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The seminar at the RSA on the 20th May 2009 will take forward the discussion on digital inclusion for social capital, building on a paper written by Will Davies on The Social Value of Digital Networks in Deprived Communities (the paper will be published and made available after we have revised it to incorporate feedback from the seminar and online discussions) .

The seminar at the RSA on the 20th May 2009 will take forward the discussion on digital inclusion for social capital, building on a paper written by Will Davies on The Social Value of Digital Networks in Deprived Communities (the paper will be published and made available after we have revised it to incorporate feedback from the seminar and online discussions) .

Many people with a lot to contribute to this discussion will not be able to take part in the face to face seminar (for example, Steve Thompson from Digital Village will be organising an online pub quiz between two rural communities, including an online Karaoke performance). So we’re bringing the discussion to you. Tim Davies will also be covering the seminar as a social reporter.

Here are some of the main ideas and questions raised by the paper. Your comments and suggestions will contribute to developing the final version for publication.

The questions are open, but it would be great to hear your views based on practical experiences of promoting digital inclusion in the UK or overseas.

Digital inclusion is the use of technology to improve the lives and life chances of disadvantaged people and the places in which they live.

There are many exciting digital inclusion initiatives, such People's Voice Media, developing creative ways of enabling people to connect with each other, make their voice heard to influence what happens where they live, and gain a sense of pride in their area. Solutions4Inclusion provides details on a range of projects that use technology to promote social inclusion. A forthcoming NESTA publication Social by Social: a practical guide to using new technologies to deliver social impact will address many of the ‘how to’ considerations.

Social capital is a way of understanding the (positive and negative) impact of social networks and norms on people’s lives.

The evidence shows a striking correlation between the socially excluded and the digitally excluded. Being connected digitally (or not) mirrors other forms of social connections (or the lack of them). Availability of technology is only one facet, as confidence and relevant content are key prerequisites for benefiting from digital technology. This is why organisation such as Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol emphasise the importance of outreach.

  • What engagement approaches are being successfully used to overcome barriers (such as confidence, content, access) to digital inclusion, for example among young people not in work or education?
  • How can we make sure we are not exacerbating existing inequalities by only serving the people already connected? What are successful examples of outreach?
While the correlation between social exclusion and digital exclusion is well documented, we are seeking to understand better how the process of becoming digitally included impacts on communities, as well as individuals.

A key distinction in social capital constructs is between ‘bonding’ social capital – strong connections with people similar to us, such as friends and family; and ‘bridging’ social capital – weaker connections with people further removed from us, such as contacts, and acquaintances.

More deprived communities may have lower levels of ‘bridging’ social capital; and be characterised by more inward looking social networks. Strong bonds with other disadvantaged people can be vital to help people get by, but also limit expectations.

The premise of bringing social capital into the debate on digital inclusion is that the nature and extent of these bonds and bridges has been shown to have a strong impact on life and life chances. Bridging capital of the kind that could be developed through digital networks could help provide the contacts to get jobs, for example.

  • How can digital inclusion strategies enable deprived communities to build and benefit from the connections they often lack?
  • How can digital inclusion projects impact on people’s offline interactions?
  • How have you seen projects transform people’s relationship to their communities?
  • How have you seen projects change people’s way of seeing themselves? How does this come about?
By bringing together people who have spent years and decades working on these issues, we hope to develop some practical ways forward for action research.

The recommended approaches from the paper include:

  • Focus on building effective networks, not particular technologies, work out pathways to social participation
  • Consider peer-to-peer and mentor-based strategies as a way of impacting on online and offline networks at the same time
  • Evaluate existing projects to see how much they manage to cut across economic and cultural divides
Focus on particular areas relevant to social capital:
  • Facilitating circulation of job information
  • Formation of online networks among older users
  • Creation of user profiles to help people to recognise and interact with each other in the street
  • Provide opportunities for first-hand reporting of experiences of a place and services
In terms of developing ideas for action research:
  • What are your views on these proposed ways forward?
  • What opportunities are there to develop projects that combine acting to address digital inclusion, with research to understand the process and outcomes of digital inclusion projects?
  • What questions should we be asking in such action-research projects?
  • What other action research projects on these themes should we be following?
  • What are markers of success for digital inclusion? How should we be measuring how projects impact on online and offline networks?
Comment here or on the Digital Engagement network and put forward your own questions (thank you to UK online centres and David Wilcox for suggesting this). Look forward to hearing your views.

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