Effective e-inclusion policies and programs - workshop II at the EU Conference on Innovation for Digital Inclusion

Charles WATT, CEO of the European Regional Information Society Association [eris@] moderated the second workshop of the EU Conference on Innovation for Digital Inclusion at Gdansk, Poland under the title "Effective e-inclusion policies and programs: regional and local battlefields"

Prof. Lizbeth GOODMAN is the founder and director of SMARTlab and the Chair of Creative Technology Innovation of the University College of Dublin, Ireland and presented "E-inclusion on the Emerald Isle in Economic Trouble: towards a new Irish model for learning technology for all"

The SMARTlab Digital Media Institute originated from the idea of creating a new form of PhD program that would be truly inclusive and would shake up the academy from within by bringing artists and practitioners from many disciplines together, creating a transdisciplinary practice between art, design, health, education and technology where inclusive education, creative technology, innovation and universal design are the keywords. Through the SMARTlab method major case study projects demonstrate the power of bespoke technology solutions to real social problems in education and community.

Formerly at the University of East London, England, this successful research institute from the UK chose to move to Ireland just at the moment of the downturn. According to Prof. Goodman, the economic situation of Ireland has led to unexpected policy opportunities of social as well as business and technological value. In a small country which hosts much of local talent and thought leadership as well as many international industry and business partnerships, the sudden and extreme economic downturn has had major impact on planning for the future of IT and learning. Its strategy for growth offers hope and the real possibility for a social entrepreneurship model. This just as Ireland gives up some of its interest in property development and looks anew at investing in the knowledge economy and the future of Irish and international youth in a new 'smart-economy'.

The RADICAL (Research Agendas Developed in Creative Arts Labs) project is one of the SMARTlab projects funded by the European Commission within the context of its 5th Framework - Information, Society, Technologies Program. Through this project, the barriers between art and technology are broken and artists are led to shape future scenarios in the multimedia world. It is conceived as a sort of permanent platform for art professionals, artists deal with issues that are central to the relationship between creativity and scientific research. The main outcome is the injection of an artistic sensibility into the European Union's "sales" of creativity, because creativity and cultural heritage are products, as other cultures sell it. Not to diminish the value of artwork, but to increase it. The message is: research needs creativity and creativity needs room within research programs. The output of RADICAL is to say that creativity is a skilled profession: artists are trained so we have something to offer that increases communication and the beauty of the world in which we live and that also makes very useful new media tools.


Hervé Le GUYADER from the Conseil Régional d'Aquitaine in France gave a presentation under the title "The role of EU Regions in making eInclusion happen: Where responsibility and opportunity meet" and stated that governance is a key issue for having an effective inclusion policy, more so in big regions like Aquitaine with 3 million people living among the 5 regional departments and 2295 communes. The question is to find out which public authority at what level should be in charge of which kind of policy.

Wiith 25% of the population not using the internet, it is certain that the problem of digital exclusion exists. Things won't get better if nothing is done and these challenges were clearly taken up by the 6 Riga topics in 2006: active ageing, a geographical digital divide and the challenge of accessibility, digital literacy and competences, cultural diversity and an inclusive eGovernment.

It is also certain that the solutions lie in public-private partnerships, but with 4 public authorities (european, national, regional, local), the balance between fragmentation and top-down governance is not always easy to find. Because of the geographical digital divide, the regional level seems to be the privileged level to deliver sustainable eInclusion solutions, as at this level fragmentation still makes sense, while the risk of "one size fits it all" top-down governance is minimized at this level.

The "regions in the driver's seat" governance model though has some challenges to cope with due to uncertain financial & economical floods, the use of a changing and intimidating "lingo" (it's sometimes a nightmare to understand what eInclusion exactly means), and competing priorities. Recommendations here are:

  • be smart in optimizing the available money by mainstreaming your policies
  • design maps & guidelines that give sense to your public policies
  • be careful in generalizing your policies: "Malta is not Poland"
  • be aware that a fully top down policy will not be accepted as it is not adapted, but fully bottom up policies also don't work, as they are not scalable, there is no critical mass: the best way to find a balance here is to build a circular system between both levels
  • build a "research and deployment" culture: accept the complexity & diversity, that the risk of failing is involved, give space to local autonomies to experiment & research, work with pioneers & early adopters

 

About the kind of public policy to implement, there are 3 key enabling policy areas:

1. connectivity to ubiquitous and affordable broadband

2. life-long re-skilling of citizens, while defining a set of eCompetences

3. eAccesibility, usability and safety

 

A European Commission's study shows the existence of 6 "families" of public eInclusion policies and if you implement them all you are in "good shape" to offer your public a policy that will work. The 6 families are:

1. Appointing a coordinating authority, especially in larger countries with some degree of decentralization. Spain has done this successfully with their "Plan Avanza" scheme.

