However the conclusions drawn by the authors are not borne out by the evidence they have collected and that is because this is a report with a political bias. A simple search on the trustees of the policy exchange reveals a body of ex Conservative ministers and Tory donors who have an agenda and to my mind that devalues this document as a foundation for policy development.

In Praise of Questions

I would like to put in a word for people who ask questions. How often do you hear someone described as a great question provider? Are you a solutions person? Everybody loves a solution and those who provide solutions can achieve minor celebrity status.  By way of example: Ofcom’s sixth International Communications Market report declared that the UK is a nation of online shoppers with eight in ten internet users saying that they had ordered goods or services online in 2012, higher than any other European country. At worst the headline received neutral press so it must be a good thing; but as far as I can see nobody questioned why we were a nation of on line shoppers. I would suggest that it’s because the thrust of public facing digital inclusion initiatives has been based on consumption but I have no hard evidence for that though I would like to ask the question.

The need to provide solutions leads to solution led initiatives which by their very nature are generally well received. Whoever was criticized for supporting older people to get on to the Internet? What’s wrong with providing access to recycled PCs for people who are less well off?  I applaud these initiatives but I want people to ask: why are we doing this? I want people to continually ask this question because when we don’t review the rational that underpins our solution it is possible to lose sight of how we got to where we are.

Our solution led digital inclusion initiative is underpinned by one or more assumptions; take for instance the assumptions about what is digital inclusion? As far as I know digital inclusion was officially defined by UK Government in 2008 as: “The best use of digital technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the lives and life chances of all citizens and the places in which they live”. (Communities and Local Government, 2008). Digital inclusion can be seen as desirable because if offers a range of potential benefits for the demand side user; the benefits case for the supply side user will be related but different, for instance, cost savings, efficiencies, profitability, reach and so on. At one end of the demand side benefits case Annie Dare, at the time Special Adviser to the Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox described the benefits of digital inclusion as:

“…..providing access to employability, to health, to education and information that the rest of us will take for granted”. (Race for 2012, 2010)

At the other end of the range of demand side benefits for those who are digitally included, viz making best use of digital technology, the benefits have also been described in UK Government policy as being:

“The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential” Steve Balmer, Chief Executive, Microsoft. (Department of Business Innovation and Skills, 2009) .

As a provider of solutions for digital inclusion do you see yourself in either of these descriptions? I posted a blog in September “Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality” about the changes in the digital landscape that will, over the coming years, affect all of us. I’m not going to rehearse them here but I do have questions that I would like you to ask yourself:

How far are the definitions and benefits still valid in 2012 and how appropriate will they be moving forward for example on a 10 year, 15 year or 20 year plus timescale?

What are the trend related scenarios (Social and Economic) which illustrate the range of activities expected of a digital person in the next 25 years which illustrate the benefits case? Do we need to generate new scenarios which support the way in which we can enable people to realize benefit from digital inclusion?

Given a range of possible scenarios is the experience of all users a positive or a negative one. Is technology liberating and empowering achieving the benefits as perceived by Steve Balmer for all users or for some users is the technology dividend limited or is it even controlling access to the benefits defined by Annie Dare?

What are the underpinning assumptions about digital inclusion? Should we challenge these assumptions in the light of new economic and social models? Is an inclusion model based on consumption of services and consumer goods adequate or should we assume the production of services or life style organisation as foundation elements of digital inclusion?

Every now and then you come across something which crystallizes an idea for you. I stumbled upon a talk given by Jaron Lanier at PDF 2012 in which he talks about the impact of digital in a democracy.

What he has to say resonated with my thoughts about the new digital reality it can be paraphrased as “the means to be middle class in the information age is shifting” but, as Lanier puts it, without middle class clout there can be no democracy. As we celebrate our nation of consumers and focus on enabling the final 18% to access services that are digital by default should we not pause, step back and question the assumptions that underpin our solutions in a disruptive digital environment. Are we setting out to empower and to create producers of content or are we simply providing access for the consumption of goods and services? Go ON, ask yourself!

Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
The Walrus and the Carpenter

With due respect to William Gibson it’s the uneven distribution of the future that has run as a theme through my blog posts since I started them in 2008. Whatever reservations I may express about our attempts to create a pervasive superfast infrastructure I can’t ignore the impact of the Digital Champion programme and the work of the many volunteers in addressing digital exclusion in England: but we still have the long tail; we still have the 20% or so who remain digitally and, very often, socially excluded in 21st century England and it is my contention that no amount of Going On is going to change that. The impact of that exclusion is being highlighted this week by the introduction of digital by default in 2013.  We should refocus our efforts to support the long tail and not just at point of service delivery but unless there is a shift in the inherent values which underpin the current approaches I suspect that the long tail is going to remain stubbornly there for a long time yet.

As the Walrus said to the carpenter “The time has come, to talk of many things”: I believe it’s time for the digital inclusion agenda to move on. I don’t mean to ignore the long tail but to recognise that to be digitally included is going to mean something very different. When we talk about inclusion today we mean the internet; when we talk about superfast broadband we mean faster internet and when we talk about the internet we mean the World Wide Web. This is not just semantics because our understanding is what underpins a traditional model of society and the economy overlaid by channels of consumption. There are vested interests in keeping the world that way; the old adage that Google knows what you want, Facebook knows what you like and Amazon knows what everybody like you also bought is as true today as ever it was and that knowledge underpins the position of those organisations as Internet power houses. Last week I watched the hour long launch of the Kindle Fire  here was an object of desire built entirely around our relationship with an on line retailer.

When the current economic crisis ends, and I have to believe that it will end whenever that may be, the factory gates will not swing open and we will not all march back into work to the sound of “Sing as we go” there are fundamental changes in play which will lead to tensions between the need of current state to sustain consumption and changes in the nature of mass employment which seeks to create efficiencies in the world of supply. A connected world brings opportunities for coordinating activity on a massive scale, powered by big data and facilitated by cloud technology: production moves to the edge, supply lines become supply points, goods and services become personalized. The new digital inclusion takes the accepted ideas of skills and literacy and the necessity of online privacy and safety and adds to it the capacity for agility and expectation of a portfolio lifestyle, collaborative ability and a committed social role. These capacities will become essential parts of a digital person, without them people will re-enter the realm of digital and social exclusion.

What will the world look like post 2020 are those are clouds on the horizon?

We will finally divorce infrastructure from the internet.  See written evidence presented by Dr Catherine Middleton to the House of Lords Select Committee on Superfast Broadband (page 245). Infrastructure will underpin intelligent homes, transport, energy, water and food supply; what IFTF calls sharable cities; what I call sharable communities.

The world will be personalized: Social care and health care will take account of personal wealth and be co-produced through a raft of agencies and local providers; they will no longer be chosen from a basket of pre-prepared offers. Medication will be personalized. Learning will be personalized, lifelong and continuous to support our adaptability and agility. Political engagement will be both personal and social; political parties will be collaborative and transitory the power will lie with the floating voter. What IFTF describes as the shift from “individually responsible intelligent organisms to complex ecosystems of biologically distributed intelligence”.

The economy will be truly digital, not a digital layer over a 19th century industrialized society but truly digital. Sheer economic pressure will force production to the edge removing costs from distribution logistics, inventory storage and over production. The rise of the Internet of Things will build intelligence into everyday objects, appliances and food and the aggregated data will fine tune supply. Big data will have value in a wider sphere than just social and market trends as providers realize that they have an interest in when and how we consume their products and services. Additive manufacturing will become the norm for the majority of consumer products and it will take place as close to the point of distribution as possible. Everything will exist in software until it is required and software will exist in the cloud; deindustrialization will be the norm.

We will experience massive disruption of traditional media; the Netflix effect will spread so that we will capture increasing value from SMART TV’s. The business model of telcos and cable companies will adapt or die: we will see the same patterns of protectionism and aggressive lobbying as we have with print media and music distribution industries but the outcome will be the same. The decline of traditional news and content providers will be matched by the rise and rise of respected curators of content as we seek trusted sources. Hyperlocal will play an increasingly important role in the information needs of communities; social media will be the second point of call for information signposting. Mobile will be pervasive and the accepted norm.

