Genesis – A Vision for Local Digital Transformation

Harnessing the latest technology innovations to economically transform Scotland's local communities

For much of my life I’ve grown up in some of the economically deprived communities of which Scotland has many, the council estates where substance abuse and violence are common place, where food banks are now rife and where there is a distinct sense of a lack of a prosperous future.

While I applaud the excellent Economic Action Plan initiatives of the Scottish Government these consistently fail to develop any real traction and impact at these local levels.

Top down policies simply don’t cascade down in any meaningful way and so new, bottom up approaches are needed. In her Digital Economy address yesterday minister Kate Forbes summed up the issue: There is a lack of aspiration and ambition from local leadership.

Many Councils publish their own economic development plans but again in a top down, ‘tick the box’ fashion – The goal is to publish yet another report and in many cases you can find five year old reports gathering dust, the objective having been completed but still with no real social or economic impact achieved.

Local Digital Platforms

Genesis is via Latin from Greek, meaning ‘generation, creation; from the base of gignesthai ‘be born or produced’, and is the central idea to a transformation program for local communities because it emphasizes the fact it must originate there.

The ‘Platform Business Model‘ is the key ingredient as it is a state of the art technology-enabled design that enables self-organizing systems. Uber Taxis is a business that owns no actual taxis nor does it operate a central scheduling function to allocate drivers to customers, instead a digital platform connects them in a ‘peer to peer’ fashion.

This same effect can be applied to any scenario and for Local Government can be harnessed as a catalyst for deep social and economic transformation.

Empowering Community Innovation

The context for this is articulated very effectively through this CommonSpace report Mapping Economic Potential in North East Glasgow‘.

The report describes chronically deprived areas of Glasgow and how traditional Economic Development strategies have failed to address the issue despite decades and huge sums of investment:

“A toxic combination of neglect at local authority level and macro policies pursued by successive distant governments has seen potentially beneficial policies being overlooked in favour of ‘topdown’ regeneration policies which encourage gentrification and the pushing of marginalized people further to the fringes of the city, with too much reliance on multi-national companies to create jobs.”

It then emphasizes this point about the need for communities to be empowered to directly drive their own economic growth:

“Communities are not problems that can be fixed within a specific time frame; and equally, lasting change is not something which can be ‘done’ to people. This means of achieving change advocates a pro-active, citizen-led approach”

Civic Crowdfunding

The report starts to lead in to key scenarios for how Platforms can be applied for local communities, advocating a new regeneration strategy for the poverty-stricken area of the city: Asset Based Community Development.

“Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is the theory of utilising a community’s skills and strengths (including those not traditionally included in conventional economic analysis) to empower and motivate the community to build a better, more prosperous environment.”

In short many communities have unused assets – dilapidated buildings, empty retail units, overgrown parks et al, and these can be brought back to life through a process described as ‘Civic Crowdfunding‘, with key adopters being Local Government:

“Local government is having to transform how it delivers, doing more with less. Civic crowdfunding offers an alternative model, one in which we believe can offer huge gains for Cities and Citizens alike.”

The Future Cities Catapult offers this Civic Crowdfunding Guide for Local Authorities, and recent policy initiatives provide the ideal context for its application in Scotland, notably the ‘Socio Economic Duty’ and the ‘Community Empowerment Act’.

First given the budget constraints local authorities now face, this point really drives home the power of the model:

“The initial reason many local authorities become interested in civic crowdfunding is due to the additional funds it can generate. Figures from the Mayor’s Crowdfunding Programme reveal that £225,000 of pledges from City Hall had leveraged in a further £375,000 in pledges from the crowd.”

Socio Economic Duty and Action-Oriented Participatory Budgeting

We can then see how local authorities can further meet other legislative requirements.

As Holyrood Magazine reports the ‘Socio-Economic Duty’ obliges government to achieve better social outcomes as a consequence of their procurement but often this can end up as a additional exercise, ‘tacking on’ a token project simply to tick that particular box. Instead this would directly embed compliance into their core operating model, as they can source services from the resulting community projects.

Furthermore the Community Empowerment Act extends a community’s right to buy or otherwise to have greater control over assets, and devolves millions of pounds directly to communities for them to decide on how it should be spent to meet their needs, through a process of ‘Participatory Budgeting‘.

The challenge is that governments always bog down these activities with excessive bureaucracy, becoming overly concerned with the processes of consultation, funding approvals and so forth.

Crowdfunding is the action-oriented version of Participatory Budgeting. No need for labourious, slow moving consultations, simply let the best ideas rise to the top by virtue of receiving initial seed funding support, which councils could then match fund. Ie. Citizens are voting for their preferred projects, and simultaneously moving them forward, not waiting months for the vote to slowly turn into action.

Imagine this capability married with these views and potential outcomes from the CommonSpace report:

“Glasgow North East is home to many talented social entrepreneurs, and we will come to explore the services that these organisations are providing in the area. If some of these organisations could be replicated even just ten times, the difference that this regeneration could make to people’s lives has the potential to be significant, both economically and socially.

If the rest of the derelict sites were to be used for green spaces, for example, the potential benefit to the communities in Glasgow North East could be measured in terms of health and well-being, access to fresh produce, sporting opportunities, air quality as well as the broader economic and social benefits of living in a greener, more pleasant environment.”

This approach would enable progressive governments like the SNP to harness technology to deliver on their vision for a socially transformed Scotland, rejuvenating local communities to be more prosperous and healthy, help tackle poverty, create local work opportunities, better utilize public sector spending AND support the growth of new local business ventures.

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