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Networks for People 2000

Entrepreneurship — Non-Profits @ Internet Speed
A forum to discuss the connections of people, information technology, and services transforming American life.

As the Digital Divide Narrows, A Large Goal Looms: Using New Technologies to Reduce Social Inequality

Americans are making impressive progress in closing the digital divide, but a much larger challenge still looms ahead: using digital technology to overcome deep — and possibly widening — social divisions. On that front, the battle is far from won.

That was the message delivered by Mario Morino, head of the Morino Institute, in a keynote address to the Technology Opportunity Program's 2000 "Networks for People" conference October 30-31. "The movement to close the digital divide may well close the gap in access to technology . . . within this decade," Morino told more than 400 former, current and aspiring TOP grantees, as well as numerous technology leaders from the nonprofit sector. But, he added: "Now, another question must be posed: to what end?"

Answering his own question, Morino continued: "We now have the opportunity to turn what is the farthest reaching, fastest growing civic movement of our time into a true social force — one that helps close core educational, economic and social divides," he said. "By fully tapping the potential technology offers us, this movement can make great strides to ensure that everyone can enjoy…economic mobility, personal advancement and a higher quality of life."

The gathering, TOP's fourth annual "Networks for People" conference, attracted took up Morino's challenge to focus on the hard work of moving beyond seeking to increase access to technology in low-income communities to looking for ways to help communities achieve substantial social change. During two days, plenary sessions examined the skilled-worker shortage, reviewed efforts to promote nonprofit networking in the international arena, looked at the need to design technology to enable disabled people to participate in the digital age, explained technology funding priorities of private foundations, and explored privacy issues raised by social service networking projects.

Smaller meetings, meanwhile, stressed even more pragmatic issues — in particular, the need for nonprofit organizations to take an entrepreneurial approach as they tackle technology issues. The specific topics covered during the break-out sessions included how nonprofit organizations can use networks as business tools, how to use evaluation techniques as management tools, what combinations of entrepreneurial tools and talents are required for successful leadership in nonprofit organizations, and how organizations can make resources and information available and relevant to the communities they serve.

The conference came at an auspicious time. Gregory L. Rohde, assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Administration, told participants that congressional budget negotiators had tentatively agreed to triple TOP's budget for grants to nonprofit organizations, to $45 million, in the current fiscal year. That could help accelerate progress toward closing the gap in access to digital technologies. At the current rate, half of all Americans will have Internet access by next summer, Rohde said. "We have truly crossed a new threshold," he told the conference.

But, Morino cautioned, it's no time for celebration. While the digital divide movement has focused almost entirely on increasing access to technology, he said, deeper social divisions are not narrowing, and may even be growing wider. "The same new economy that makes prosperity possible is also exacerbating the already formidable social divides," Morino noted. As a result, the digital revolution "risks leaving more people farther behind, if not cementing a permanent underclass in America — maybe for the first time in our country's life."

To prevent this, Morino said the digital divide movement must go far beyond its current emphasis on increasing access to technology, concentrating instead of finding ways to strengthen the "community infrastructure" in low income areas. "Making sure that technology is in place is just the first step in a long and challenging journey," he said. Equally important, he said, is the need to invest in building "human capacity, in the development of leadership and the capacity of organizations and in the skills of individuals."

Drawing from his own experience as an entrepreneur, Morino argued that the digital divide movement must help community leaders develop a more comprehensive and expansive vision for what technology can do. That doesn't happen overnight, he noted. Corporate America invested billions of dollars in technology in the 1960s and 1970s, but significant gains in productivity didn't materialize until well into the 1980s because it took business leaders time to realize the potential of technology, and thus to make effective use of it. "Old practices and ingrained attitudes made it hard to usher in the profound change that technology enables," Morino said. "It's very easy to put a computer in, it's very easy to put a technology center in. But it's hard to change the minds of individuals and communities and organizations around that technology."

Besides helping leaders develop a vision for what technology can do, it's essential to increase the capacity of organizations to use technology effectively, he continued. Indeed, 70 percent of the technology funding should go to train staff and develop organizations, he said, while only 30 percent should be earmarked for hardware, software and technical services. Morino also suggested that funding organizations should invest strategically, making long term — four to six year — grants that help organizations build their capacity and focusing on "pressure points that are levers for change."

Morino concluded his remarks by proposing five steps "to transform digital divide movement into a social force." First, he said, "We must make the case for technology, but even more so for how it can be applied with relevance to the needs of people and the organizations that serve them in low income areas." Many people, he noted, still see little reason to embrace technology. "The digital divide movement must make an investment to demonstrate this relevance to individuals in our low-income communities," he said.

Second, Morino proposed creating an "academy for leadership in technology" to help people in low-income communities and in the social services community develop a clearer vision for what technology can do. The movement has done tremendous work to provide technical training, but it has done very little "cognitive training" about what technology can do. It must show "tangible, real-life examples" of how technology can drive real-life change."

Third, he proposed creating a "digital peace corps" comprised of "committed individuals who would work to empower people and organizations in low-income communities to use technology to improve social outcomes." Members of this corps would serve as "involved advisers, analysts and innovators, not technology consultants," he continued, stressing that they should have strong expertise in specific disciplines such as education, microenterprise development, health-care, housing, transportation and other fields essential to strong communities.

Fourth, Morino argued that new ways are needed to deliver technology to social-service providers. Macroeconomic factors such as the shortage of labor and the complexity of technology are working against the social sector's use of technology, he said, so creative solutions are needed to enable organizations to deploy and manage technology more cheaply and more reliably. Technology outsourcing and an emerging field of application service providers offer great promise of helping with this problem, he said.

Finally, Morino argued for the need for a "social entrepreneurs' learning community" — a place where people who are applying technology to improve social outcomes can come together to learn from each other, codify their experiences, and create a web of support for each other. "Creating a forum for turning individual actions into collective intelligence," he said, "can be a powerful source of support, growth, learning, and change."

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