With the Chicago Mayoral election coming up next week, I've been thinking about a question from the first debate between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. One of the questions was about the "digital divide", and both candidates seemed to struggle with the concept: Garcia made an initially fumbling, but articulate discussion of the issue, while Emanuel trotted out his platform of great schools/neighborhoods/parks/libraries. Although both candidates made an effort to address the issue, perhaps now is a good opportunity to discuss the "digital divide" - and "digital excellence" - as they impact the city.
For some, the "digital divide" means access to technology - that providing people access to computers will foster their ability to use them. On a superficial level, this is correct - after all, there are free wi-fi and computer resources all over the city, and programs to provide training But throwing computers at the problem only addresses one key issue....and in addressing the digital divide in Chicago, it's not enough.
One of the emerging issues is the growth of businesses. Although Mayor Emanuel has called for a strong central business corridor, community & economic development is also fostered by small businesses and microenterprises emerging in neighborhoods. (It's no surprise that organizations like Sunshine Enterprises and Greater Southwest Development Corp focus their efforts on local businesses and neighborhood-based entrepreneurship) Assisting small businesses and microenterprises in using online and open source tools drives business growth. Providing access to inexpensive tools - as well as connections via wi-fi and broadband - is a way of bridging this divide. Although economic development is a key issue for the Chicago mayoral election next week, this aspect is rarely discussed.
(If you want another, more concrete example - the Mayor cites 1871 as an example of how the city is driving businesses. In short, every neighborhood deserves their own tech/other business incubator. There's a good reason why Blue 1647 is receiving great attention....because it suggests that technology and community/economic development go hand-in-hand). The idea that technology can drive social benefit - as well as economic and community benefit - lies at the core of digital excellence. It's more than using technology for its own sake, it's the belief that everyone can and should have access to both the tools - and the skills/literacy to use them. (To quote an early blog entry, digital excellence - especially in our current economy - is a basic human right). With our society moving towards a network-based, service economy, it would seem futile to simply this as "free computers for everyone." (Or as one misguided colleague once remarked, "People in poorer neighborhoods have smartphones - they don't need computers.) It's the belief that everyone in each of Chicago's 77 neighborhoods has the ability to learn about new technology, to use new technology, and that by allowing access to tools you create an environment that stimulates community growth. Besides access to hardware and software, digital excellence also advocates fostering literacy and creativity when using these tools. Engaging in a philosophy of digital excellence allows people to grow into and flourish within our increasingly networked, digitally-savvy community.
This not pitting one neighborhood against another - it encourages and fosters stronger collaborations. It allows for resources to be used more effectively, and for people to work together towards a common goal. Despite the divisive nature of the current Chicago mayoral election, one thing stands: many are concerned with the welfare of the city, and want it to move forward. Even as many city departments are integrating technology (including the Chicago Board of Elections - and yes, I'll be serving as election judge again next week), Chicago appears to be ready for a big idea - a grand solution that can foster a common goal and bridge the divide between residents.
But it won't take getting the Olympics, or a trophy-winning major sports team. It will take a solution that encompasses all of Chicago's neighborhoods, can build connections between communities, and which can spark on community and economic developing simply, yet effectively.
That solution is digital excellence....and can not only bridge the digital divide, can strengthen our city.
And as always, thanks for reading!
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