Telecentres get to work for a Digital Europe: Some thoughts on the 2011 Telecentre Europe Summit

I wrote this post for the TechSoup Global blog. Comments welcomed!

'TeleCentres get to work', the title of the recent Telecentre Europe Summit is not a call that telecentres can afford to take lightly. Though not apparent by name, (for those not in the know) telecentres are public places that enable people to access computers, the Internet and other digital technologies. They help people to develop digital skills, but also get essential information, create, learn and communicate with others. According to Wikipedia, telecentres are otherwise known as: public internet access centers, village knowledge centers, infocenters, community technology centers, community multimedia centers, multipurpose community telecentres, common/citizen service centres, and school-based telecentres. As time has past telecentre became the umbrella name by default.

The 2011 Summit, held in Brussels on 27 - 28 October, brought an invited audience of about 100 telecentre leaders and guests from around Europe. It was held under the patronage of Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for the Digital Agenda and co-hosted by Interface3. Telecentre Europe is focused on implementing the digital inclusion goals of European countries both within and outside of the EU. They play an important role in promoting access and digital inclusion within Europe.

Did you know that 27% of Europeans are not yet online? However, 90% of jobs require some level of digital literacy. Only 15% of people above 65 use the Internet in Europe. Such statistics reveal that there is much to do within European countries to bridge this gap. As economic instability shakes Europe, ICT has been recognised as vital on the road to recovery. Evidence? The prioritisation of the EC digital agenda, investment in high speed broadband, emphasis on data protection laws and a focus on open data and public sector information reuse in the region point to such a recognition. An aging population and a changing world of work, which requires new skills, can only be met by innovatively adopting ICTs and promoting access for all. This is something that sometimes goes remiss in news of doom and gloom over the 'euro zone crisis'. But its importance has certainly not gone unnoticed by the EU.

Today resources are scarce, but I believe that scarcity also fuels creativity and innovation, and that ways should be found to encourage this. Hard figures and encouraging estimates... 'proof' as you will... is a prerequisite for funding which used to be more readily granted by governments, regional institutions and philanthropists. No-one is willing to fund without a return on investment, whether it be a social and/or economic one. Showcasing the important work that telecentres do and where and how they are making impact will be important.

Examining possibilities for the creative uses of mobile phones will be essential for digital inclusion. That telecentres would engage with this is not only suggested by the name 'tele'centre but important because many of them also work in rural areas. Telecentres can also consider encouraging the reuse of data being made open by governments to ensure not only digital inclusion, but by extension innovation and democratic digital participation.

As a first time participant in this year's Summit I found it interesting to learn about the way that telecentres are working in unique ways to engage the public and promote digital inclusion. Their contribution continues to be vital to ensuring that access and skills needed for the digital future are available. It also strongly resonates with the work that TechSoup Global, its European offices, country partners and NetSquared network do to promote access to information and technology. The aim and the work of the telecentre should however move beyond those that carry its namesake. They should be adopted by many more public bodies, nonprofits and for profit institutions and individuals.  All of us who work on such issues should support this. Doing so will create a climate that can not only encourage, but catapult the region and the countries that lie within it to realise the goal of sustainability through ICT.

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