Knowing Your Place — that place you call home — Part 4

Altogether Now [part 4 of a nine-part series]

Earlier in this series, Local Fabrics’considered the qualitative threads that help make places thrive. In Connected With Success’the spotlight turned on local underlying digital infrastructures and, in last week’s episode, (‘Where Have All Our Flowers Gone?’) centre-stage was taken by the Knowledge Workforce — or lack of it. This relatively recent realisation of re-training needs has incentivised community leaders to prioritise employment skills relevant to their local economies; placed-based economic viability demanding precedence over general concern for citizen wellbeing.

In the early part of this century the UK government established a specialist team to tackle the challenges of Digital Exclusion. After two years the Cabinet Office changed the name of the game to Digital Inclusion. That more-positive terminology has since changed again to ‘Digital Equality’ and, in a broader context, there is still much concern for ‘those left behind’.

In truth across the UK and elsewhere we have seen remarkable progress and much imagination applied to the challenge of ensuring that citizens are able to cope with the proliferation of new digital services.

The pressure on public services to reduce costs and offer better, more responsive, services has partly been resolved through slicker software/systems design, smarter smartphones and two decades of increased awareness of all types digital services. This has not, however, been without pain. The film ‘I Daniel Blake’ starkly illustrated the trauma experienced by disconnected and downtrodden folk, unable to navigate baffling and bureaucratic systems.

More significantly than any centrally-led initiatives, the work in local communities — through local libraries, voluntary organisations, housing associations and employers — has made great inroads. If, within local communities, there is still resistance to digital participation it cannot have been helped by recent revelations around unethical use of personal data or the nightmare of over zealous immigration policies. Digital Maturity– a shift from basic inclusion towards a far better appreciation of data security and avoidance of harm — is the latest challenge on the long road to Digital Equity.

Caring to create a ‘healthy’ community now requires local concern for more than connectivity and citizen engagement — it requires progressive effort to ensure that people are both included and protected. It means that local voluntary clubs must be aware of and responsive to data security protocols. It demands that local public services are fully conformant with new legislation and do not inadvertently leak citizen data. It requires local leadership in encouraging ethical standards in business.

Despite the progress made in the last two decades, there is still much work to be done within communities to promote cohesion. There is no doubt that social media platforms have provided a tremendous boost to local awareness and citizen collaboration. There is still more to be done to ensure that these facilities are used with care and consideration.

That is why Digital Equity remains as one of the key indicators of any Intelligent Community. Measuring it is a qualitative challenge but evidence of the actions being taken can yield a seriously scaled pool of positive experiences that add to a community’s sense of purpose. In our ‘Information Economy’, Digital Equity deals with one aspect of society’s many inequalities — but it is one that can provide a path towards resolving others.

How local is your Localism?

The challenge of measuring community inclusiveness and engagement also raises testing questions of identity. Local leaders, driven to throw off the ‘shackles’ of central government, may aspire to ‘city sovereignty’ to create a powerful coalition for action. The fluid dynamics of agglomeration demands flexible responses to diverse topics over time — some things need fixing very locally whilst others need wider support — but, at root, all citizens should be equipped to engage, and all public systems/services must be designed to cope with differing levels of their engagement.

At the Intelligent Community Forum’s summit next June in London, delegates will hear how local leaders from around the world are finding innovative ways to enable and encourage their citizens towards digital maturity.

Who do we think we are? (Part 5 of the ‘Knowing Your Place’ series) will focus on local capacity for Advocacy — the projection and celebration of place — is scheduled for publication on 2nd May.