The digital community: Why digital inclusion has to be at the heart of every place


Digital inclusion leads to improved social inclusion and economic and social wellbeing, while the negative effects of digital exclusion are increasingly far reaching.

Earlier this year, I went along to the Digital You event in Salford , and it was great to see two mayors, the CEO of a social enterprise, the CEO of Salford, and the director responsible, all speak passionately about the need to enable digital inclusion. But it was the guy from the community — who was digitally excluded and is now helping others – who stole the show. He spoke with conviction and thought, and you could see how the experience changed him as a person and changed his life chances, and that for me is what it's all about.

Digital exclusion matters. It matters on an individual level: with research clearly showing that there is a link between digital exclusion and social exclusion, not to mention the opportunities the internet opens up in terms of job seeking, education, public services, cheaper goods, cheaper bills / services, health information (and the list goes on). Digital exclusion affects some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society so, those who are already at a disadvantage, and with so much potentially to gain from the internet, are becoming more and more disadvantaged.

But it also has an impact on families, communities, political processes, democracy, public services and the economic and social health of the nation as a whole (Digital divide in the UK).

Digital skills are important, not just nice to have

There are still 4.3 million people (8%) in the UK with zero Basic Digital Skills and 11.3 million adults (21%) do not have all five Basic Digital Skills (Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2018). Many of these people have a smartphone, so are technically ‘online’, but would have no idea how to use a laptop or PC – and it’s still unlikely that you can, for example, write a CV and apply for a job via your phone alone, or fill out long application forms for, say, housing benefit.

The rise of the digital council

Local authorities are rightly increasingly embracing the opportunities offered by technology and digital tools. The LGA report ‘Transforming public services using technology and digital tools and approaches’ highlighted over 50 projects showing how services can be improved and better targeted, as well as delivering over £41m of direct savings – but it is about more than that. The report recognised the huge benefits to citizens of making services, support and information easily available online – but also highlighted the damaging effects of digital exclusion and the importance of digital access and inclusion.

Councils are keen to tackle that however – Leeds City Council with 100% Digital Leeds, and Salford’s DigitalYou are both great examples of a collaborative, local authority-led approach to digital inclusion, and there are plenty more. Working with organisations like Good Things Foundation, initiatives include digital upskilling groups, free resources and even free broadband.

People are doing it for themselves too

People are ‘digital placemaking’. Using digital tools – platforms such as Kickstarter and Spacehive,  which designed to support collaboration – communities are coming together in creating and funding community projects.

There are people setting up their own online communities, using WhatsApp, or Facebook, etc. I heard of one that started off as a neighbourhood watch group, which has now turned into a social and supportive network, with people posting for help with small jobs, to attend community and social events, or just to say they are new to the area and would like to meet new people. These are popping up all over the country, spaces where local people can air their views, support each other and share information.   

And, with the majority of the adult population having a smartphone (85% of 16-75 year olds – Deloitte’s 2017 Mobile Consumer Survey), these communities are easily accessed.

Councils can get in on this too, not just through their own social media channels, but by councillors joining their local online community groups (they are part of that community after all), listening to and entering into the discussions – and lending support and advice where appropriate.  Or they can collaborate with other local stakeholders to set one up, such as MyCity Salford.

The digital community – with everyone in

MyCity Salford is more than just a website – by galvanising support from large corporates, social enterprises, community groups and individuals, it’s more like a movement. This needs to happen everywhere and everyone has to get on board (we’re doing it here at Capita too, within our Urban Vision partnership for example). Digital communities are on the rise – and they’re here to stay. Used in the right way, they can support the social and economic wellbeing of individuals. Harnessed in the right way, they can not only create vital connections between local authorities and communities, but also be a force for good, helping to alleviate – rather than contribute to – mental health and isolation issues.

Find out more about the digital place at our workshop on the 4th July, 11.45am – 12.45am at the LGA conference in Birmingham.  

Alex Cousins