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Richard Florida, researcher and advocate for the role of creatives in economic development, writes in the introduction to his book The Rise of the Creative Class (2002):

“The task before us is to build new forms of social cohesion appropriate to the new Creative Age – the old forms don’t work, because they no longer fit the people we’ve become – and from there, to pursue a collective vision of a better and more prosperous future for us all.”

He concludes by indicating that if the Creative Class (who tend to be more economically advantaged) doesn’t take seriously the need for new ways of engaging all in participation in society, the growing social and economic divides will worsen and his creative “we”  “will find ourselves living perpetually uneasy lives at the top of an unhappy heap.”

In the 1990s and early 2000, there was much concern about the need for a socially cohesive society and for the need for all to participate in what was referred to as the information age, or the knowledge society. The idea of utilizing new information and communications technologies (ICTs) for inclusive development was widely espoused in New Zealand, and internationally. For instance there was a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) convened by the United Nations.

The first paragraph of New Zealand’s Connecting Communities strategy 2002 – as part of its wider Draft Digital Strategy  (2004) articulates the kind of vision heard at the time, namely that:

“All New Zealanders, either as individuals or as members of communities, have the opportunity to access and effectively use current and emerging ICTs. This will enable individuals and communities to participate fully in the economic, social, educational, cultural and democratic opportunities available in an information society.”

Early in 2000, many community projects that drew on ICTs were funded by governments. However, it appears now that government support for ICT-supported local community development has dissipated. For instance, although the word “community” is still mentioned in New Zealand’s Digital Strategy, it was structured to provide support for government-funded agencies, institutions and library projects, rather than those of ordinary people and groups in communities.

It is useful to ask why the vision of inclusive, community-supported ICT use and development has receded, when clearly the need for participation and social cohesion still remains.

One explanation I find compelling is provided by Manuel Castells, a major social theorist who has written extensively on the nature and impact of ICTs. In his article Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society, published in the British Journal of Sociology in 2000, Castells notes that “as the Internet becomes a universal tool of interactive communication” there has been a major shift “from computer-centered technologies to network-diffused technologies” (pg 9).

In Castells’ terms, policy in New Zealand could be seen as focused on the more backward looking “computer-centered technologies,” teaching people to use computers, including the Internet in institutionally-run premises (or even in individual homes). The networking that is supported is individualised networking (one-to-many) linking local individuals largely as individuals, in what are dispersed, ultimately global networks.

In the meantime the shift to the predominantly “network-diffused technologies” has hardly been noticed. Likewise its potential for mutually-supportive local networking and inclusive community building, or locally-based many-to-many networking.

In research in Christchurch and Wellington on community projects which drew on ICTs (2003), St Albans was at the time the only project which was explicit about using ICTs for networking. Importantly, these projects began not with the idea of how to use computers and Internet in certain buildings, but with a clear concept of community, which ICT networking was to enhance and develop.

I see it as crucially important, now more than ever as the recession starts to bite, to explore how people in local communities can deploy ICTs in locally-diffused ways to come together, so that they can participate more comprehensively and effectively within, and thence also from their localities.

What do you think?

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