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We must ‘face the challenge’ about technology in society

From Derek Walker, Chief Executive, Wales Co-operative Centre

The digital revolution is here. Major changes have taken place in many areas of the economy. Books and music are two industries that are hugely different from a decade ago.

The upheaval that these sectors have already experienced will probably affect most areas sooner or later. The impact on communities will be just as dramatic as it has been on business.

Communities and the third sector need to be ready for this digital transformation. For better and for worse, it is coming. Unfortunately too many of us are not facing up to that fact.

We might think that what we do is exceptional, that our service models will survive this digital tidal wave. We might believe that our models of delivery have stood the test of time and do not need to change. We might insist that digital technology is not important because the people we work with need humans not technology to support them.

Communities and the third sector need to be ready for this digital transformation. For better and for worse, it is coming. Unfortunately too many of us are not facing up to that fact.

But we cannot afford to be complacent. The third sector must embrace the benefits that digital technology can bring to our organisations and to our communities. We must look to innovate using technology. Otherwise the communities we serve miss out and the organisations we work for risk being swept away.

Uber is one business that is often cited as being at the forefront of the digital revolution. Two years ago I had not heard of Uber. Since then I have used it several times. Uber is a platform for connecting taxi drivers with passengers. Soon to be in Cardiff, Uber is already transforming the taxi sector globally, driving off the road traditional taxi firms. The revolution has been quick and is putting long-standing taxi firms out of business. But before we get used to it, this new normal may be transformed again. Google and others are now developing driverless cars, which may mean we will not need taxi firms at all within the near future, perhaps within the next ten years.

In another type of travel industry we see similar developments. Sites like tripadvisor had already changed the way we had found and booked hotels. Airbnb is now turning the hotel sector on its head again. Rather than reserve hotels, we can now book rooms in other people’s houses. It is convenient and often cheaper than a hotel.

These digital changes are already taking place in parts of the third sector too. Buurtzorg is a social enterprise providing care services in the Netherlands. The organisation has created a new model of patient centred care using a modern IT system that connects the Buurtzorg nurse to the patient, family and health care providers. The technology has reduced administrative overheads. The enterprise has grown quickly and now operates in the USA, Japan and Sweden.

Here in Wales the Wales Co-operative Centre is working with Comic Relief and Red Ninja (app developers) to pilot an app that can help people understand the impact of Universal Credit.

This digital transformation brings opportunities. It can enable us to provide services for and with our communities that is perhaps more responsive to the needs of those communities and sometimes at less cost.

But there are huge threats too. Many people will get left further behind if they are not supported. They will become further from the job market, with less money in their pocket and more isolated.

We have a choice. We can bury our heads in the sand or we can prepare to face the change that is taking place. There is a lot at stake for the people and the communities we serve.

This blog is an abridged version of the speech Derek Walker gave to the Digital Communities Wales conference in Wrexham in February 2016.