Residents need to back local digital economy

First published:
July 4, 2001

The subject of putting our community on the Internet was the focus of a conference held in Victoria Hall on June 21. The Community Access project in Cobourg and Hamilton Township called put on a one-day event aimed at informing and stimulating discussion about making Northumberland County a networked community.

While there was some very interesting discussions going on in the main hall, events in the backrooms and hallways resembled a flock of seagulls fighting over a crust of bread. The day’s focus was on the ConnectOntario program, which is a fund aimed at developing a network of 50 smart communities across the province by 2005. By smart, we are not talking about intelligence but about partnerships between community organizations, governments, local business and others to prepare for the digital economy.

This is a big crust for the seagulls. The province will spend $50 million or about $1 million per community. Add to this another $32 million for creating land-related information online. Whomever gets to control this pot of money in our community is going to be in a pretty powerful position and has the ability to influence significantly the direction our online community is going to take in the future.

But while the squawking and fighting over the bread was taking place, there were some pretty scary things being presented by the experts inside the hall.

Kevin Higgins, president and chief executive officer of a company called Civic Life, was talking about his software solutions for putting communities online. His advanced community portal outline is being favored for; a federal project to achieve the similar goal as the province is trying to do under ConnectOntario.

Though his presentation looked at aspects of his software solution, he said the opportunities for businesses to make money on the Internet were phenomenal. Advertisers will have this massive network of online communities to sell, sell, and sell. But it is not hard to imagine theses portals would not be serviced by local businesses, like Sommerville’s or Victoria Ford, but rather Nike or Ford Motor Company or VISA or some other multinational. It was really hard to see how this format was going to help Northumberland’s economy.

Dave Wallace, head of the corporate architecture branch of the office of the corporate chief strategist, management board, (there’s a title for ya) presented another disturbing vision. His job is putting the Ontario government online. There is a job that would give anyone nightmares. Certainly his presentation was impressive if you are someone who is going to do business with the province or uses government services on a regular basis. And we all do – getting a fishing licence or updating your sticker for your car’s plate.

What was understated was e-democracy. That’s the part where you or I could use the Internet to tell Premier Mike Harris what we think about what he said at the Walkerton Inquiry or some other important aspect of his government’s policy. The government is going to have to do better than an email address or the ability to download policy statements and press releases. The greatest power of the Internet is its ability to be interactive. Nowhere is this included in the province’s vision for using the Internet in the future.

These issues and others could be a good starting point for Northumberland’s discussion about our future on the Internet.

The difference between building a community online and building an audience is the intent. If we are truly interested in helping put people online and constructing a virtual community to serve all of us, then we must keep people at the centre of our discussions. If we want to put people online so we can sell them something, that is, put business at the centre of the model, then we are only using the Internet to build an audience of consumers.

There is a huge difference. Of course, this must be fiscally viable. But think about this. Why would a local coffee shop want to be on the Internet? Nobody is going to go online to buy a cup of coffee. And there are lots of local businesses that don’t need a web site.

Business should be asked to participate because there is a larger goal. We want people to be online so students could get help with homework or seniors could order meals-on-wheels or a debate over a massive proposed development on the outskirts of town could take place online. This is the kind of activity any conscientious business would support.

This is not traditional economic development because it doesn’t put business at its centre. But the digital economy is not just about selling stuff. It is about information. That means there must be meaningful content or else our efforts will fail. But it also means we must be prepared to participate, or, again, we will fail.

Ninety per cent of the fibre optic networks in Canada are not being used. All kinds of infrastructure was built, but nobody is using it. It was like somebody built a stadium to hold a million people and only two showed up. The next steps taken on the Internet are the most important.

Before we go any further, Northumberland leaders will need to show unprecedented co-operation between many diverse aspects of the community. That alone is a huge task given Northumberland’s record in the past.

We are going to need more than seagulls that will leave after the bread is gone. Everybody needs to be involved in building an online community. It could be a virtual version of a barn-raising. This way we will ensure ordinary people are at the centre of our virtual community. It is not an easy challenge, but a worthwhile one. Any attempt to do otherwise will be a disaster and set us back decades behind the digital economy.

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