It may not seem like it to revenue-starved services in
the public sector, but the government and the European Union are
pumping cash into ICT-based projects across the UK. The
Opportunities Fund alone has allocated £77 million to ICT-based
community learning projects.
Examples of community-focused ICT development include:
Communities project - providing access and ICT-based services
and opportunities to thousands of homes in disadvantaged communities
in Scotland, the
Digital Communities initiative doing likewise
ICT learning centres - resourced through various
Community grids for learning
ICT enabled Healthy Living Centres
Pathfinder, New Deal and other projects developing
community Internet access
Electronic Village Halls (variously described)
funded by Rural Community Councils, local authorities and
UK online centres - branding and supporting all such
centres that reach some minimum standards
In addition to this far from exhaustive list of
special projects, bidding processes for more traditional funding
frequently includes community-based ICT development - in fact, it may
stand a better chance of success if it does. Services ranging from
community arts to adult literacy to benefits advice to support for
small businesses are all adding an online dimension or two.
European funds totalling millions of Euros are also being directed to
ICT developments for disadvantaged communities and groups.
Is it just a fad? There may be an element of fashion
and herd instinct. And there are many instances of new funding streams
being used to support old programmes with a few cosmetic changes. But
in essence there is developing a new range of opportunities and new
expertise for supporting and developing communities in innovative
Basically, initiatives tend to fall into 4 categories:
projects that are completely or almost completely
online - e.g. delivering services online, creating local websites,
or community networks and forums
the development of centres for people to visit, or
access points, where people can develop new skills, participate in
activities and access valuable information
projects supporting outreach or client-facing work,
by providing online and IT resources to professionals.
Some, of course, like the Wired Communities and
Digital Communities projects combine multiple activities. But this
provision of ICT is only the means to a variety of ends. The
technology and all the accompanying activities are primarily aimed at
overcoming "social exclusion", and building new skills and
capabilities in the communities concerned.
In particular, projects will be aimed at
providing access to employment - usually to advice
and opportunities, but sometimes to online work
stimulating the development of local business – both
growth and start-up
providing opportunities for education, training, and
skills development - mainly advice, information, and locally-based
courses, but increasingly direct access to online distance learning
community building and participation - partly from
the product of ICT activity (e.g. developing local websites), but
perhaps mainly from the physical activities in bringing people
together for a common purpose
promoting awareness - e.g. of health, housing,
rights, benefits, etc
promoting the arts and artistic involvement (e.g. in
theatre, music, media, crafts, etc) at community level
more efficient service delivery by local agencies
(which may overlap with any of the above).
We cover in more detail a number of these in our
articles on using ICT for regeneration
purposes. But although funding is often specifically targeted at
disadvantaged groups and communities, there is no reason why it should
be limited to them. In fact, many of the early pioneering activities
in using ICT for the benefit of communities were entirely voluntary
self-help initiatives, often based on the initiative of a few
Top down or up from the grassroots?
It is usually seen as ideal that initiatives should be
driven by the users - locally focused, with local citizens steering
projects to meet their needs.
In practice, at least at the bidding stage, projects
are mostly guided by professionals whose job it is to deliver the kind
of services involved. It is they who will know how to work the system,
and will have aims of improving the way their services are delivered.
Local "ownership" of projects is often limited by the
varying agenda of the agencies involved. Publicly-funded projects tend
to have fairly strict criteria about what should be achieved, so they
are unlikely to change direction even if there is a strong steer from
the community that they should. So, unless there is already an energy
in the community and groups champing at the bit to get themselves
online, the "bottom up" approach is more likely to occur in a
follow-on project, when a community has already had a taste of the
types of benefits ICT can bring - or where they have seen a "top down"
approach not meeting their needs or expectations.
One way to encourage grassroots involvement from the
outset is to undertake surveys of needs and aspirations, though this
may be hard to achieve with hard-to-reach groups.
