Networked Neighbourhoods: Effective localism or narrow insularity?
6.30 - 8.00pm, Wednesday 19 October, Thatcher Room, Portcullis House
This event, organised by the LGiU (Local Government Information Unit) and the Hansard Society, examined the ‘relocalisation’ of the web, and asked are hyperlocal and community websites a vital democratic tool or do they lead to insularity out of step with an increasingly globalised world?
Jonathan Carr-West – Local Government Information Unit
- Natasha Innocent – Director of Community Partnerships, Race Online
- Kerry McCarthy MP – Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
- Hugh Flouch – Networked Neighbourhoods
- Dr Andy Williamson - Independent digital strategist
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This event, organised in collaboration with the Local Government Information Unit, looked at how local networks, or ‘hyperlocal’ online communities and websites, should be developed alongside an emerging digital landscape and addressed the various social and political issues raised by a more web savvy, astute and locally effective community.
Before determining the basic tenets of a successful hyper local website it was important to grasp a more fundamental point – ‘how we connect up’. It was suggested that this state of affairs, a connection between individuals as such
, is more directly manifest in a digital network as opposed to some other forms of social organisation. The purpose of a digital network, simply to forge relationships between people with common ideas and aims, seems to have subsequently simplified the notion of politically motivated social organisation, which, as was suggested, would undermine the idea, attributed to governments, that politics is about markets; mediate relationships that presuppose the individual. The panel broadly agreed that politics is in fact a ‘process of partnerships and sharing’; a process achievable through localism.
With the idea of localism and its digital incarnation, the hyperlocal website, as the establishment of a communicative basis, upon which knowledge can be openly shared and developed, it became clear that, like markets, a solid infrastructure is essential in order to allow these relationships to properly develop. Natasha Innocent of Race Online was quick to point out some astonishing statistics unearthed by a survey conducted in Liverpool. This found that 25% of the population of Liverpool don’t have internet access, 50% of whom live in public housing. This lack of online activity was mirrored throughout large parts of the UK, particularly around areas to the Northwest and Scotland – Glasgow nearly doubled Liverpool’s figure. This highlighted a fundamental dilemma faced by proponents of the digital shift: how to increase online activity in both absolute and relative terms. That is, how to stop the creation of digital classes and reduce the ‘digital divide’ while maintaining a steady rate of growth.
Although the issues surrounding economic growth, equality and social justice clearly stand in the way of online access, it appeared that the digital disparity exposed a more ingrained problem that transcends these traditional social hurdles. Technological shifts can easily and quickly leave people in the dust and lacking skills that weren’t previously needed – the sudden shift to mobile technology, to use an extreme but nonetheless realistic example. And although it is a more exaggerated problem in poorer areas, the required skill-set for staying on top of digital developments is constantly being tested, continually narrowing the sphere of inclusion to that of ‘young middle to upper class’. Different communities are therefore presented with a broader range of reasons why people aren’t maximising the benefits of online activity – there is ‘no one-size-fits-all solution’ to digital inclusion.
This also raises another issue. Local authorities play a pivotal role in promoting hyperlocal websites as a pathway to greater levels of access to the local democratic process. Therefore, where local councils lack the required technical abilities to stimulate online dialogue, levels of engagement with the local democratic process become stagnant. Kerry McCarthy MP aired her concerns over the outdated methods used in some local democratic processes and explained that more needs to be done in utilising hyperlocal websites as a direct democratic tool, starting by developing the necessary skill-set.
Hugh Flouch of networkedneighbourhoods.com said that while there is a ‘healthy and growing online ecosystem’, local councils need to do more to increase the rate of growth. Nonetheless, he noted a significant rise in awareness of hyperlocal websites among MPs and Councillors, from 63% to 83% over 2010. However, he mirrored Kerry’s concerns, stating that a lack of training has constituted a lack of guidance in promoting a solid online democratic agenda. Jonathan Carr-West of LGiU suggested that the rise in awareness and participation may be an answer to the government’s austerity programme, whereby the cap on public spending has created the need to forge an environment within which the public can deal with issues the government is no longer able to address.
This point also implied major repercussions for the internet as a whole. With the reintroduction of place and localism to online networks, via local social and political online initiatives, the web has begun to turn in on itself and shirk away from its initial ‘abandonment of geography’. Jonathan explained that this would create a more solid foundation for greater levels of engagement with the wider political process. Effective local networks, fully engaged with local government, could then branch out towards macro networks, strengthening dialogue on central issues like the environment and economy.
Not only would this create a sustainable digital infrastructure, but also redress the balance between local and national involvement with the political process, by creating an interplay that facilitates an effective bidirectional flow of information – a ‘connected localism’. This evolutionary model of digital engagement with politics therefore defines the global online community as the amalgamation of hyperlocal online media, eliminating the conflict between insularity and interconnectivity. Nonetheless, in order for this digital ecosystem to evolve at a steady rate, more fundamental issues must be addressed to get people online in the first place. And as Kerry McCarthy stressed towards the end, we must make sure developments in political engagement aren’t limited to a digitally savvy elite.Further reading:
Transforming the Future Parliament Through the Effective Use of Digital Media
By Andy Williamson and Freddy Fallon
Going where the eyeballs are: how email is connecting councils with their communities
By Jonathan Carr-West and Rob Dale