Smart thinking can help bridge the digital divide

Symbiosis between old and new technologies offers the best way to ensure the digital revolution benefits all sections of society, says Ivan Tennant

The digital revolution creates innumerable opportunities to reverse the fortunes of places in decline. It has the capacity to transform the economic environment in which places find themselves, destroying and creating new models for how can be taken forward.

It reduces locational advantages giving places that have been on the margins of economic development a chance to gain access to global markets, it places more power in the hands of ordinary people giving real substance to the vision, set out in the Localism Act, of developers collaborating with people in the way their communities are built.

However, among the dividing lines in British society one that is particularly worrying is the digital separation between those with and those without access to broadband connectivity.

As non-digital forms of communication are increasingly replaced by digital in the provision of public services, so the argument becomes more compelling that connectivity is a right, like access to decent housing and basic healthcare.

For Clive Grinyer at Cisco, the benefits of cloud computing offer a means by which digital connectivity can not only be extended to as many people as possible, but can be delivered affordably. He sees a natural alliance between governments and those companies, such as Google and Amazon, that have built up massive digital capacity to facilitate cheap ‘smart’ connectivity.

Through the cloud, mobile devices could become more simple and more affordable, creating a scenario in which governments could issue free mobile devices to those on low incomes and ‘cloud vouchers’ that would enable them to access key services.

The digital divide will not be
bridged solely through ‘universal broadband’ and smart phones,
it needs old fashioned regeneration practice too

After a few years in development, we are now seeing widespread smart phone take up across the world. Architect Indy Johar of strategy and design practice 00 notes that, in some parts of rural India, smart phone ownership has already reached 36% and community workers are helping people use these devices to make better use of their resources.

Likewise in Africa, farmers use smart phones to manage their banking and business affairs. This creates a scenario in which the egalitarian vision of the ‘digital citizen’ starts to become a reality.

While this says much for the natural aptitudes of ordinary people, it is important to acknowledge the importance of design in making the mobile phone such a potent economic and social tool; for Grinyer this has been a slow process of advocacy and success has resulted from meticulous co-creation with user groups following years of disappointing levels of user adoption.

However, despite these grounds for optimism, the digital divide will not be bridged solely through ‘universal broadband’ and smart phones, it needs old fashioned regeneration practice too, ensuring people have the skills and the support to take advantage of the opportunities it presents.

Jim Coleman, head of economics at engineering consultancy Buro Happold, is quick to point out that while digital infrastructure has become as fundamental as roads, it is a supply side phenomenon.

For people to use it to find jobs, create businesses and strengthen their communities, people first need to have the ability to access digital channels and, second, to possess the skills to compete in the labour market, develop goods and services or create a viable social enterprise. Within those communities where such capacity is in short supply, it is vital to provide both capacity building measures in parallel with digital infrastructure, otherwise universal broadband may promote further inequality.

Councils could expect to generate £400m over 15 years and see the creation of 4,000 jobs through the provision of superfast broadband

Should these two key ingredients be in place however, the prospective benefits are attractive. In a recent study by Regeneris into the forecast impact of provision of superfast broadband on the part of local authorities in Cheshire, the consultants found the councils could expect to generate £400m over 15 years and see the creation of 4,000 jobs. But the study emphasises that this is only possible on account of a highly skilled workforce and strong entrepreneurial base already in place.

The fact that digital technology is a learning tool, and yet skills are needed before it can offer up its full benefits, is of course a catch 22 situation. It is one that asserts the importance of non-digital infrastructure to bring digital platforms to life. Alan Bennett said recently in an article in The Sunday Telegraph that, if the libraries go, ‘it will be the children who will suffer’.

While many libraries have been closed, some have survived by massively diversifying their range of services and in effect becoming large covered forums in which a medley of civic activity takes place.

The new library in Birmingham is an example, promising a ‘transformational model of service’ designed to provide a multifaceted facility that offers both an extraordinary knowledge resource and a full range of other services designed to place the library firmly at the centre of civic life.

This new generation of libraries recognises their survival depends on a radical shift in the services they offer and have, in effect, moved ahead of the curve and are positioning themselves as the very entities that are delivering the benefits of digital technology in their communities.

The symbiosis between old and new technologies should not surprise us. After all, wild predictions made about the death of the city as a result of remote forms of communication proved hollow. For Drew Hemmett, director of Future Everything in Manchester, mobile technology can enable people to ‘connect in a new way’ that can draw people into specific physical locations.

As well as the much publicised role of Blackberry Messenger in the August riots, it can deliver constructive activity too. For example, Hemmett is developing the Digital Village Green in central Manchester in collaboration with Cornerhouse, one of the city’s cultural hubs.

People will be able to access digital experiences by borrowing devices and being able to plug their devices into power sockets. Such projects demonstrate digital technology is as much as source of opportunity to city centres as a threat and the digitisation of public space should be seen as a means of delivering high streets revival.

This notion of hybridity extends into the use of digital platforms to allow residents to influence change in their neighbourhoods. Where web-based collaborative design methods have been used, for example Betaville – ‘an open-source multiplayer environment for real cities’ – their limitation as only offering a detached, dispassionate relationship with the city has been noted.

More valuable responses can be achieved if, in combination with digital approaches, residents conduct tours of their neighbourhood so to take in the messy reality of life at street level.

Indeed, double meaning is captured in the very term ‘smart.’ The ‘smart city’ has come to mean those places that use digital technology to deliver public services more efficiently and intelligently. But the insights offered by the digital revolution must also be about devising sound approaches to economic development based on a proper understanding of a place’s ‘path dependencies’.

In his book, The Triumph of the City, Edward Gleaser calls on cities like Detroit and Liverpool to reach back into their past and rediscover the talents that allowed them to flourish in the first place, before a reliance developed on key staple industries.

Digital technology enables us to exploit the human tendency over time to record by creating efficient means by which we can recall archives and historical material to access values, traditions and knowledge that have been lost or are out of reach.

While there is great optimism among digital leaders that the smart city will be a true revolution in the way cities are run, progress is likely to be ‘bitty’ as designers, such as Drew Hemmett and Clive Grinyer, work with people to develop user friendly ways that the vast resources of data stored within public bodies may be accessed to enable cities to work better.

In the short run, private individuals working with such designers at a local level are producing some of the most inspiring examples of the regenerative effects of the digital age. For example, Wisdom Bank in Torfaen developed by Grinyer, which explores how superfast broadband can facilitate mutual help among communities going through economic hardship.

This combination of human endeavour and digital infrastructure is key in discovering the balanced approach required if the manifold benefits of the digital revolution are to be realised.


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