Barcelona, Spain. June 19+20. Earlier this week, about 40 people gathered in Barcelona to talk about ‘e-skills and employability’. In many ways, this was a typical telecentre.org meeting. Everyone attending – including host organization Fundación Esplai – was in the business of running telecentres or other community technology projects. The event helped them build new friendships, learn skills and practices from each other and, in some cases, surface opportunities to work together. However, one thing this meeting was different. The common touch point was not just the telecentres, but also a commitment to using technology to help people get jobs or start businesses.
At some level, this focus in the European community tech space is being driven by European Union policy makers and companies like Microsoft and Cisco. These players are ringing bells to say that Europe will be short two million skilled IT workers in coming years, and that filling this gap is key to the economic survival of the continent. As this issue becomes stronger on the policy and corporate radar, NGOs like the ones I met in Barcelona are saying: “… hey, we’ve been working on this for years. We know how to help people get these skills. We can help.”
It seems that this message is being heard, especially by the EU and Microsoft people who were at the event. A new social market is emerging and these community tech NGOs are moving in shape it and take advantage of it. That’s a good thing. However, I don’t think it is the most interesting thing.
What’s more interesting is that almost all the community tech organizations at the Barcelona event saw ‘jobs and employment’ as part of a broader poverty fighting | social justice | empowerment agenda. On day one, we did a spectrogram exercise on the statement ‘eskills is the most important issue that my organization works on’. The bulk of people ended up on the middle of the line, saying that providing computer skills isn’t simply about helping people get a job. It’s also about creating a sense of confidence, an opportunity for self expression and a chance to shape and bend the world around you. This is what sets computer skills apart.
This holistic perspective is pretty typical of telecentre and community technology people around the world. They are in this game because they believe that offering access to technology offers a way engage people on a broad social change and empowerment agenda. It’s no wonder that some of the best telecentre projects come from large scale, well rooted movement organizations like Sarvodaya and Esplai. In the end, this is a great strength of the telecentre movement … a strength that grounds and deepens the kind of initiatives are likely to emerge around the EU e-skills and employability agenda.
The sad thing – and the thing that was different about the Barcelona event – is that community tech organizations rarely communicate this broader agenda. They sound like they are just pushing access to technology and basic skills. And, when they do, they tend to talk in broad platitudes about things like ‘poverty reduction’. This is neither inspiring nor convincing.
The upside of what’s happening in Europe is that community tech organizations are being forced to think and communicate about themselves in the context of very specific social markets and social change opportunities. Access, training or generalized statements about social impact are no longer enough to justify funding or other kinds of support. However, bringing 10+ years of socially focused tech service delivery experience to help Europe address the skills gap (and possibly to radicalize the debate in the process) is a very specific value proposition. It’s likely that these organizations can sustain their relevance for another 10 years if they can deliver on this value.
There is a lesson in this for the global telecentre movement: experienced telecentre organizations have huge potential as platforms for policy makers and corporates who want to reach out to marginalized communities. This in turn has the potential to generating more value for communities and creating new revenue sources for telecentres. Seizing this opportunity is at once a matter of holding on to traditional telecentre movement values while at the same time being clearer and more specific about what these values have to offer to the world. Luckily, seizing this opportunity and communicating more clearly is not something that telecentres need to do alone. That’s the good part of belonging to a global movement.