Many of us worry about the impact of technology on our lives, and with the explosion of social media and smart phones in recent years, these worries have become more acute. We worry that we are contactable 24/7, we worry about missing out on ‘real world’ relationships through reliance on virtual connections, we worry about over-surveillance, we worry about personal data security, and we worry that our children are spending too much time playing computer games.
While many of these fears may be justified, I’d like to offer an alternative view. I see a new wave of community spirit, creativity and entrepreneurship spurred-on by new information technologies. I see a world where access to new information, people and technology has shifted the barriers for citizens wanting to make a change. They have been able to bypass the traditional roadblocks; bureaucratic red-tape, lack of information and support, and an inability to get their messages heard. Citizens have been empowered by technology to take action in their communities, and they are making a real difference. Let me give you some examples.
In New York, responding to the ‘Big Apps‘ competition, a group of people collected information about the publicly-owned vacant lots on Brooklyn. They found that there were in fact 596 acres of space that was publicly-owned, but derelict. They decided to something to make a difference, here’s what they did:
Here, a group of people combined open data, technological literacy and a passion for change, to create a platform for members of their community to meet and take action.
“Together they organised their neighbours, raised some money and worked on the lot.”
Not only did this result in a series of new community spaces, but it forged new relationships, built trust, and a sense of achievement and ownership of their place. I believe all of these things are fundamental to the development of successful, happy communities.
That’s not to say that government does not need to play it’s part. Local councils must collaborate with communities to develop a shared vision of the future, and to create services that directly meet their needs. Tom Steinberg, Director of MySociety and advocate of technology-enabled citizen engagement explained in a recent BBC News article “the challenge is persuading politicians that it is healthy for more local people to understand how decisions are made.” To that end, MySociety has created a series of apps that facilitate citizen-government engagement. One of the most famous of these is FixMyStreet, an app that allows citizens to report local problems directly to city authorities.
But what about people who don’t have access to this technology? What about those people who can’t afford monthly broadband subscriptions, smart phones or for whom the internet is a complex and confusing domain? Are we creating a digital divide, where these members of society are excluded from basic government services simply because they don’t have an email address? Again, it is community groups that are stepping up and tackling this problem.
The Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol is a media arts charity that aims to develop and support cultural, social and economic regeneration. Their pioneering work with the community across a range of areas has empowered citizens to make the most of technology in their lives, where they might otherwise be excluded. They run a series of computer classes, including Afternoon iTea which creates safe and encouraging environments to teach people how to use technology for their own purposes, whether that be booking a holiday, connecting with their friends and family through Facebook or Skype, accessing government services, or using their digital cameras.
Makala Campbell, Digital Projects Producer at the Media Centre, explains that “technology can do so much and I think the hardest thing is for people who don’t know that, or who might be afraid of something new.” The Media Centre has many programmes that are directly focused on engaging with the community on a direct and personal basis. Makala claims that “when you’ve built up a relationship with someone you can tell them about something in a way that’s interesting to them, you build up trust, and I think that’s only something you can get with organisations like us that stay in an area for a really long period of time”.
So citizens and community groups are already harnessing the power of technology for really positive means, they are shaping their environment, working with governments and empowering vulnerable groups. Instead of a dystopian Orwellian view of a highly controlled, surveilled and oppressive society, I see a world where communities are empowered to follow their own paths, facilitated by and developed alongside government programmes.
Many city authorities are leading the way on this community-focused ICT investment. The Smart Chicago Collaborative is a civic organisation devoted to using technology to make lives better in Chicago. They run a variety of projects including their Smart Health Centres “which places trained health information specialists in low-income clinics to assist patients in connecting to their own medical records and find reliable information about their own conditions.” In Stockholm, where 80% of household have access to fibre optic broadband, a €70 Million investment from the council has ensured that e-government solutions and services are available to all.
Of course ICT brings with it new challenges. We need to think very carefully and sensitively about the role of surveillance in our cities, how we protect our personal data, and how we let our children spend their time. But let us not forget the huge privileges that this technology also presents us, how it is connecting people, shaping communities and making our voices heard.