Policy & Philanthropy: Keys to Closing the Digital
An address by Mario Morino, Chairman of the Morino Institute, for the
for People 2000 Conference, Technology Opportunities Program (TOP),
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) United States
Department of Commerce on October 30, 2000.
© Morino Institute, October 2000. All rights reserved.
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Thank you. I'm very pleased to be here and to be part of today's conference,
Networks for People 2000. Today takes on a special importance for me as we've
had the opportunity to be a part of and to observe the positive impact NTIA has had from TIIAP to TOP, having been
at the first of these meetings. The Morino Institute also was fortunate to have
been part of a collaboration that was awarded one of the larger TIIAP grants in
the first year of the program. Working with social entrepreneurs like Henry
Fernandez of LEAP in New Haven, CT, Bart
Decrem of Plugged In in East Palo Alto,
CA, and scores of others, we learned firsthand the great challenges of infusing
technology into low-income communities. One of the most important things we
learned was that technology itself was the least of the challenges. This is why
I was so enthused by the title of TOP's annual conference: Networks for People.
It is a very simple, yet profound, focusone that is long overdue. And this
title sets the perfect segue for the thoughts I would like to share with you
The movement to close the Digital Divide may well close the gap in access to
technologythe Internet and information technology, including emerging wireless
technologieswithin this decade. As the 21stcentury opens, the
movement is gaining strength with a growing base of financial support, promising
programs and concerned participants, from corporations to community
Now, just a few years after this movement first asked whether everyone would
have access to technology, another question needs be posed: To what end?
For the most part, today's movement remains focused on closing the gap in
access to technology as an end in itself. But isn't the real promise more
profound and far more important? Isn't the real challenge about what people and
institutions do with the technology once they have access to it? Isn't the
ultimate possibility to apply the technology's potential to address the
underlying challenges that are the true source of fundamental social divides in
To be sure, technology access is an important issue. Wiring schools, giving
students laptops, setting up community technology centers and processing used
computers all are important actions. But now the Digital Divide movement is
presented with a new challenge: to reach beyond these issues of access and cut
to the heart of social divides themselves.
We have the opportunity to turn one of the farthest reaching and fastest
growing civic movements of our time into a true social forceone that helps to
close core educational, economic and social divides. And, by fully tapping the
potential technology offers us, this movement can make great strides to ensure
that everyone can enjoy the opportunity for economic mobility, personal
advancement and a higher quality of life. That is the ultimate challenge for the
New Economyand the ultimate opportunity for those eager to give back to a
society in which they have prospered.
This is what I want to explore with you today: How to turn a movement focused
on closing the gap in access to technology into a force for social change, one
that will provide people living in our lowest-income areas the chance to improve
The odds against the poor today are staggering. One of six children in the
world's 29 wealthiest nations lives in poverty, including 13 million in the
Poverty, of course, is as old as humanity. But so is the aspiration to climb
out of it. Many people in low-income communities are working heart and soul to
overcome these social divides. But today, a new set of problems makes that tall
hurdle even more difficult to clear.
The prosperity of a technology-driven New Economy has made it easier for
those who are benefiting to ignore these problems. The irony is that the same
New Economy that makes this prosperity possible also is exacerbating these
formidable social divides. Like the agricultural and industrial eras before it,
the transition to this new age is benefiting society overall. But especially in
our lower-income areas, it risks leaving more people further behind, if not
cementing a permanent underclass in America. As a result, these people's
potential to live productive lives within the New Economy is being squandered,
while this same economy is unable to find the skilled workers it needs.
The great majority of people in America who are privileged to live wellor at
least consistently are able to make ends meetneed to better understand that
many people in our lowest-income areas live in a vastly different world.
In more prosperous communities, strong families, job and career
opportunities, good schools and cohesive neighborhoods create a web of support
that provides the resources, motivation and education that enable people to make
the most of their lives. But in many low-income areas in America, this web of
support is frail and, for some, nonexistent. Severe underemployment, cutbacks in
social services, the breakdown of the family, drugs, violence and inadequate
schools have all contributed to the decline … and to a growing isolation, not
only in cities, but rural America as well.
And there is an important difference today as these factors create a cycle of
poverty. Now, we see second and third generations of children having children
and repeating the cycle. In the aftermath of the agricultural and industrial
revolutions, many immigrant families managed to get their children out of
poverty by letting them stand on their shoulders and leave the ghetto. This does
not seem to be happening as frequently as in the past.
The family, social networks and supports that were so critical in helping
people climb out of poverty in years past have broken down. Today, those in
low-income areas cannot depend on this human web of support to help raise
themselves out of poverty. Yet in these low-income areas there are institutional
supports: community-based, religious and health and human-services
organizations; schools, community colleges and universities; worker-training
programs and many other nonprofit groups that provide resources and support.
This community infrastructure can never fully replace the human support web more
prosperous communities often enjoy, but it does serve as a vital lifeline to
help many in low-income areas better their lives. An essential part of
overcoming social divides is investing in strengthening this community
The Role of Technology
To this end, technology is a potentially powerful lever for change in three
important ways. First, the application of technology can enable the individuals,
organizations and institutions that serve low-income areasthe schools,
community centers, health clinics and othersto transform and improve the way
they work. Second, the technology enables these organizations and institutions
to work together much more effectively, to share resources, benefit from each
other's strengths, gain a collective voice to better advocate their needs, and
in so doing to help build on their sense of community. Third, a stronger, more
robust community infrastructure can, in turn, encourage and enable the people it
serves to learn and apply technology in ways that improve their own
liveseducationally, economically and socially.
