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March 13, 2005

Out of Africa: OneCleveland and the Rethinking of the Digital Divide

It's just another Monday. The headlines in the local paper are predictable . The city school system is in a death spiral. Local politicians are quibbling about irrelevancies. The press reaffirms its indispensable contribution to our great town by ambulance chasing and reporting on politicians and their breakfast budgets. Meanwhile, half way around the world, its also Monday and a gathering is taking place on the Lake Geneva shoreline that no one in Cleveland knows about.

Tomorrow morning (Mon.3.14.05) at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland a meeting has been convened. The meeting is the inaugural ceremony of the digital solidarity fund. After 18 months of international dialogue, led by international technology power houses like the City of Dakar (in Senegal)and the City of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)tomorrow is the day that 100s of cities from around the world will officially sign the Charter of the so-called Geneva Principle.

I am often asked what can "cities do" to help advance their own "OneCleveland" initiative in order to address community priorities. This is the answer to the question as to how individuals, families, and communities are able to fully participate in controlling their own destinies and the destinies of their cities. As Mark Warschauer has written in his book Technology and Social Inclusion, the ability to access, adapt, and create new knowledge using new information and communication technology is critical to social inclusion in today's society. That's the premise of some of my previous musing on poverty alleviation and the OneCleveland project. So, how can Cities contribute to this positive outcome? It turns out that one of the answers is based on working together to embrace the Digital Solidarity Fund as a form of public policy.

Here is a bit of the text from the Geneva Principle.

"The Geneva Principle involves a 1% contribution on public ICT (information and communication technology) procurement contracts, paid by the vendor on his profit margin (to the Digital Solidarity Fund). Clearly stated in all ICT public call for bids, this obligation to contribute 1% of the transaction to the Fund is neither subject to interpretation nor negotiation, and thus does not cause distortion of market competition. The contribution awards the vendor a 'digital solidarity' label."

No one is so naive as to posit that plugging poor countries into the internet will help them to become rich over night. Likewise, in the context of America's inner city the answer to the challenges facing cities like Cleveland is not to "connect" alone. Access is a necessary but not sufficient condition for social inclusion. OneCleveland's moniker is "connect, enable, and transform." Technological inequalities within our cities and between first and third worlds are, in large measure, symptomatic of more structural inequity. But change happens. In the early 90s when I worked in Africa there was a common notion that Manhattan had more telephones than all of Africa. People waited for 5 years and more for landlines. In social commentary and in street theater, the encrusted bureaucracy of colonial Africa and the anemic power of the modern African state were captured and caricatured in the absurdity of telecommunications, network connectivity, and the computer age. But, again, change happens. According to the World Bank, within less than 10 years more than 50 million mobile phone lines have been activated in Africa. Switched line costs have been cut in half over the past decade as competition and alternatives are introduced. And at least at one level, the so called "gap" or digital divide in the basic ICT arena is quickly closing.

More important, OneCleveland and many other cities in the United States have much to learn from Africa cities and other so-called third world cities in how new technological capabilities have been introduced to address social inclusion. Initiatives like the Digital Solidarity Fund are only meaningful if they are directed to address real human capacity building. As I noted in my recent blog on Queen Noor and bullets, to books, to bytes, I think our best lessons on social inclusion and technology are to be found in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America. Among hundreds that I have book marked are:

* New Delhi's "hole in the wall"
* The Cybercare Orphanage project in Kuala Lumpur
* Rio's Committee for Democracy in Information Technology
* Botswana's Basketry and Bushman's Crafts e-commerce project.
* The low-cost solar powered community network in Tsilitwa, Eastern Cape, in South Africa to improve healthcare, education, security and sustainable development.
* Egypt's Community Cultural Archive and Heritage project.


To be clear, like many American cities, Cleveland is a destination city. In our case, we are at or near the epicenter of innovation and value in the areas of health care and research, music, museums and culture and even technological infrastructure. While with a few exceptions like Cool Cleveland, we fail to celebrate our ingenuity, I think our biggest challenge is the internalization of the culture of poverty and the related 'mistake on the lake' syndrome. We need a big, even audacious community-wide project focused on the 21st century that will make a difference. And no, I don't think that gaming or convention centers are either big or audacious undertakings.

Here is one candidate idea that might qualify. Modeled in part after the highly successful Stockholm Challenge, We are the World Cleveland is a proposed international competition for technology and social inclusion. Funded through a proposed 3-way match between the Cleveland philanthropic, corporate, and cultural communities, We are the World Cleveland calls on the cultural mosaic of Greater Cleveland to reach back to 100 cities from outside the United States and bring forward their best ideas and qualified experiences in addressing technology and social inclusion. Organized through our community centers, trade unions, churches, schools, and cultural organizations We are the World will be our own version of the Incredible Race meets the Apprentice. Combining sister cities, family roots, community linkages, eco-tourism, virtual learning communities, and international trade union activity, the resulting program should be promoted by our commercial and public television and other media (both mainstream and alternative). If a singer from Shaker Heights gets coverage in the PlainDealer and all of our broadcasters imagine the huge impact of a global competition with major prices that is based in our own community through civic engagement and interaction on how we can learn from others on how to leverage the new tools of the 21st century to change our own community.

An 18 month project (at least), We are the World Cleveland will offer prizes to our communities who uncover the best examples of social inclusion and technology in key categories like, culture, health, education, environment, e-business, e-government, gender inclusion, economic development, eco-tourism, housing, and workforce preparation.

We Are the World Cleveland will be a multimedia project produced by our community who will learn how to use digital authoring and editing tools in partnership with proposed corporate sponsors to the project. Following a rule book to be developed by an international panel of experts and adjudicated by our own panel of expert judges, Cleveland communities, trade unions, trade associations, Chambers, schools and others will compete to travel the world to document and tell the best stories of technology and social inclusion. Winning segments will be broadcast on television as part of a series that can be syndicated and shared with other markets. Our newspapers and online bloggers can provide indepth, behind the scenes stories behind the stories, filled with human interest subjects.

My first thinking on the We are the World Cleveland is to apply for some seed funding from the Civic Innovation Lab. In conjunction with some start up funds and seeking a project manager, I imagine us gathering support from the key stakeholders which in addition to the downtown addresses will include champions from our major cultural, relgious, work, and community leaders. If you have interest in helping to develop a business plan and project proposal, drop me a note

Posted by lsg8 at March 13, 2005 11:02 AM and tagged Bytes 

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