In just the past several years, businesses, governments, and nonprofit organizations have dedicated billions of dollars and countless hours to the goal of closing the "digital divide" and ensuring that new information and communication technologies benefit families in low-income communities. These efforts have engaged leaders from all political viewpoints and all walks of life—from school principals to US presidents, from community activists to Fortune 500 CEOs. They have helped many people understand that if we do not act, millions of urban and rural Americans will be left further and further behind as our nation races forward in the Information Age.
To date, most initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide have focused on providing low-income communities with greater access to computers, Internet connections, and other technologies. Yet technology is not an end in itself. The real opportunity before our society is to lift our sights beyond the goal of expanding access to technology and instead focus on applying technology to achieve the outcomes we seek: tangible and meaningful improvements in the standard of living of families who are now struggling to rise from the bottom rungs of our economy. The purpose of this paper is to make a case for why we must—and how we can—do just that.
To be sure, donated computers and Internet accounts can help expand the number of citizens who are familiar and comfortable with the computer technologies that are such a growing presence in our lives. But if we lift our ambitions, we can help people achieve much more than technological literacy; we can apply technology in targeted ways to help people meet fundamental needs, such as quality health care, effective schools, safe streets, and good jobs that allow people to earn a decent wage as well as dignity and respect.
The United States now has a remarkable opportunity to marshal the resources and energies that have been summoned to the cause of closing the digital divide and create a powerful social movement capable of producing real improvements in the daily lives of millions of people who are living at the margins of our economy. The key is for our society to unite around a new set of aspirations for technology investments in and by low-income communities. In every case, we must ask the following questions:
Through this paper, we offer the Morino Institute's outcomes-oriented point of view, presented in the form of ten key premises, as a starting point for those working to close digital and social divides. A preliminary version of this paper was first presented in a keynote speech by Mario Morino, chairman of the Morino Institute, to the Department of Commerce's "Networks for People" conference in October 2000. The paper subsequently was refined with the help of more than 75 community leaders, policymakers, technology experts, grantmakers, and academics who were kind enough to contribute to an online discussion forum the Morino Institute hosted from November 2000 to April 2001. (To see a list of participants and follow the forum's key discussion threads, visit www.morino.org/divides/participants.htm.)
Although this paper should be useful to any organization engaged in efforts to bring new tools and resources to low-income communities, it is very much rooted in our own experiences. Our views draw heavily on the knowledge developed over three decades by Mario Morino and Morino Institute staff members and advisors in designing, implementing, and managing technology-enabled solutions for corporate, government, educational, and research enterprises around the world.
Since the mid-1990s, the Morino Institute has participated in several dozen efforts to put technology to use to benefit low-income families. For example, one of the Institute’s first activities, in 1994 and 1995, was a collaboration with Apple Computer to run three-day "Ties that Bind" conferences to help individuals representing schools, nonprofits, foundations, businesses, and government agencies learn how computer-based networks could be used to stimulate civic engagement and action. In addition, the Institute has worked with Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP) to support the creation of its first technology-enriched learning centers, in New Haven, Connecticut, and has supported efforts to empower displaced agricultural workers in Nebraska through the use of community networks. Using the knowledge gained from those experiences, the Institute led the Youth Development Collaborative Pilot, a comprehensive two-year effort to establish Networked Learning Centers in several community-based organizations serving the children of Washington, DC.
More than anything else, the Institute's point of view is informed by the strong sense that the lessons corporate America has learned about integrating information technology into its operations and strategies can be helpful to nonprofit organizations struggling to do the same.
Beginning in the 1960s, corporations began to invest heavily in computers and other information technologies. In many cases, however, the early investments did not live up to their promise. In the 1970s, some individual firms realized gains in productivity, and in the 1980s, productivity gains were apparent across a few key sectors. But it was not until the mid-1990s that the massive investments in information technology actually had an impact on national measures of productivity.
Why did it take so long for information technology to give a noticeable boost to the economy and to the living standards of average workers? Although companies found that it was relatively easy to install new computer systems, they had a hard time melding the technology, processes, and people into solutions that produced tangible outcomes and clear benefits to their businesses. As policy expert Andrew Blau put it in a highly informative report for the Surdna Foundation, "Money spent on [information technology] without investments in organizational change and training" was largely wasted.
As knowledge of the potential of technology spread from the technologists to the line executives and staffs—and as companies began to invest even more in training and development than they did in hardware and software—a magical series of events began to unfold. People within organizations began to understand what they had, and their imagination, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurial instinct kicked in. They saw that they could apply technology in innovative ways to achieve hard outcomes, such as increased sales, lower costs, and faster response to customer demand.
And then things got even more interesting. The real explosion in innovation and productivity came as people within those enterprises became connected—via the Internet—to others within their organizations and in their industries and markets. Empowered by technology, people triggered a fundamental revolution in the way enterprises worked, from financial services on Wall Street to retail distribution systems on Main Street.
But it took time. Fundamental change required far more than simply plunking down a computer in front of every employee. The magic occurred when individuals came to understand the potential of technology, acquired the skills to use it, and were wired together. We believe that those who aspire to close digital and social divides can help unleash that same kind of innovation and change in low-income communities.
Of course, corporate America had a distinct advantage in the application of technology: Competitive pressures demanded that businesses respond to the opportunities that technology introduced. The nonprofit world has no such competitive trigger. Instead, our society must use collective will as a motivating force.
If the disparate interests working to bridge the digital divide can come together and summon that collective will, we can provide a powerful push to help the United States respond to the opportunities that technology offers low-income communities. We can help communities apply technology to speed delivery of vital human services, attract new resources, facilitate neighborhood planning and community organizing, and build learning networks through which people with similar interests can share their diverse experiences.
Technology can spark community change so powerful that it will shatter the status quo. Such change will require much more than access to new tools; it will require a rigorous new focus on outcomes along with smart, large-scale investments to help communities achieve those outcomes.
After all, the measure of our nation's progress in narrowing its fundamental disparities will have little to do with how many computers and Internet connections we install. It will have everything to do with how well we can enable those who are less fortunate to elevate their own lives and the lives of their children. We hope the following premises and examples illustrate how we can meet that challenge head on.