Flipping the circle: social capital approaches to digital inclusion
Getting 30 top thinkers on community development, digital inclusion and social capital together for a two-hour seminar at the RSA earlier this week was bound to generate lots of insights and ideas. And it certainly generated many more than can be captured in one blog post. You’ll find quite a lots of the ideas discussed in this record of live blogging from the event, but below I’ve tried to draw out some of the key themes I heard explored. Of course, 30 voices at the RSA can only offer a small part of the picture… and there are many more voices still to add to this debate.
Virtuous and Vicious Circles
Talking about Social Capital is a way of talking about the the shared networks, norms and trust which support people and help them get things done.
Digital Inclusion is “the use of technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the life chances of people, and to improve the places where they live”
So what happens when you bring the two concepts together?
Virtuous, or vicious, circles it would seem.
In the virtuous circle, being digitally included can drive a growth in the social capital resources of individuals and communities.
In the vicious circle, digital exclusion can feed off low levels of social capital, and being digital excluded can drive and exacerbate social exclusion, limited employment prospects and the disempowerment of communities.
The challenge for digital inclusion policy and practice is to break the vicious circles, and extend the virtuous.
A Concept in the Middle
Digital Britain, Director of Digital Engagement, Digital Inclusion Champions, Digital Mentors. There’s a lot going on in the digital inclusion space right now. But 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.
As Will explains in this video clip, talking about Social Capital offers a way of “thinking about digital inclusion strategies as social inclusion strategies” and “allowing us to represent the internet and technologies as community forming tools, without being prescriptive about what those communities might actually be for, or what content might be circulated via those technologies”.
For Anne Faulkner of UK Online Centres, the concept of Social Capital holds out promise of weaving together these two sides of the digital inclusion debate. Quantifiable measures that work in economic models, but focussed on the resources for people to do the things that matter to them – not on some externally imposed set of goods from above.
Focus on the Bridge
And if Social Capital can be a ‘bridging concept’, then it’s bridging social capital which needs the most focus.
Will Davies observed that, even though the social capital resources of working class communities have been falling over recent years (whilst middle class social capital has seen significant rises), in excluded communities there is often a disproportionately high level of bonding social capital (close knit networks of support) compared to bridging social capital (links to resources and information outside one’s close knit network).
During discussion of Will’s paper, Social Capital guru David Halpern suggested investment should focus on digital networks which cut across social divides. Building networks around shared issues, from health conditions to shared local spaces, has the potential to build bridges – rather than entrench existing barriers between people across the social spectrum.
Which way forward?
I counted at least ten different (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) approaches to improving the digital inclusion and social capital resources of excluded groups suggested during Will’s presentation and in the round-table discussions. Take a look at the following and consider these two questions proposed by Will in his paper:
- Which are the individuals or agencies best suited to engaging with people in this way?
- What are the most effective strategies for generating networks in deprived communities?
10 Approaches to Digital Inclusion
- Community Development can work both building up existing community development outreach, and looking to radical models that draw on the work of Paulo Freire. Community development approaches start from the concerns of communities, and bring in digital skills and approaches where these are relevant to help communities develop as they want to develop.
- Grassroots media seeks to give people to tools and skills to tell their own stories through digital means. Unlocking local knowledge, empowering groups to campaign, and building networks between hyper-local reporters.
- Basic skills approaches seek to deliver packages of tried and tested training in operating computers and the internet which recipients can then use to develop further engagement. A basic skills approach might cover things like using the mouse, using Windows, visiting a website and sending an e-mail.
- Digital mentors work with individuals, groups or organisations to help identify technologies that can help them pursue their goals – and support them to learn to use these technologies.
- Content ladders as a way of providing people with stepping stones from content they can immediately identify as worth engaging with, through to other forms of content that may help improve their lives. It involves the creation of compelling content, and ways for people to move from one level of engagement to another progressively.
- Mediated access approaches accept that some people will always be ‘proxy’ users of digital technologies – and provides support to mediate between their needs for information, entertainment or political engagement and the technologies that can better meet those needs.
- Building engagement into entertainment. If it’s tricky to encourage people to move from using technologies for entertainment, to using them for activities like civic engagement, then why not take the civic engagement into the entertainment space? Make the serious tasks technology is about more fun. Involve celebrity etc.
- Investing in the excluded as the best returns will come when you target resources at those who are most digitally out-of-the-loop.
- Investing in the connectors as the best returns will come when you build links between networks. Connecting networks will drive digital inclusion more than putting funds directly to the most excluded.
(The definitions above are far from definitive – and I would hazard that I’ve not represented all these approaches as best they can be represented. If you can improve a definition, drop a comment in below and I’ll keep the post updated with improved definitions…)
The Connected Communities team at the RSA are planning to develop a number of Action Research projects to explore digital inclusion on the ground. You can find more background on that here, and share your answers to some key questions that will help shape the RSA Action Research projects:
- What opportunities are there to develop projects that combine acting to address digital inclusion, with research to understand the process and outcomes of digital inclusion projects?
- What questions should we be asking in such action-research projects?
- What other action research projects on these themes should we be following?
- What are markers of success for digital inclusion? How should we be measuring how projects impact on online and offline networks?