2. Awareness raising: get the right people to explain the motivations for going online. This was successfully done in the UK through the figure of Martha Lane Fox as a "Digital Champion"

3. Designing a specific eInclusion strategy (e.g. for different target groups) and/or mainstream eInclusion into traditional policies.

4. Enforcing eInclusion public policies through: 

  • keeping track of what's happening at the legislative level
  • measuring instruments that set quantitative goals
  • setting up standards (e.g. only fund when a website is accessible, when eAdministration is promoted etc.)
  • penalties: cash, finger pointing (using the power of social networks to harm the eReputation), law enforcements (e.g. association of the blinds in the USA suing a company for inaccessibility of their website)

5. Addressing specific excluded groups: immigrants, abused or molested children & women, prison inmates, hospitalized patients (children, veterans, chronically diseased,..), isolated mothers in remote areas.

6. Digital inclusion of the territory per se: not only focus on people, digital exclusion can also have an impact on a whole region, leaving it far behind others.

 

To conclude: "the way forward" is to combine agility with sustainability and thus try to win on both levels: balancing bottom up & top down policies, building a research & deployment culture that gives feedback between projects and policies, integrate co-funding instruments, embrace complexity and put "the level that makes sense" in the driver's seat: this can be the region, the city or the country.

At the level of the EU, the European Innovation Union has been launched as an important instrument to achieve this governance balance by 2020, by ensuring that special funds used for eInclusion are going to be more in line with this balance.

 

Nick BATEY from the Office of the Chief Information Officer of the Welsh Government in the UK presented the "Click, Connect, Discover" program for digital inclusion in Wales.

Like so many regions in Europe also Wales is trying to cope with the problem of digital exclusion. In this very rural region - in most districts,  the density of its population doesn't even reach 100 persons per square kilometer - 34% of the adult population is not using the internet, which becomes 50% if they are over the age of 50. Most of them are "disengaged by personal choice" as they state they don't need or don't want to use the internet (59%), find the equipment or access costs too high (33%) or feel they miss the necessary skills to access the internet (21%).

These results are in line with the digital inclusion barriers we find everywhere in Europe: a perceived lack of relevance, a negative attitude towards computers and the internet, poor literacy levels, the lack of skills & confidence, the lack of appropriate support, the lack of financial means, the difficulties for some to access affordable equipment and the lack of broadband connectivity in some areas.

With so many old people disconnected, the Welsh government has prioritized the digital inclusion of the elderly and has taken up a "region in the driver's seat" approach (as mentioned by Hervé Le GUYADER) that aims at bringing together a wide range of private and third & public sector stakeholders to align their activities and help deliver the Digital Agenda of Wales. But "the wheels of government still turn slowly" and Nick Batey presented an interesting "pyramid" that shows how all investments should "puzzle together to fit and create synergies" to finally deliver an inclusive, sustainable and prosperous society. The pieces of the investment puzzle are:

  • a first class digital infrastructure
  • skilled and competent people
  • transformed public services
  • a thriving and competitive digital economy


To bring the over 65s online and provide them with huge benefits - for example in household savings through shopping & paying bills online as stated by UK's Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox - the Welsh government has recently launched the  "Communities 2.0" project, a more than 22 million euro campaign that by 2015 should bring the adult population of not using the internet to 25% (40% for those over 50). The project with the campaign's title "Click. Connect. Discover" follows a "community based approach" to deliver digital inclusion via the engagement of libraries, volunteering and a lifelong learning & skills development education program.

The social justice imperative that digital inclusion can bring users huge benefits (financial, convenience, break down of isolation, better employment and educational outcomes, improved earnings and the leverage of autonomy and self determination) is though not the main drive behind the digital inclusion framework in Wales. The attractiveness of older people for business and the link between digital inclusion and the delivery of public services online are the major drives.

The UK's position that public services should be digital "by default" is claiming for a "channel shift" in the delivery of public services to drive out the huge average costs of the postal channel (£12.10), the face-to-face channel (£10.53) and the telephone channel (£3.39) towards an almost "negligible" average cost of £0.08 for public services being delivered online.

This channel shift can be particularly interesting to cut the cost of health care and social care, which is a major challenge in today's society confronted with an increasing ageing population. For example, it would be far more cheaper for hospitals to send out emails instead of letters. Digital inclusion of the elderly is also on the agenda when it comes to the use of digital technology for independent living, another way of cutting health & social care costs. Innovation through digital technology is the driving force here, and to stimulate this market the Welsh government is facilitating the collaboration between various partners that could deliver an innovating way of dealing with the very urgent issue of cutting the costs of health & social care.

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