Although the quantity of people using technology in their everyday lives is constantly rising, a relatively high percentage of the world’s population remains digitally disengaged or even technologically illiterate. In the European Union alone, nearly a third of people don’t use the internet on a daily basis; only half of all Europeans aged 16 - 74 use social networks or e-government services, and in some European countries up to 25% of people don’t have access to a computer from home.
As smart cities render our world more and more digital, and Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) play an increasingly important role in our daily lives, the ‘digital exclusion’ of certain population groups - notably those from low-income backgrounds, the elderly, and the disabled - is morphing into total societal exclusion.
Despite this, smart city strategy is often implemented without taking into account that not everyone has access to ICT. The notion of ‘improving citizens lives’, often brought up in discussions about smart cities, suddenly feels empty when you realize that in some cases, up to 25% of citizens may not actually be able to use digital smart city services. Through this lens, smart city planning is only truly smart as long it as it incorporates an awareness of those who it may exclude, and puts in place measures to tackle digital exclusion and widen smart city participation to all.
In this article, we are therefore going to explore some of these measures, looking at the steps community stakeholders can take to ensure that their smart city strategy is truly digitally inclusive. The smart city needs to be an inclusive city.
Harness political will
Engaging and gaining the ‘buy-in’ of all key city stakeholders to a smart city vision that prioritizes digital inclusion is key. There is no “silver-bullet” solution to the complex array of challenges involved in making the smart city more digitally inclusive. As such, many contributions are needed from across the societal spectrum - from businesses to governments and policy-makers, to NGOs, to educators and research and design communities, to laypeople - in order to come up with the most effective solutions and make sure that everyone is invested in dealing with the problem.
Relevant stakeholders need to be identified, empowered and engaged to work together, creating solutions that are cooperative and collaborative, mutually beneficial for all, and respectful of the voices of less influential stakeholders - such as community groups.
“The process of achieving digital inclusion needs itself to be inclusive of all stakeholders across society. The co-creation of smart city policies and measures for digital inclusion should play a role in the wider co-creation of a generally more inclusive society.”, Bart Gorynski, Managing Partner at bee smart city concludes.
Provide readily available and on-going ICT community support
It is now widely recognized that a socially-embedded model of ICT education is required to tackle digital exclusion across all levels of society. This means relying on local, community institutions to provide relevant, accessible and ongoing ICT community support, as part of a wider smart city strategy that looks to solve digital exclusion in a long-term way. Ongoing, friendly and reliable support is essential to tackling digital exclusion: getting people online in the first place is difficult enough, but sustaining their digital engagement is often an even greater challenge. This means long-term vision is key, along with flexible and adaptable learning options that match a wide range of needs, learning speeds and styles.
Existing community venues and hubs can provide this kind of education and support because they are locally run, meaning they know the local community and are much more (socially and physically) accessible - especially to vulnerable social groups, such as the elderly. They can provide ad-hoc trouble-shooting assistance as problems arise much more easily than more formal institutions, and are also the ideal setting for innovative and unusual learning techniques - such as interactive theatre, story-telling, and ‘sandpits’. The social nature of these local hubs also allows people to share tips and support each other within a relaxed, social atmosphere, facilitating intergenerational exchange (which in turn is key to social cohesion and co-creation) and access to professional expertise.
Despite the fluid nature of these community institutions and exchanges, it is nevertheless important to document and coordinate the various local initiatives being undertaken in order to make sure that local resources are being used as efficiently as possible. Cross-community coordination also enables often siloed local services to better interact; for instance, local doctors in some municipalities are now ‘socially prescribing’ - in other words recommending patients make an appointment at a local library to obtain digital skills training, for example, as one possible ‘treatment’ for social problems such as loneliness or depression.
Provide subsidies for tech products
Digital exclusion is often founded upon an individual’s inability to financially or physically access a computer. Smart city strategy should therefore not only to tackle digital skills poverty, but also digital equipment poverty. Government subsidies that allow individuals to buy computers for their homes cheaply or for free, free equipment for use in schools and community organizations, such as libraries, and computer borrowing or sharing schemes therefore immediately deal with one of the major factors behind digital exclusion.
Examples of such subsidies can be seen in the UK, where organisations and schemes like “GetOnline@Home” and "Happus" work to make a range of often refurbished desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones available at reduced prices for certain population groups - such as charities, those in receipt of state benefits, those over 65, and social housing, council, and housing association tenants. City councils can also lead their own similar schemes; for example in 2010, Bristol City Council launched a pioneering initiative to give computer access to the 15% of residents that were recorded to be digitally excluded. For as little as £50, eligible residents (those in receipt of certain benefits, or who fulfilled certain criteria, such as being a full-time carer or aged over 65) could buy a refurbished desktop computer with pre-installed software and telephone support for choosing the best internet broadband provider. The scheme proved so popular that within only a couple of years they had provided more than 2,000 computers to people across the city, and demand far outstripped supply. This initiative demonstrates how the will is often there even if the access is not. Giving those who are digitally disengaged the opportunity to get connected simply through providing them with equipment can thus be enough on its own to tackle their exclusion.
Address the whole spectrum of digital skills poverty
The ICT skills gap is a spectrum - spanning from acute digital exclusion, affecting largely low-income groups, the elderly, and the disabled - to lack of access and of advanced digital skills - affecting largely low-income groups, women, and ethnic minorities.
