The ways we communicate, work, consume, grow our economy, are active in our communities, deliver and access public services, community planning, education and healthcare, are evolving. Digital information and communications technologies are changing the ways we live, work, and play, and the pace of change will continue, but many individuals, businesses, and communities are not engaged.
There is much activity underway in Scotland and the UK, as well as internationally, to address the challenges of digital participation. Research has identified key groups of individuals in which levels of participation are particularly low, and many initiatives aimed at stimulating engagement have been undertaken, with limited success.
However, most work to date has focussed either on material and economic barriers to access, or on individual motivation, education and skills. The significant social, cultural and economic impacts of digital participation all depend crucially on network effects, and these have largely been ignored. For example, a community is only able to communicate online once a majority of members is already online; an individual is only motivated to go online once a critical mass of their social, economic, and cultural interactions are supported online.
Once an individual is online, they can share in the wider educational, economic, and social benefits of digital participation–and this benefits society.
An understanding of such network effects is required to guide policy. This, in turn, requires a holistic overview of the changing role of digital technologies that, the RSE is well-placed to contribute. An understanding of existing social, cultural and economic communities–particularly those communities that are not (yet) digitally engaged–is lacking from the policy landscape. How might these communities benefit from the use of digital information and communications technologies, and what actions are required to realise these potential benefits?
Our inquiry will focus on communities–including social, economic, and cultural communities–and ask three key questions:
How can digital technologies benefit our communities?
What do communities, businesses and organisations need to be able to fully participate in this changing society?
How can we ensure that digital technologies help to narrow the social divide, rather than widen it, and that the economic opportunities they provide are best realised to support sustainable, flourishing communities across Scotland?
The benefits of digital participation for individuals, communities, public bodies, businesses and voluntary organisations, are well-documented. Our inquiry will start by taking stock of social, economic and cultural communities across Scotland that are not yet enjoying these benefits to the full. We will engage with these communities to understand the barriers to engagement, and develop strategies to overcome them and ensure that the increasingly central role digital technology plays in society contributes to a narrowing of social divides.
Strands of the Inquiry
In order to be able to make appropriate recommendations on how to engage with and support people and organisations in such a way as to maximise the benefits of the digital society for all, our inquiry will:
Study available data and build on it to drill deeper into the communities that include key groups (elderly, DE socio-economic group, disabled/long-term ill); assess the potential benefits to be gained through improved use of digital technologies by these communities; and identify the barriers to participation.
Assess the role of digital technologies across the business landscape in Scotland, particularly in light of the high proportion of SMEs and the growing creative industries sector, to get a clear picture of barriers to use and of the impacts these have on Scotland’s economy.
Evaluate the opportunities for accessing public services, community planning, education and healthcare through digital technologies, and the risks and challenges we face in exploiting these.
Consider the use of digital technologies by the third sector, including the benefits they can bring in supporting the delivery of voluntary services, and how they are currently being used.
Examine and evaluate motivators and levers that influence behaviour at individual, community and organisational level, including communities of interest and hard-to-reach groups.
Consider how to mitigate the risks and communicate the opportunities to different individuals, communities, businesses and other organisations to encourage engagement, and how to support people and organisations to use digital technologies safely and effectively.
Our inquiry will also comment on the future strategic development of Scotland’s information infrastructure, and how policy can support and encourage creative, innovative use of digital technologies to bring maximum cultural, social and economic benefits to Scotland.
In fulfilling the above remit, the RSE will significantly contribute to addressing the challenge of low levels of digital participation in Scotland and enable more effective policy development by:
Providing a clear picture of current use of digital technologies in Scotland: how they are shaping society and daily lives, the opportunities and potential benefits they present for individuals, public, private and third sectors, and areas where there is scope for improvement.
Providing insight into fundamental reasons why some communities and organisations, including SMEs, public sector and third sector bodies, do not currently use digital technologies to their full potential.
Highlighting existing initiatives within Scotland and internationally that can act as examples of best practice in supporting increased digital engagement.
Making integrated recommendations about the ways in which communities and organisations can be encouraged and supported to use digital technologies appropriate for them, taking account of levers held by central and local government, private sector, third sector and society (communities, families etc).
Making recommendations on how to ensure that the increasing use of digital technology in society does not widen social divides, including recommendations on necessary safety nets and on engaging with the groups most at risk of falling behind.
Illustrating the need to design policies in such a way that they encourage creative, innovative use of technologies in order to place Scotland at the cutting edge of the digital era and in a position to reap maximum cultural, social and economic benefits from advances.