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© Simon Grant, September 1999
The Internet has far more potential to offer local communities than simply another way of employing a few people. Below, I will briefly outline the vision of the potential for
Certain conditions are necessary for these things to be able to happen. The business e-commerce revolution, which is getting into full swing in late 1999, is based firstly on the extensive degree of business access to the Internet. An Internet-ready computer can be afforded by all but the smallest businesses in this country. Secondly, it is based on businesses devoting the time and effort to providing appropriate information (and business functionality) through the Web, which we can call content, and thirdly, business people using, as well as being aware of, the content and potential that is already present, and its value in terms of business information and access to the emerging global market-place.
Similarly, to have a major effect on local communities, related issues of access, awareness and content must be addressed. Without widespread and affordable access to the Internet, any initiative will fail to reach the bulk of the population. Without awareness, people will not know what to do with the access they have. And without the right, appropriate content, there will be little motivation for Internet users to engage with other parts of the local community through the Internet.
It is now known that the simple provision of the technology is not enough to stimulate economic or social regeneration. Rather, we must examine carefully the real needs of the many different interests within a local community, to find out which can, and which can not easily, be helped by a better management of relevant information, which in turn will be made possible by ICT and in particular the Internet.
The practice of e-commerce is very rapidly evolving, led by businesses in the USA, with Britain and Europe some way behind. It is not important exactly which prediction you take for the projected growth: all of them predict massive growth over the next few years, and that growth is already established and measured.
The commonly identified vision of e-commerce is that every business, however small, has access to a potentially world-wide market. This is, of course, two-edged. If a business has a unique product or service, it is a great opportunity, but if there are competitors who offer similar products or services at a lower price, then the transparency of the Web is a threat. Businesses faced with this second situation would need to move quickly to find a better niche for themselves.
The straightforward development model would go on to assume that, the Internet having provided the potential for growth of small businesses, businesses would naturally take on more workers as they grew, thus bringing greater prosperity to the community.
The e-commerce vision as put simply above leaves out human resources considerations. If businesses are to grow they need workers with the suitable skills, and so a major part of regional strategy nowadays is to plan for the development of skills in the workforce as a whole.
Skills programmes focus on ICT skills for two reasons: firstly because it is these skills which are in demand in any case at the moment, and training people who would otherwise be unemployed in those skills is likely to help them towards employment. Secondly, the e-commerce vision above can be severely held back by a lack of those skills. Looked at from the other side, if there is a good basis of ICT skills in the local community, the environment will be good for new, Internet-focused businesses to set up there and to grow.
There is another complete dimension to the relationship between skills and ICT, and that is that the technology enables access to a large amount of training and learning materials - in short, to a great amount of knowledge - and this can be used in many ways to help the local labour market in areas that are not necessarily to do with ICT. The same Internet facilities can be used both for training people directly in ICT skills, and to allow them to find and pursue distance-learning in ICT or other skills.
One of the weaknesses of current strategic policy is that the community side of development can easily be overlooked. The vision here is more subtle, but in the end more thorough and more powerful.
Work is only one of the objectives in life, and at any one time only a proportion of the population will be engaged in or seeking work. There are other meaningful aspects to life, and it is often within a community context that these are pursued by individuals or by groups. Music, sport and religion can be counted among the areas people devote a lot of time and energy to without direct financial reward (and sometimes at considerable personal expense) and in these and other ways too numerous to list people find meaning and fulfillment in life.
In small villages, or in very stable communities, it is perhaps possible to find out about the various meaningful activities which are going on in the locality, but particularly for more mobile sectors of the population this is currently difficult, and these people may not get "plugged in" to the local community. Among other things this may lead to divisions within a local community between long-term residents and newcomers, and this hostility can lead to all kinds of problems which in turn have a negative effect both on the local economy and on the quality of life in the neighbourhood.
Meaning in life is a supremely individual thing, and for people to find meaningful, positive or creative things to do they benefit greatly from finding other people with similar concerns, which is not easy precisely because people are so different. If an amateur musician cannot find other people to share the making of music which they all like, their talent is likely to be wasted, and energy may be diverted to less sociable activities.
The vision here is that the Internet can play a vital role in the communication of interests between people who are living close enough to meet and to share those interests in person. Already it is commonplace that Internet users join newsgroups or mailing lists to share those interests that can be shared remotely, but not all interests and not all meaning is like that. What is needed is to use the Internet as a means of bringing people together locally, thus playing a role that is not being filled fully by, for example, local community newspapers, noticeboards, and the social interaction in clubs and pubs. ICT tools enable a much more effective searching and finding, and therefore a much more effective and much quicker matching of people with others who share whatever meaningful they choose to share.
What information actually does enhance a local community? Research needs to be carried out to examine the measurable effects of different kinds of information provision: from local government; about community and voluntary groups; about local employment, etc. The results of such research could be used directly and immediately to set up systems to provide the information found to be wanted.
There are already-established courses to raise the awareness of SMEs and others about e-commerce. These need to reach all small businesses so that no-one is left out.
When entrepreneurs are aware of the potential of e-commerce, the next step is to provide a supportive environment for discussion and development of business concepts. Experience has shown that at this stage, the involvement of other local businesses is an advantage, not a hindrance. These need to be offered at times, places and costs which are manageable by the smallest businesses.
There are several tried and tested courses to introduce first IT basics, and then Internet skills. How these could be offered is dependent on the local situation.
Strategic judgements have to be made here on the provision of facilities. How widespread will TV set-top Internet access be, and when will it arrive? It may be that some Internet facilities should be provided first for people of average means, moving on to those of most limited means if and when it becomes the norm to have some kind of Internet access at home.
Access for individuals at libraries now has established history and experience. Market research among the general public is needed to know whether other forms of Internet provision would be more successful. An obvious alternative to the educational model would be the leisure model, where people of similar interests and characteristics come to an Internet facility on the same basis as a club. It is often observed that most people learn about knowledge-intensive activities such as ICT better, more quickly and easily in a club or workshop environment than isolated either by being at home or by the silence of a library.
A great motivator for public Internet use is the ability to publish anything of concern on the Web. Providing free web space for every individual in the community, linked to an Internet facility with expert advice, would be a spur for many people to overcome whatever barriers to learning there might be.
In cultures and neighbourhoods which have a strong sense or tradition of community, another great motivator would be to have local community content on a local, easily-accessible web site. It may be that in Internet-based approach to local information may work more effectively than local news sheets, notice boards or similar initiatives.
There are many employment-related services at present on the Web, regional, national and international. It may be that for the smallest businesses, a community Web-based approach may be even more effective, as there is particular benefit in the audience being local.
LETS - local exchange trading systems - could be set up along with Internet access, to make the administrative process both more efficient and more transparent. LETS systems across the world help in the community utilisation of unemployed or under-employed people who are not able or willing to participate fully in the monetary economy. Apart from this, any effective local information system has the potential to help the workings of the local economy.
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