There will be little demand for mass employment and so we must prepare to have different expectations of our lifestyles. As institutional wage labour declines micro contributions increase, production becomes social. Beyond 2020 we are faced with a stark choice: Do we operate a false, inefficient economy in which we make goods in factories and consume over the internet to meet a demand stimulated by the marketing forces of the big providers as we do now? Do we operate in a way which makes us social care workers one day, manufacturers the next, educators one morning, learners one afternoon? Do we embrace a rise in the value of artisan goods and develop new skills to offer personalized services? Do we become content creators and skilled curators both to generate income and to enrich the lives of our communities?

Will all of this happen tomorrow? No of course not, this is a process of change but we must prepare for that change lest the long tail suddenly shortens and wide exclusion becomes the norm again. Consider the digital skills and attitudes that we need to develop to enable participation in the brave new world; consider yet the implications for staying as we are and not preparing for the impact of change? Do we pick up our tablet, log on to the store and order a video to watch on our SMART TV and call ourselves digitally included? Think about it.

Modernising the Third Sector – Echoes and Resonance

In my last post “A Tale of Two Cities” I made an assertion that:

“The sector, which is expected to take over the delivery of services as local authorities move to commissioning rather than delivery, is not ready for Digital by Default; ergo it is not ready for Assisted Digital. While the Government may point to the success of its digital champions and its one million UKOnline successes it has yet to address the principle client group of many Third Sector organisations, the final 20% who are the biggest users of services. The Third Sector is not ready of the impact of personalisation nor is it prepared for co-production.”

Hold that thought!

More recently excellent blog posts by Carl Haggerty and Martin Howitt on Local Government as a Platform moved me to comment first and then to think about how such a platform might work with the Third Sector as they become a key service provider.

Martin’s Diagram, reproduced here, places Service Providers as an arm linked into the Local Gov Hub along side People (in places with needs). My argument to both Martin and to Carl was that while we can identify why Local Government sits at the centre (fundholder, standards assurance, governance, political oversight) if you were designing a system to deliver services to people with needs you wouldn’t necessarily design it this way. There are additional issues around political oversight and democratic representation of the most excluded that I refer to in my response to Martin’s blog post so I won’t go into them here.

Val Lewis (AKA @otherhalf and the Val in Penval) was approached this week to do a short presentation on modernising and the role of ICTs in a Third Sector organisation where she is a member of the board. Given my opening statement and the questions posed by Martin and Carl it seemed an ideal opportunity to think about how that might look.

While this might fit into Martin’s “Service Provider” square hopefully I’m going to explain how it overlaps with that, the Local Gov Hub and the People in Places with Needs. The diagram has sections that are deliberately blurred; this is not a hierarchical organisation in the strictest sense. The curved lines represent the flow of information, from left to right and up and down the organisation. The organisation is “Social” in the sense that it uses social channels to engage with a wider stakeholder group as well as providing a direct service and receiving feed back. The organisation also uses “Social” in business; that might be a platform like “Yammer”.

The organisation uses ICTs to run its business processes, it has Customer Relationship Management, It monitors contracts, it invoices, it produces reports; it may even be big enough to have a resource management system, my point is that it uses business software along side its social software. Together they provide the Business Intelligence, intelligence that goes beyond raw figures and facts. Because the business is “Social” the opinions, the feedback, the ideas can all go into the mix. To this is added open data, the wider information that can both inform the bigger picture and can provide insights that impact on the lives of the client base. All of this informs strategy.

If knowledge and opinions are shared within an organisation then the organisation begins to resonate, ideas flow informed by formal and informal knowledge, the whole day can become a watercooler moment or a corridor conversation that oils the wheels of service delivery.

When we talk about modernising our Third Sector it’s not a question of Microsoft or Open Software; it’s not a choice between lap tops, desk tops and tablets; it’s not even about smart phones it’s about re-thinking the approach. The backdrop to all of this is Digital by Default and it’s shadow, Assisted Digital. The positioning of an organisation in a digital context begins to prepare it to support its client base in a digital by default world. This is about more than building the capacity to support ICTs, this is about how we work and what we do that constitutes work that enables us to create organisations that ultimately provide better outcomes for their clients – who are some of the biggest cost users of public services – so we all benefit.

