Fit for the Future: Fostering a Resilient and Engaged Citizenry

By – Joanne Jacobs, Disruptor’s Handbook

To be fit for the future, societies need to work on their digital health. Looking at the impact of emergent technologies have on citizens, Joanne considers what role Leep has to play.

Fit for the Future

Being ‘Fit for the Future’ is something that is increasingly the focus of corporate and small business planning, because there is a clear value in ensuring sustainability and competitiveness of commercial operations. The long term health of an organisation is dependent on being fit to face the disruptive forces advancing on all organisations, and powered by emerging digital technologies.

But because we don’t live in a vacuum, the drive for competition in business has a knock-on effect to government practices, social services and our day-to-day lives. What that means is that in activities as diverse as visiting a supermarket, to taking a holiday, filing your taxes or getting your driver’s licence renewed, technology has been on a slow and steady march into the foundations of these experiences.

And the shift has been for a very good reason. Just taking the example of renewing your driver’s licence here in NSW, the average time to process a driver’s licence has reduced from at least half an hour in the old RTA offices to around ten minutes or less at Service NSW online or via the kiosks in any of their 182 service centres. These improvements have been widely embraced by the community as representing a better customer experience.

Resisting the tech trend

But not everyone is along for the journey when it comes to this digitisation of everyday experiences. Those members of society who have not been exposed to much technology in the workplace, or who have not felt the urge to adopt the latest devices and digital communication practices as they were released, are now digitally unfit for the future. And because they have resisted for so long, and their skills are so limited, they are increasingly unlikely to be able to participate in society. They represent a new form of disenfranchisement, a subclass experiencing digital poverty.

Of course the resistance of these digitally poor to emergent technologies is entirely understandable, and even to some extent, reasonable. In his book on why people resist new technologies, the Director of Science, Technology, Globalization at Harvard University, Professor Calestus Juma, has noted that, “many debates over new technologies are framed in the context of risks to moral values, human health, and environmental safety. But behind these genuine concerns often lie deeper, but unacknowledged socioeconomic considerations”. Many who are being left behind in the Age of IT are concerned about job losses as human workers are gradually replaced by automated systems and artificial intelligence. They are worried about curtailment of their privacy, they worry about the impact of technologies on relationships and social participation, and they fear a kind of subjugation of humanity to technological determinism.

These are all legitimate and important concerns. But we can’t put the genie back into the bottle either. The slow creep of technologies in to all facets of our lives is inexorable. The best way we can address these concerns is to have the digitally poor participating in the conversation, helping to shape a fair future, as well as an efficient one.

What Makes a Healthy Digital World?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has been thinking about this and has come up with the Six Share Global Outcomes to achieve what they describe as a sustainable, inclusive and trustworthy digital world. They note the need to develop resilient people, processes and practices, as well as the need to ensure that data is responsibly managed for security and inclusiveness.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the Six Shared Global Outcomes, is the requirement for all people, without differences in geography gender or income to have access to, and use the internet. For the WEF, in order for the future to be fair, there has to be a base capability of functional internet use among all citizens. It’s not just about providing access to the infrastructure of connection and participation in digital society, you need also to provide the skills and literacies that make participation meaningful.

This makes sense. To have a level playing field of democratic participation in a digital society, there needs to be a baseline equity of access and competency. But over and above the equity consideration, there is another reason why all citizens need to be digitally skilled: to be able to control information held about you by institutions, organisations and individuals, you need to be able to check, amend or rescind access to that information.

It’s a central tenet of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations which came into force from July this year, and it is enshrined in our own Australian Privacy Principles, part of the federal Privacy Act. We should be able to query any information held about us, and we should be able to correct or remove that data as a basic right. In other words, one of the key issues that has troubled the digitally poor about the rise of a technologies – potential curtailment of privacy – is the linchpin of why we need to provide access and digital skills development programs. We can’t control information held about us by proxy. And we can’t limit the information held about people in accordance with their preferences, because every organisation is digitising its records, and because there are ever increasing mechanisms to record personal data.

Whether it is facial recognition technology being applied to closed circuit television recordings (CCTV), GPS tracking of LTE/GSM mobile devices, or even something as simple as the tracking of public transport journeys on an Opal card, the data trails we are all leaving behind is growing, and inescapable.

Measuring society’s digital health

What’s needed is a digital health check for society.

The problem is that it’s not an easy thing to measure. While we know that Australia leads the world in smartphone use, with penetration expected to reach 90% by the end of this year, according to Deloitte, and we are ranked 23rd in the world for internet access with a penetration of 88.24%, mere access to devices and networks does not mean that users are either productive or proficient.

