Just what do we mean by digital inclusion these days? Back in the last century the emphasis was on getting people connected to the internet, and providing support to those less confident or able to deal with computers. The cry was "bridge the digital divide", and public programmes concentrated on local centres and other forms of access. These days connectivity has increased, and so has the range of connected devices. We can look beyond the technology to the social implications.
I'm asking because I'm doing some work at the moment with the Digital Challenge and Inclusion Network, where the UK Government is offering an award of several million pounds, matched by industry, to the public sector partnership that will best contribute to the vision set out last year:
To create a country at ease in the digital world. Where all have the confidence to access the new services that are emerging, whether delivered by computer, mobile phone, digital television or any other device. To work towards achieving equitable access and remove the barriers to take up…”
The challenge is down to 10 finalists, but the aim of the Network is much wider, with an emphasis on sharing good practice. My colleague Drew Mackie and I are developing a workshop game that will, hopefully, help people play through the design and development of a digital inclusion strategy drawing on the ideas generated during the challenge. There's more about it on the Network site.
In previous technology planning games and advice - like this work on housing - we invited participants to choose from a range of projects and activities that would help with access, learning, and communication. These days the online buzz is all around social networking and blog communities. Academics have diced the digital divide up into 23 e-types.
Games are useful learning tools because - among other things - you embed some principles in the rules and props, and play stimulates conversations that reveal and maybe challenge some of these principles. That means it is important to have some grasp of the principles in designing the game.
For that reason I jotted down a set of proposition about digital inclusion in today's more networked world. If they make sense, we can use them to underpin the game, and also fill them out with some examples and other links that might contribute to the conversation. If you think they are off track, I would like to know! I suspect that the most challenging assertion for the public sector is the last one - co-design or evolve with users.
Digital inclusion is social inclusion. Digital inclusion is part of social inclusion - that is, the reason for helping people to use new social technologies is to help them with their relationships, learning, work, leisure and other activities. Digital exclusion means limited access to information and knowledge that others have as a right, and increasingly having no identity in a networked world
The main social benefits stem from interaction. The main ways in which social technologies can help with social inclusion are broadly in helping people to get information; communicate; collaborate; find a voice ... and learn by these processes. Each of these benefits may apply in different ways in developing social relationships, work and leisure activities. Social - and digital - inclusion is about relationships and interaction. Digital inclusion technologies must be interactive.
Digital inclusion technologies must be personal. Everyone has different social needs, and different preferences for the ways in which they communicate. These vary with age and circumstance. That means that one size won't fit all: the technology devices and applications will ultimately be personal, and must offer clear personal benefit.
Personal social benefit occurs in a network environment. While the ways in which people use technologies will be personal, in order to gain social benefit they have to join up. People's different devices have to communicate on a social network ... or rather, a lot of interlinked social networks. The challenge is to offer people choice, within a flexible network environment.
Inclusive networks require support roles. Social networks are people, not technologies. People need confidence and skills to use new technologies, and networks may requires some support, weaving and facilitation if they are to be inclusive.
Walled gardens offer limited benefit. There is little benefit in creating a "walled garden", or technology platform, that makes devices and networking easy unless it also enables people to connect with wider developments on the Internet. Otherwise the platform is defining the relationships that people can develop.
Digital inclusion requires a collaborative culture. The benefits of personal and social networking can only be fully realised in a collaborative environment. Digital inclusion technologies are of limited use unless people are prepared to engage and interact. Collaboration requires personal skills - but more than anything it requires a collaborative attitude and culture.
Civil institutions must join in. Social inclusion depends on people being able to interact with civil institutions. Therefore personal and social networking benefits are limited unless civil institutions are also using the technologies in an interactive and collaborative way. They will help to define a culture of digital inclusion, and underpin social and technology networks.
Technology is not the starting point for design. From the above, the foundations for successful social and digital inclusion practice involve developing a participative civil culture, respecting individual differences, building networks and then ensuring appropriate technologies are available.
Go with the Web 2.0 flow.The past year has seem an explosion of free services for online access (e.g. broadband from mobile phone networks), and also free services using Web 2.0 technologies and approaches (blogs, wikis, feeds, tagging, social bookmarking, mapping, photo and video sharing). These make it potentially much easier for people to configure tools to meet their personal needs. The new tools are explicitly designed for interaction, based on people's social enthusiasms. They are becoming the mainstream. Digital inclusion involves helping join that mainstream.
Staff need to be digitally included too. The challenge for institutions is two-fold. On the one hand they have to build from existing services and other activities outwards, on the other hand they have to ensure that their online presence integrates with the newly-emerging personal, Web 2.0-enabled environment. It will be increasingly difficult to maintain old-style environments internally, and new-style ones externally. The internal-external boundary has to be permeable to social networking tools. That means that those working within institutions have to be digitally included. That may involve cultural changes within the organisation, as well as training, support, and new tools.
Walk the talk. The new web 2.0 applications and culture create an environment that is fundamentally different from Web 0 (no online experience) and Web 1.0 (most past institutional usage). It is impossible to help develop new interactive online environments without being part of them ... it's like trying to work in another country through an interpreter: excluding. That means those designing programmes need to be fully digitally included.
Co-design rather than consult. From the above, it is not possible to design digital environments without fully understanding user needs and preferences, and the possible nature of network requirements. That means new systems and environments have to be co-designed or evolved with users - wherever they are. Consultation on pre-determined approaches is likely to be inadequate, and lead to low take-up. What's needed is a whole-system, all-users approach.