Hopefully this post will contribute something to the discussion and I welcome people’s comments and thoughts. I would like to thank Martin Howit and Carl Haggerty for getting this discussion out into the wider world  – let’s see if it leads somewhere.

A Tale of Two Cities


Tuesday 21st February 2012, London. We wearily made our way past the groups of school girls huddled outside the O2 ready for the Brit Awards. We left the queue to the cold wind and entered   Ravensbourne, http://www.rave.ac.uk/ winner of the RIBA award for London 2011, for “See IT in Action”. This was billed as a market place for Local Government and many of the same old faces were stood, seated or prostrate in front of a sea of pull up banners like the vestigial remains of a defeated medieval Japanese army. They outnumbered the delegates who were encamped around a small temporary stage sipping hot drinks served from vacuum flasks into white cups. Having said “Hello” to the familiar faces I joined the camp followers, perused the information supplied and sipped the coffee. Francis Maude MP had been promised but a late withdrawal meant that the day fell to Helen Milner from UKOnline who gave us the news we were probably expecting – that UKOnline were on the cusp of converting their 1 millionth digital acolyte; then the news that some probably weren’t expecting, that public services will be digital by default and the fall back position for the digitally excluded will be assisted digital. There should have been a lot more detail and a lot more discussion at this point but no, we had the percentages, the older person case study and then it was time for workshops.

While Revensbourne may well be an RIBA award winner it’s design does not equip it as a conference venue. From this point until the end of the day we were engaged in a turf war with the students; given that this was their space we were the invaders it’s easy to see why they weren’t in the least bothered and hard to see why we were there at all. For all of that the content of the workshops wasn’t bad and the messages were good it’s just that the channel was poor; bad sound and appalling visuals. I managed to take away three key points: Working through communities that are close to disengaged groups is an effective way to tackle issues; channel switching can be encouraged by using technology that is relevant to people’s needs and recognises their preferences; the government knowledge hub is live and has a strong social interface because this is an effective way of both sharing knowledge and of bringing relevant knowledge to you.

At the end of the day there was a draw for a bottle of whisky and a bottle of sparkling wine; I didn’t win either. I was photographed holding a promotional mug in front of the Learning Pool stand by the most excellent Paul Webster (@watfordgap) and then it was time to leave. The queue outside the O2 was both longer and deeper and the crowds were starting to roll in. I slipped away on the Jubilee Line and headed for home.

From out of this conference dystopia some salient things emerge. While many will look at the key points from the workshops and say “we could have told you that” it must be remembered that even twelve months ago it was unlikely that such messages would have been heard at a government conference: the messages were always centralized, top down, “done to” and “Social” was something new and to be controlled from the core. This reflects a real change in approach brought about by economic and political necessity as much as anything. For me the biggest disappointment was that here was an opportunity to take “Digital by Default” by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake while framing searching questions about the details of “Assisted Digital”. Alas is was not to be and given the potential impact of these things for those who are excluded by lack of access, lack of engagement or disability this was an opportunity lost.

Friday 24th February, 2012, Liverpool. There was an almost school boy anticipation as I walked through the doors of 151 Dale Street, just round the corner from John Moors University, for “socialXchange: social in the age of digital” . The atrium stairwell of this George V building is a reminder of the civic pride of a city and a magnificent history. Down to the basement, a white label stuck on with my name and Twitter handle and, yes, more coffee from vacuum flasks served in white cups. The main conference room was buzzing, screens round the room showed the Twitter stream and we had easy access to the wifi network. Smarts phones, iPads and the odd laptop clicked away and we started to introduce ourselves to people we had never met before or who we had only met through one of the social media channels.

A chaotic call to order and we were off; a quick round robin for expectations of the day then four short presentations by practitioners working in the voluntary sector and local government. Great visuals and sound, good use of Prezi and one, consistent message: you can do things differently and make a difference. With presentations out of the way and a clear focus the screen was lifted and the blank white board, ruled into time slots was revealed – an unconference – YES! What did we want to talk about? Who had something to say?