The G2 Insights group in their work on digital literacy have acknowledged that most measures of digital capability, are too narrowly focused on technical skill sets and insufficient attention is paid to the proof points of functional literacy; the capacity to create, critique and evaluate resources accessed on digital platforms.

If we accept the argument of the G20 Insights group, then any digital health check would need to consider more than mere infrastructural considerations like access to devices and broadband connectivity, and would need to take in to account the experiences, services and communication practices of digital citizens to truly gauge the digital wellbeing of a population.

Fortunately, the tribal nature of human behaviour has already provided us with the capacity to conduct such an audit. Network effects theory demonstrates that the value of a product or service increases in accordance with the number of other people using it. So we know that when people express a desire to learn about a product or service, then it is likely they have been made aware of the existence of the service by someone they know or trust, and that the value of their developing proficiency in the product or service will actually increase as other users adopt the same product or service.

We can also assess experiences and communication practices of digital citizens by measuring their satisfaction with digitally enabled social connections, as well as their perceived control over their personal data.

And we can measure the evaluative capacity of digital citizens by tracking real time threat maps, and noting the frequency and volume of malware and phishing reports, when compared with victim reports.

In measuring these cognitive and functional/ethical dimensions of digital health, we develop a better understanding of the true resilience of a citizenry. Appreciation for which tools and practices are needed to maintain social and family relationships, as well as economic and socio-political engagement with society, is key to understanding the capacity of a citizen to control information held about them.

How does Leep help?

Leep fills a gap not often considered in the development of digital literacy and health programs. Because the program is focused on self-directed learning and interest based skills development, Leep enables literacy development without the constraints of a formal program, or specific infrastructural requirements. It connects learners with the digitally skilled from any social or cultural background, and with the content that suits their immediate needs.

From an interaction design perspective, the Leep program is likely to result in both a positive learning experience and repeat participation, because there is no pressure to learn at any specific rate, and because trust is developed between a learner an a mentor.

But there is another reason why the design of the Leep program works well; all mentors are volunteers, and thus they see their involvement as an opportunity to give back to society. Where formal trainers would be required to work to specific performance criteria, and learning experiences and outcomes may have to be more consistent, volunteers can provide learners with necessarily uneven experiences, in line with learner needs and learning pace.

Digital health risks

There is an alternative to the kinds of programs that Leep provides. We could just go on as we have done in the past, and wait for the digitally disenfranchised to give up or die off. However the trouble with this approach is that those suffering from digital poverty are not just the elderly. Indeed, recent research has identified that in every generation there are substantial numbers of people who are not sufficiently tech savvy to operate effectively as digital citizens – and this includes millennials. Whether victims of digital bullying, or the so-called ‘digital exiles’ (children whose parents did not allow them to engage with technologies, or children who were not able to access technology), many millennials are just as in need of the kinds of digital mentoring programs that Leep provides as the traditional target market of older and disabled Australians.

The cost of failing to generate digital health and resilience is significant. McAfee estimates that cybercrime alone is costing the global economy over US$600 billion per year, and argues that vulnerability of digital systems is largely the result of unsophisticated security practices among employees. The humans are the weakness in most digital systems.  But it’s not just cybersecurity. According to the Australian Computer Society and Access Economics, rapid adoption of new technologies could inject A$54 billion over five years into the Australian economy. But we need an active and engaged community to achieve that value.

A digitally healthy Australia

The advantages of equipping the digitally disadvantaged with skills has both a social and economic benefit. Socially, people can use online technologies to find people with similar interests, and participate in meetups and events that broaden their horizons. Economically, the more people connected to the internet, the more likely it is that we can generate benefits from data based insights as well as encourage deeper engagement with the citizenry. Citizenship in a digital age enables and requires responsible, ethical approaches to communicating via digital channels as well as accessing and using digital content, so development of a digitally healthy Australia is the best approach to ensure stronger engagement in decision making about the future of the country.

With the continued rollout of connected devices, smart cities and data-based decision making, it’s vital for cities, companies and place-based organisations alike to develop the skills necessary to ensure the security and wellbeing of the people they serve.

We are living through a period of rapidly changing marketplaces, increased mobility and pervasive technology platforms. And none of these changes can be restrained by ad hoc and reactive punitive measures. What’s needed is more resilient and engaged citizens that are active participants in the decision making which arises from data-led cities and communities.

To be fit for the future, societies need to work on their digital health. And with its customisable learning programs, its trained volunteer network, its affiliation with regional organisations and its relationship with those citizens who most need to develop digital competencies, Leep is well placed to take the digital pulse of the nation.

Watch Joanne’s presentation on this topic at the Leep AGM here: