Taking a shortcut around the digital divide

Martyn Perks | 1 March 2007

Sunderland City Council has just won the Digital Challenge competition and been awarded £3.5m by government. While digital inclusion has become a major focus for funding and social renewal, it is questionable whether IT is actually being used for the right reasons. While this funding package is obviously good news for the local authority’s accountants, what does it really mean to those who have been ‘digitally included’?

Nine other local government finalists were also awarded monies, all of whom, we are told, provided clear evidence of ‘cross-Government, cross-sector’ collaboration. Sunderland won, however, because it was ‘recognised as an example in how ICT technologies can be used to tackle social exclusion’. It had proposed ideas including ‘e-Champions’ designed to help vulnerable groups access computer and internet services; provide children and their carers with walkie-talkies and panic buttons; and ‘e-mentoring schemes’ for underachieving children and young people.

For a long time New Labour has taken a keen interest in IT, with schemes addressing social-inclusion; promoting e-Government; tackling low voter turnout in local and national elections, etc, but it is arguable to what extent technological ‘gadgets’ improve people’s lives – especially if at the expense of addressing the underlying causes of inequality and exclusion.

As it happens, the way Sunderland intends to use IT may well confirm what they set out to challenge: since the target groups are already demarcated as ‘vulnerable’, those dependent on local services and in need of the guiding hand of third party intervention. But this intervention ignores the possibility of tackling problems through political means and chooses to wallow in the increasing expansion of an ‘IT-support’ society… as opposed to a technology driven-one?

What IT is good at — transforming society with faster access to information, services, ideas and each other — is lost. Here technology plays second fiddle to schemes that highlight local government’s limited aspirations and agenda. If social inclusion really is a problem, don’t pretend IT will be the panacea.

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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