But there are 2 other problems. Firstly, with
innovation, people often don't understand what's possible until they
see it. ("What do we need a website for? Wouldn't it be better to have
some new chairs?") Some kind of prototyping, or quick-win pilot, is
often needed not only to generate enthusiasm, but also to generate new
Secondly, telecoms providers and others may weigh in
"communications needs analysis" tools which serve their needs, and not
the needs of the communities. The worst of these involve a kind of
"sausage machine" process which surveys local communities, and outputs
their needs as being whatever service the provider happens to offer
locally. If the provider doesn't provide broadband in that area, you
can bet ISDN will be the recommended solution for local Internet
Online work, the
By far the greatest amount of funding for new ICT
activities is going into education or skills development projects. In
itself, this is a good thing. But what many communities need is more
As public sector agencies are reluctant to provide
jobs directly, the issues are to some extent sidestepped.
Initiatives provide employability, not employment. Or they provide
online advice and information about job-seeking. Or they provide
access to jobs vacancies - usually somewhere else, and mostly not
What then, of the opportunities for online work? Work,
that is, located in the community but, in principle, dealing with
employers or contracts anywhere in the country, if not the world?
Great things were hoped for from this kind of
"location independent" work carried over the networks. Numerous
initiatives failed or underachieved in the 1990s. There are several
notable exceptions - for example the "work-global" company in the
Western Isles of Scotland, that has created over 600 teleworking jobs,
or Kuusamo Town in Finland which has created around 120 new remote
working jobs serving customers elsewhere.
A problem is, of course, that these kinds of schemes
are more risky, and require considerable entrepreneurial flair to
succeed. But that doesn't mean they should not be attempted.
There are also less risky routes to developing job
opportunities based in the community. People working for local public
sector agencies could work closer to the communities they live in or
that serve - teleworking from their homes or from one of the online
centres being set up. Unfortunately, the online centres being set up
mostly do not accommodate this kind of flexible working.
Predictably, perhaps, we advocate maximising
flexibility in approaches to developing ICT initiatives in
communities. This is, however, not only in terms of work flexibility.
Having a flexible and open approach is vital for success:
Developments should strive to be future-friendly.
What we develop now will be the source of merriment in 5 years time.
It has to be adaptable, and capable of evolution. This is not only
in terms of ICT equipment and infrastructure, or premises, or
content. It also applies to the purposes and structure of projects.
They will probably have to mutate and diversify to survive. But most
have no idea how they will be funded in 3 years time, let alone 5.
Multi-purpose premises have advantages. The
infrastructure that enables online access to services can also
provide access for remote workers to their office systems and to
clients. There will be a need for income generation, and the ability
to rent space (whether to individuals or organisations) can bring
advantages. It is often the case that local authorities have cramped
headquarters, and under-utilised property elsewhere. Worth talking
to their property department!
Avoid proprietary technologies. Most projects that
have invested in kiosk systems for access to information regard them
as expensive mistakes. If they don't now, they probably will do in 2
years time. Some are more adaptable than others - but generally they
will restrict future initiatives in ways that other IT investment
Get the balance right between revenue and capital.
Special funding streams usually over-egg the capital while creating
challenges for revenue. If the project is successful, or encounters
unforeseen problems (e.g. in maintenance), revenue budgets are
likely to be strained. Partners in projects need to be ready to keep
funding worthwhile projects that succeed.
And finally, what does happen at the end of the
project? By then, it may have undergone some shift in emphasis.
Ideally, in many cases, it's time for handover to the community. But
they will almost certainly need grants to continue. If a project
fails, stakeholders need to have the courage to call it a day. Learn
from the experience. And try something else.
Resources on ICT and
Beyond Access - ICT and Social Exclusion by Samantha Hellawell,
Society, 2001, ISBN 0 7163 30547), and
Putting IT into Practice: New Technology and the
Modernising Agenda, by Samantha Hellawell and Michael Mulquin (IS
These 2 reports contain many case studies of
Using ICT to Achieve Regeneration Objectives is
a good practice guide developed by the DTLR, to which Flexibility
writers contributed. It is available in printed form from the
DTLR, and is also online at
Other useful websites are:
Reports and case studies from the the "Policy Action Team 15"
Communities Online is a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to
"promote the information society on a human scale". Its website has a
number of resources including links to related sites.
Another organisation run by some of the pioneers of community
networking. The website has numerous helpful ideas and links
UK Online Centres website - what they are, how to become one, and some
£ are being channelled into projects developing ICT access,
facilities and services for communities.
We ask "What for?", look
at different ways of going about this, make some suggestions
for achieving value for money, and highlight some resources
for further information.
We also highlight the missed
opportunities for job creation using ICT.