A quick break whilst the rooms were re-organised and we were off. There were so many messages to come out of these informally organized workshops: the Third Sector has within in a wealth of talent and experience; discussion ranged from the role of social media in a matrixed managed organisation via how to introduce social media into organisations to finish at the potential for open data as a resource and as an organisational philosophy. The sector, which is expected to take over the delivery of services as local authorities move to commissioning rather than delivery, is not ready for Digital by Default; ergo it is not ready for Assisted Digital. While the Government may point to the success of its digital champions and its one million UKOnline successes it has yet to address the principle client group of many Third Sector organisations, the final 20% who are the biggest users of services. The Third Sector is not ready of the impact of personalisation nor is it prepared for co-production. The difference is that as a sector it is willing to say so, it is willing to tackle the issues and it is determined to meet the needs of its client groups.

Conference organisation apart – and the people in London would do well to learn from the people in Liverpool – the digital inclusion agenda has not gone away it has simply moved into new territory. The messages from the London conference are good ones in many ways but the messages coming from the Liverpool conference are the ones to which people should be listening. If the readers of this blog haven’t yet done so I strongly suggest they visit http://www.so-mo.co/ and connect to this network and don’t just watch but “act” in this space.

Big Digital Society, I Think Not

OliverTwistThe future is here, it’s just being denied to the majority of people. The last time I put fingers to keyboard I tried to argue the case for rethinking our ideas of digital inclusion. This was not because a great deal of what happens in the fields of digital literacy and inclusion isn’t good. This was because there is a tendancy to assume that it’s job done and one size of solution will really fit all; so let’s move on. I argued that some of the current trends in innovation and in health and social care would lead to an even greater digital divide because current digital inclusion thinking would not address the long tail of deep exclusion.

There have been a couple of articles this week which do nothing to make me feel any less concerned that we are failing to address the fundemental need for a knowledge society so that the benefits are there for everybody and not just the few.

A piece in The Guardian by Sarah Knight from JISC and signposted by Joe Wilson (@joecar) who is Head of New Ventures in Glasgow, highlighted the impact of poor digital literacy skills amongst both students and academic staff. While JISC seeks to mitigate this it doesn’t bode well for the digital natives theory. For me it highlights the limitations of an office skills IT curriculum rather than a knowledge management curriculum.

The MIT Technology Review carried a piece called “Techtonic Shifts in Employment” by David Talbot and signposted by Richard Florida (@richard_florida) who describes himself as a Global Urbanist; this piece describes how the impact of technology is superceding jobs in what was once perceived as the secure, middle management/clerical white collar sector and the skills and understanding required to create new jobs and to innovate on the basis of the newly aquired digital skills was not there – yet? – . Given the implications of the Guardian piece it might suggest that a policy shift was overdue to redress the balance; not so.

The final piece by Tristram Shepard on his “All Change Please” blog  signposted by Mike Bostock (@mike_bostock) who works in Education Leadership Development, highlights the shift in the National Curriculum away from Information Technology and Design Technology to more “traditional” subjects. Why? At a time when there are concerns about the use of IT in the higher education sector, when the shift in employment trends demands a grasp of knowledge based tools why do we see a shift towards traditional subjects?

The conspiracy theorists could have a field day; the current government doesn’t want a knowledge society and it certainly doesn’t want the democratising potential of IT to be realised. I’m not a conspiracy nerd and would take a much less charitable view that the current government doesn’t even understand what it required; their view of a Big Society is rooted in the 19th Century Victorian ideals of a benign ruling class who oversee the welfare of the masses. This is a view that will lead to the increasing inequality of our society, we may be able to shop online and watch reruns of Strictly but we will not be empowered to make a difference to our own lives.

So what should we be doing? Our policy thinking should be more systemic so that we understand more of the influences that are shaping our society. We should be more iterative in our approach and move away from the tick box mentality that has been a feature both of the last government and this one; the job is not done, do not pass go, do not collect your OBE; it is not yet time to buy the hat. Understand that short term mitigation is not a long term solution; the policy choices appear to be driven by right wing tabloids, bankers and property developers.

I don’t share the current obsession with doing things like the Americans. The only time I look towards the United States is when I think about “We the people”; these three words should be the default starting point for policy and not we the industrialists, we the editors or we the financial institutions. In a world that is increasingly digital by default the democratising potential of ICT will not be realised unless the policy default become people based; everything else is just a means and not an end in itself.