In order to tackle the wide spectrum of digital skills poverty, smart city strategies must not only tackle the financial and social barriers stopping certain community groups from becoming digitally engaged, but also those preventing particular populations from gaining more advanced ICT skills. The technical skills required for many jobs in the tech industry have long been the preserve of privileged, ‘western’ men, who have traditionally had greater access to digital education. Hence why women, people of color, and those who are disabled or from low-income backgrounds are still a minority in the tech industry. This is a huge problem when it comes to smart cities as they are largely designed by technology experts and urban planners and designers who come from industries which famously lack diverse leadership.
“If smart cities are to be truly inclusive and ‘co-created’, part of their strategy should thus be to make their own design more inclusive - and this means empowering a wider diversity of people to gain advanced digital skills.”, states Dr. Alexander Gelsin, Managing Partner at bee smart city.
Incorporating digital inclusion into smart city planning is, therefore, a multifaceted affair: it needs to not only cover basic, community education but actually look to provide advanced digital training for underrepresented social groups. This again requires collaboration between all key community stakeholders - from encouraging local and international tech companies to run apprenticeship schemes for students from low-income backgrounds, to supporting initiatives like "Code First: Girls" and "FutureFunded".
Actively address the ICT skills gap in formal education
One way of preventing all levels of digital exclusion is, of course, to start from the beginning. Tackling digital skills poverty in formal education allows children of all backgrounds to develop ICT skills at a young age before digital exclusion can develop. Tech-skills must, therefore, be integrated into the national academic curricula in order to ensure equality of opportunity when it comes to digital engagement and literacy. In other words, in order to ensure that those who traditionally have fewer digital skills - for example, those from low-income households, those who are disabled, female students - do not lag behind, holding them back later in life, we must try to create a level playing field from day one.
This means identifying the skills that will be most pertinent to children in the future, going beyond the traditional Microsoft Office ICT lessons to begin thinking of ways to teach the most useful future digital competencies - from social media marketing to artificial intelligence, to back-end coding. Tech is the one sector where there are is too much job demand and not enough supply, particularly for organizations looking to make their workforce more diverse.This ICT deficit is not a problem but rather a huge opportunity to reduce unemployment and make society more inclusive by involving everybody in the tech revolution - and eventually in the co-creation of smart urban technologies and initiatives.
Encourage and reward the adoption of inclusive design principles
If smart city planning is really to improve every citizen’s life, the technologies required for participation in the smart city must themselves be user-centric and inclusive. As such, smart city planners - from private enterprise leaders to city councilors - must actively encourage and reward the adoption of inclusive design principles and promote them as the industry ‘norm’ - as much for urban as for ICT designers, developers and manufacturers.
Inclusive design - whether of tech products or urban spaces - requires processes that enable everybody using the product/space to participate in shaping its development. This means encouraging the engagement of everybody in the community in shaping design decisions, and rewarding designers and manufacturers who follow inclusive design principles - for example through government subsidies or industry awards. Co-design ‘sandpits’ and interactive theatre workshops are two types of initiative that can be used to allow certain community groups with specific technological needs - for example, old people and the disabled - to actively contribute to the research and design of digital products, rather than acting simply as passive research 'subjects'.
The resulting reduction of system complexity and user frustration through improvements in user-specific design for particular community groups should lead to a better customer experience for everyone in society. This again applies just as much to digital product design as it does to urban and smart city design. When the diversity of needs of the whole community is known to and understood by designers and developers, and they are actively encouraged to follow user-centered design principles by industry and government leaders, an inclusive and participative approach becomes embedded into the design processes behind digital products, systems, and services.
Motivate people to become digitally engaged
While it might be assumed that those who are digitally excluded want to be included, this is not in fact always the case. Forcing people to become connected if they do not want to be is obviously not the answer. However, ensuring that everyone has access to the digital world necessitates communicating how people can gain this access. It also requires promoting widespread awareness of the benefits – individual, societal and economic – of digital inclusion, and of smart cities in general. All community stakeholders should thus work to communicate the type of initiatives and schemes tackling digital exclusion that are available in their localities.
Above and beyond that, all those involved in smart city and digital inclusion planning should look to organize communications campaigns promoting digital inclusion and citizen participation in all aspects of smart city conception, implementation, and living. These campaigns should not only promote but also deal with some of the reasons behind the fear of connectivity - such as fear of change, of privacy invasion (especially in this post-Cambridge analytics age), and of unknown financial costs, for example.
Eliminating digital exclusion is thus just as much about communicating how to get connected and the benefits of doing so, as it is about providing the actual means for digital engagement.
For the smart city to truly be smart, it is crucial to consider citizen’s embodied experience at every touch point within the city. This means ensuring that all smart city initiatives are really designed for all - including those who currently cannot or do not want to use new technologies. This does not mean that we should abandon all attempts to use digital technologies to improve urban living. Instead, with the cooperation and commitment of all community stakeholders, city leaders should look to develop a digitally inclusive, sustainable smart city vision that practically tackles digital skills poverty at all levels of society.
“Digital inclusion can be achieved as part of a wider inclusive smart city strategy. If community-focused, this strategy will yield opportunities and rewards that should eclipse the original cost of implementation, presenting opportunities for innovation and positive change in business and society that are even greater than currently imagined.", states Thomas Müller, Co-Founder of bee smart city.
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