In search of the future

There is a sense of urgency with respect to tomorrow. People and organizations of all sorts are making noises about the direction society should take. However, no one is contesting that society is changing, and changing rapidly. Technological advances seem to play a large role in this. In the public debate, much effort has gone into suggesting how to best harness emerging technologies.

In the spring of 2014 the InkluderaFlera network invited to open consultations in five locations in Finland. Participants at the event in Vaasa spent some three hours together discussing digital inclusion. In the audience were library staff, adult education teachers and senior citizens. Photo: Johanni LarjankoDuring the last couple of years, most of the discussion has centred around employment. Focus in the public sector seems to be primarily on improvements in efficiency. The idea that technological development can help improve our society, and our lives, is no longer a topical issue.

We could sure use more jobs, and we all agree an efficient public sector is a goal worth the endeavour. If we think these are the crucial challenges our societies are facing, we are badly misguided.

Risks and opportunities

We have chosen a slightly different path in the Nordic Inkludera- Flera Project. We ask what kind of society we want in the future. With so much online traffic, what happens to equal access and equal opportunities? The risk of a digital divide is real, and the consequences will be severe.

At the same time, we are concerned that the Nordic welfare model is being sacrificed or severely abated in the name of progress, efficiency and the perceived need to cut fiscal spending. An efficient society where citizens are limited to the roles of consumers is a dead end.

A society where we are all employed but do not see each other, or take care of each other, is a nightmare. We need to broaden the scope, look at the whole picture. This is by no means easy, and there are no quick solutions to the obstacles we are facing.

The challenge that needs to be addressed is how we can deal with inevitable changes in the fabric of society without losing focus on the things that matter most. How can we put people first? What does it take to expand the Nordic model into the digital universe?

One way of doing this is by empowering people, i.e. giving them tools to take charge of their lives and be active agents, not passive recipients, encouraging people to become active citizens, to take part in society. This is the domain of ‘folkbildning’ – ‘popular wisdom’ – which takes pride in advocating and successfully facilitating precisely this.

From customer to human being

Another way is to stop talking about people as customers. When Helena comes to the library to ask for help with her computer, she is not a customer needing technical help.

She is a person needing help to connect with her grandchildren, and Skype is not co-operative. It is not about pushing buttons and installing software. It’s about her life.

A third way is to see this as a shared responsibility. None of us can, or should even attempt to, provide all the services needed. It is only when we network and pool our resources that our true strengths will show. This has been the experience of InkluderaFlera.

The way we see it, many different participants play a role in shaping the future. One such participant is the public library. Libraries have a long tradition of providing nourishment for the soul. The very foundation of libraries in the Nordic context is to enlighten the people, to make knowledge and culture accessible for free

People stop coming 

All of this will count for nothing if people stop visiting the libraries. When book reading declines, there is an obvious risk that decision makers will start considering the amount of public spending versus the expected result.

No, not even the libraries are safe in times of change. This is not news to you. You have all felt it. What have you done about it? What can be done?

The InkluderaFlera project aims at engaging all stakeholders in this debate. We think digitalisation is a far too important task to leave to the state or to some planning agency. It is a common concern. We all have a say, because we will all live with the consequences. In this respect, libraries have emerged as something of a dark horse.

Initially, the project considered the tasks for ‘folkbildning’ and civil society. Gradually, it dawned on us how important the libraries could be in this jigsaw puzzle. We began to think of libraries as a largely untapped pool of resources.

Libraries can help

With their wide network and engaged staff, libraries can help citizens enter the digital society in many ways. These can include providing guidance and counselling, by offering help on request, hosting discussions and presentations, cooperating with local adult education providers and senior citizens’ associations and participating in the public debate.

The key is to become engaged, to see the opportunities. To do this, we may have to think outside the box and reach out. We also need a framework within which we can act. In InkluderaFlera, we were impressed with the Digidel network in Sweden. We think this is something the Nordic region could do together.

To be recommended

To sum up, we have been working for two years compiling national reports on strategies and visions for the digitisation of society in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. We have looked at similarities and differences, and drafted a set of recommendations. These are still to be discussed and improved in national reference groups. These groups are open to any stakeholders interested in the issue.

Finally, we will gather in Copenhagen on 20 May 2015 for a Nordic seminar on digital inclusion. So far, we have proposed eight recommendations, two from each country. As they are based on common discussions with many different levels of actors, they may seem a bit vague.

However, I feel the inclusion of libraries in the recommendations is still far too weak. In other words, you are encouraged to join the work, and help improve the documents that shall serve as our common strategy for creating a digitally inclusive society!

The national reports and recommendations are all available online (in the Scandinavian languages)