The U.K. Government has recently published Digital Britain, a plan that seeks to establish the framework for the roll-out and use of broadband technology in the country in the future.
Part of the plan is to establish ways and means by which the 'digitally excluded' can have access to the vast resources offered by the internet, rather than become the untouchables of the knowledge economy.
There's a huge amount going on in the field of Digital Participation just now - and some of the biggest shouts have to be reserved for the grassroots activism of Will Perrin, Talk About Local and the Digital Engagement network in the U.K., the ideas being generated by the Network Weaving group in Ohio, Australian academic Marcus Foth's work on how 'interactive systems' can be designed to support social networks in urban neighborhoods and, as ever, the guiding lights of Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater.
sometimes it seems like there can be a gulf between the economics focussed vision of Digital Britain, and the social justice discourse coming from grass roots and hyper-local social media and digital inclusion projects.
Meaning: there's a huge amount going on just now on the framework and supply side of digital inclusion but there's a gap in the middle.
Implication: if we don't sort out ways, means and opportunities to connect the dots of public involvement online, alongside boosting participation and access to technology, society and culture won't capture maximum benefit.
This is an image of a bridge that I helped deliver in Castleford, West Yorkshire. It's a major piece of new infrastructure for a small town that has won awards. Yes, it was designed by an architect. And yes, it was paid for by the state. But underpinning its commissioning and design evolution was a process that aggregated community effort and organization across the entire town and which spawned the formation of a new community group who acted as client and key driver of the bridge project.
This is a composite image of an event held in the town of Middlesbrough, North East England in 2007 that was attended by 8000 people and was the culmination of a process through which over 60 different community organizations grew food in over 240 different spaces and places across the town.
A framework for participation and a narrative was established, then local people elected to get involved, then more and more people got involved, participating on their own terms and, in the end, their aggregated effort has had important impact upon the future of their community.
These projects demonstrate two things that I think are relevant to innovation around digital inclusion.
Both have been successful in generating a community return and triggering new external financial investment - the bridge has been central to Castleford leveraging over £200m ($320m) of new investment, Middlesbrough a new £4m ($6.5m) program linked to supporting a healthier town, with urban agriculture at its center.
But more importantly, both have established mid-level platforms or enabled processes that have collected up existing local initiative, networked them, helped consumers establish a vision for their community and created a narrative that has allowed other groups and people to self-organize.
Now none of this is brain-surgery: those experienced in community organization and urban renewal have been doing similar things for years, boosted by the need to mobilize volunteering, the privatization of public services and the need for smaller towns and cities to construct business cases for investment around a mixed bag of diverse and fragmented land assets.
I have also posted on this theme quite a lot - forgive me! - linked to networking data-gathering, approaching development sites as 'ecosystems' or the value of middle-up innovation in local government.
So what's the relevance to Digital Britain?
- There needs to be acute focus pulled on building the community collective online, if what's been called 'digital maoism' is not to create another billion community activists, this time online, who are as disenfranchised as those in the real world
- It would be helpful for policymakers to link to those involved in community organizing in urban regeneration and renewal, since they have expert experience at creating and enabling what's known as 'bridging capital'
- Whether our romantic streak likes it or not, economic and urban policy nowadays is devolving to the regional and metropolitan level. This system demands localism but suggests that hyper-localism might benefit politically and economically from being joined up somewhere higher in the local political order
- Community organization in urban renewal and the delivery of urban policy benefits from a thematic, non-stove-piped approach to the design and delivery of public services. In digital participation, the provision, receipt and generation of news as a public service seems to be emerging as a key to delivering this.
All of this leads to two questions:
- What's the infrastructure that can act as both frame and driver to digital participation in the future?
- What's the hook that will encourage people to use the Internet for positive actions or what Clay Shirky has called "online barn raisings"?
In urban renewal, the hook is the opportunity to contribute to improving your prospects and the world outside your front door.
If we believe that social technology can have social benefit, it might be useful to be led by this and think harder about promoting the immediate benefits of online existence.
On one level, humanity is already doing this, using Twitter to get the message out from the streets of Teheran and Moldova and then news networks and academics picking up on the use of digital media as an instrument of expression and freedom.
But perhaps on a more mundane level, policy makers and digital practioners might think more on the line of networking existing online social media activity.
If this effort were connected with the larger process of economic improvement of towns, cities and commuities, it's uninpsired name would be the phrase 'digital renewal'.