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Bridging the last mile of the Digital Divide

By Paul Lamb
February 13, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - "How many of you use an online social networking service like MySpace or LinkedIn?" I asked a group of graduating technicians at Street Tech, a nonprofit organization that trains low-income and underserved adults for careers in technology. A single hand among a group of 10 students rose hesitantly in the air.

It was a glaring reminder of how Web-based tools are still largely geared toward affluent and better-educated users. Uptake remains much lower in other groups -- even among the technology-initiated.

As far as we have come in this country over the past decade in bridging the Digital Divide, many are still unconnected and unable to keep up. In a surprising number of cases, social class is more relevant than technology access and affordability are. After all, online social networking is free (assuming you can get on the Internet). According to the latest statistics, over two-thirds of 18-to-29-year-olds are actively using online social networking sites. But if no one you know is part of an online social network, why would you bother joining one?

So how do we overcome the challenge of connecting those who are last to the adoption party, even when useful technology is available and relatively affordable?

The answer is not simply to encourage a more flattened earth, but to include more people directly in the flattening.

And that's where community-based innovation comes in. In a nutshell, the idea is to adopt a bottom-up approach to innovation by engaging overlooked communities in the development of new tools and products for their own use. Instead of designing online social networks for Internet-savvy individuals, for example, they could be developed with and for small communities, housing complexes, community centers, retirement homes and neighborhood associations.

Community-based innovation could even address IT untouchables such as local homeless populations, recently released prisoners, arriving immigrants and recovering addicts. And it could signal new opportunities for those who live segregated and unnoticed on the far, flat end of the consumer long tail.

A good example of successful community-based innovation is the mobile banking trend that is taking off in many parts of the developing world. Poor people in Africa and Asia who are not welcome as traditional bank customers are bypassing banks and safely storing and moving money via mobile-phone text messages and debit cards honored by small shopkeepers. In aggregate, these nontraditional consumers represent a major portion of the population and a significant untapped market. The trend is so popular that traditional banks are starting to take notice and develop their own mobile banking networks.

Done properly, a community-based innovation approach puts overlooked end users in the development driver's seat and can lead to rapid adoption where adoption has not existed before.

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