Inside the Information Society: Building capacities... or building capabilities?

Each week, David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog is about building skills or capabilities for the digital age.

Last week’s blog explored the impact that information technology’s having on the world of work. Some of us are enthusiastic about – or at least comfortable with – the disruptive impact that ICTs are having on job numbers and job quality; others are fearful. But if there’s one thing most agree on, it’s the need to reskill people for the future – policymakers, workers, users, all. Without digital skills, we fear, we’re lost.

What is meant by capacity building?

‘Capacity building’ has become the watchword here. I spent last week at the ITU’s Capacity Building Symposium in Nairobi. Lots of interesting discussion, formal and informal, about what’s needed in four areas in particular – among policymakers and among the general population that makes use of ICTs; in the education system and in the world of work. ‘Capacity building’, in much of that discussion, is another way of saying ‘skills’.

Now, I’ve never really liked the term ‘capacity-building’. Like ‘human resources’ or (worse) ‘human capital’, it’s used too often to describe what businesses and institutions want from people, rather than what people need to make the most of lives and livelihoods on their own terms. In WSIS language, to my mind, it’s not ‘people-centred’.

Or capability building?

I’d rather talk of building skills or (better) building capabilities – the knowledge, skills and expertise that help us know what to do about the unknown and the unexpected, not just to deal with the familiar. Knowledge, skills and expertise that make us capable of handling what the world throws at us, good or ill.

Whatever term’s preferred, discussions at the ITU’s Symposium made me think again about the kind of capabilities that matter as we head towards the digital horizon. Here are four areas where I think the focus of attention is right but is not right enough.

The capabilities of policymakers – and the ICT community

First, there’s rightly focus on building the skills and capabilities of policymakers. It’s evident that much ICT policy is being made in ignorance or with insufficient understanding of ICT technology and markets. Bad policy and poor outcomes are likely to result. Building understanding among policymakers is vital to achieving the outcomes that we want.

But this is not a one-way street. Too many in the technical community think it’s just about making sure that policymakers understand the tech. It’s not. The technical community also needs to understand the public policy implications of what it’s doing, which are more and more important every day. Its capacity needs building, too.

There’s a growing range of workshops, training courses and resources on ICTs for policymakers, but not enough on public policy for those who make decisions about protocols and apps. It would be better if there were.

Education and digital literacy

Second, there’s rightly focus on the education system. Digital literacy should be part of school curricula – not in order to promote information technology (as some think) but because digital literacy’s essential for generations living in the digital age. Digital capabilities should be part of teacher training, too – not in order to replace traditional teaching (as some think) but in order to enhance it.

Digital literacy’s about generic skills, not just learning coding or what to do with software programmes. Everyone needs generic skills to deal with ICTs, but the programmes students learn at school will be superseded by the time they get to work. It’s learning how to handle apps that matters; how to deal with those that haven’t been developed yet. Only a minority will ever need to code at work (just as only a minority in my generation needed to know their calculus or periodic table), but developing technical skills for those who do is also important for building capacity.

Digital literacy’s also as much to do with ‘literacy’ as ‘digital’. Research, analytical and evaluation skills are essential for navigating the mass of content that’s become available. Learning how to discriminate between what’s valuable and worthless, distinguish what’s beneficial from what’s harmful: that may be the most important capability for most young people to take from ICTs at school to life and work. And it’s nowhere near just digital.

Risks as well as opportunities

Third, there’s rightly focus on the needs of users. But this is often too didactic, at least in ICT4D. Too many programmes and interventions aim at enabling users to do what programme sponsors think is good for them and their societies (as well as programme sponsors).

But when people join the digital community, they don’t just meet with opportunities. The Internet is far from just benign. There are beartraps out there in the sunny uplands.

Users need the skills to handle risks as well as opportunities. Cybersecurity skills, both technical and social: to know what to avoid, how to avoid it, and what to do when avoidance hasn’t worked. New users need to know, from the outset, how to avoid viruses, malware and fraud. Women and girls, especially, need to learn how to avoid or handle online abuse, because many will encounter it. And so on.

The capacity or capabilities we build should be capacity and capabilities for the real digital world, including all its threats, not an imagined digital world with only opportunities.

The bigger picture

Fourth, there’s rightly focus on the role of training, but training’s often just a short term fix. There are some skills and capabilities that we can learn from interventions such as workshops, but it’s the inculcation of those skills and capabilities throughout society, throughout governance and economic institutions, and through the whole of people’s experience, that really matters. Capabilities need to become instinctive, not just something we can look up when we need to.

So building capacity involves more than training. The places where we exercise capacity – the institutions and decision-making fora – need to change too as the digital becomes the norm. This is not just (as many think) about traditional institutions becoming digital. It’s also about the digital world accommodating more traditional ways of doing things that people value and rely on. Capacity – and capabilities – for a more complex world that’s both human and digital.

Next week: the first of two posts on our changing relationship with our devices and our data.

More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter.

Image: Moderating the session on capacity building for Internet governance at the ITU symposium.



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