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Empowering Communities in a Digital Age?

At the Future Cities Institute, our mission is to Empower Local Communities in a Digital World. But what does Empowerment really mean? Here are some thoughts…

The World Bank suggests that Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Researchers* have also identified two essential factors that influence our capacity to make an effective choice - agency and opportunity structure:

  • Agency is defined as a person, or groups, ability to make meaningful choices, i.e. they can envisage options for the future and make a choice.
  • Opportunity structure is defined as the formal and informal contexts within which these people or groups operate.

For example, a young person may well informed about many potential jobs and careers they can pursue and have the ability to apply for them (agency) but because of their lack of education or the right skill sets (opportunity structure) are unable to make their choice effective…they are not empowered.

Another example comes from my own community a couple of years ago where we were basically a 'black hole' in term of our ability to get decent broadband in our suburb. As individuals we were able to contact the telco provider and request better broadband, but were unable to achieve change because of the power 'imbalance' of individuals trying to deal with a large national carrier. We just got the run-a-round.

However, as a community of people of people working together and combining our different experiences, education and social/business connections in industries such as technology, media, public relations and marketing, we were 'empowered' to make a choice (and take action) to take on the telco in the public media and put forward a strong argument for change. The end result, our suburb was the first suburb in the country to get the new broadband roll out. As a group we were empowered to transform our choices into desired actions and outcomes.

So, back to Empowering Local Communities in a Digital World...

Let's face it we are in transition to a 'techno-economic' age where the focus of social development and economic competitiveness is based on:

  • a focus away from having vast amounts of capital, to having vast amounts of flexibility
  • a move from the command and control processes of the industrial age, to an age of 'Flexibility and Entrepreneurialism' and
  • a move to local industry clusters and value added 'zones' of creative industries in city settings, rather than big development style campuses such as Silicon Valley**.

A critical factor to this transition is the nature of the 'stuff' that makes up this techno-economic age, innovation is now based on 'weightless' parts such as software and the Internet, that have no physical, manufacturing, shipping or inventory constraints. These technologies fuel economic growth via individual creativity, without the requirement for significant economic resources such as capital, plant or machinery, really who needs an office anymore?*.

Bottom line…

It's about entrepreneurs in cities, drinking coffee, dreaming up new ideas and being empowered to transform those ideas (choices) into desired actions and outcomes through their developed skills and social connections, and the application of technologies like Cloud and Mobile.

If you don't think technology, and lots of on-line friends, can empower people and communities, just talk to my friend Leila in Tunisia***…

* See Alsop and Heinsohn (2005) **For more on these ideas see Varian 2003, Jessop 1992 and Hutton 2004. *** See my post archives for the Tunisia Presentation