The lessons corporate America learned in its use of technology over the past
three to four decades should guide our actions today. Starting in the 1960s and
through the 1970s, technology spread throughout corporate America. Computing
systems were ushered in, corporate technology groups were established and
billions of dollars were invested in technology. Yet the productivity that has
given rise to the New Economy probably did not truly start to take hold until
well into the 1980s.
It took a long time for people and businesses to learn the full potential of
this technology. Old practices and ingrained attitudes made it hard to usher in
the profound change technology enables. Such resistance still exists today,
because change is hard. It's easy to install technologyto place a computer in a
learning centerbut it's difficult to change what people do in order to apply
and benefit from that technology.
As technology became more pervasive with the PC in the 1980s and the Internet
and browser in the 1990s, and after business had invested billions in training
and development, a funny thing occurred. The people within organizations began
to understand what they had. Their imagination and resourcefulness, their
entrepreneurship, kicked in. Enabled by technology, they triggered a fundamental
revolution. Technology's real benefits emerged when people and organizations
began to understand and apply its potential for returns like increased
productivity, greater market share, improved scalability, lower cost and the
ability to do things they couldn't do before.
But that change took time. It went well beyond giving them access. The
"magic" occurred when people understood the potential and had gained the skills
to use the technology. And that's when the "magic" will occur within the web of
Through our work at the Morino Institute, we've learned that doing things
with technology in the social sector takes timeand efforts in this sector don't
move at Internet speed. We learned that until leaders and staff can see the
potential of technology, and programs are invested in to provide them with
skills and understanding, the "magic" doesn't happen.
Since the mid-1990s, we've worked with LEAP to implement learning centers in
New Haven, supported efforts to empower displaced agricultural workers using
community networks in Nebraska and led a comprehensive two-year effort to
establish networked learning centers in community-based organizations here in
the District of Columbia. And those efforts have shown us that it takes timeat
least a year and often much longerand major investments in organization and
staff development to effectively implement technology-enabled efforts.
This is the lesson we must carry to the movement to close the Digital Divide.
The divide never has been about technology, but rather about people's
understanding of what technology can do and the knowledge essential to apply
And therein lies our opportunity todayto move from access to application to
The real opportunity is applying technology to produce more than incremental
change. The application of technology can enable quantum change with enough of
an impact to break the status quo. Now that we're close to ensuring everyone has
access to technology, let's askand answeranother question. To what
The Opportunity for Change
Our goal should be nothing less than cutting to the heart of social divides.
And if the path to closing those divides runs through the community
infrastructure that is the lifeline for people living in low-income areas, we
must go through that lifeline too. We can make the community infrastructure
stronger, more highly effective and more sustainable by exploiting the potential
of technology to achieve better outcomes for the people it serves.
The movement to close the Digital Divide provides the opportunity for change.
The movement has growing financial support, promising programs and concerned
participants. It is gaining momentum.
If we lift our vision beyond access
to technology alone, we can rally and focus these resources on the community
infrastructure that helps individuals in low-income communities improve their
own lives. We can apply technology to strengthen, to scale and even to redefine
Consider the example of education. The Digital Divide movement has helped
schools gain access to technology. To what end? Should we not direct our
energies to apply technology to improve the effectiveness of recruitment and
professional development for principals and teachers? Should we not explore ways
to use technology that make it easier for parents and other caring adults to
become more involved with our schools? Should we not drive change that
integrates technology into the curriculum and learning experience to enhance
learning and improve academic achievement?
Similarly, what can the movement do to advance the use of technology to
improve health care, to arm neighborhood watch groups to fight crime more
effectively, to make it easier to find and purchase low-income housing and to
coordinate transportation? In what ways can we apply technology to better help
people starting and running small businesses succeed and for others to simply
make a living?
We should focus our efforts on the social outcomes a technology-enabled
community infrastructure can make possible and move beyond just ensuring that
the technology's there. We must seek purposeful use of the technology.
Making sure technology is in place is only the first step on a long and
challenging journey. Again, such change is hard.
Technology, by itself, is a thing. Silicon, wafers and wires are amoral,
neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Technology only takes on importance
when people apply it to a purpose.
There is no guarantee that access to technology will produce better social
outcomes like improved academic achievement or greater access to health care.
Today too many people, afraid of being left behind in this increasingly
technology-enabled world, blindly support and accept that access to technology
is key to their economic future. But that is a leap of faith.
But people and organizations
empowered to achieve improved
outcomes with technology. We must always remember that the power of technology
is not the computers, the complex of networks or the vast databases of
information. Rather, it is people and their imagination, knowledge and
resourcefulness that bring about change. Technology enables people to apply
their imagination and knowledge and to do so more effectively, on larger scale
and, most importantly, in ways not otherwise possible.
Rethinking the Potential of Technology
So how does the movement to close the Digital Divide turn into a force for
social change? What can it do to help those organizations, institutions and
change agents serving low-income areas tap the remarkable potential of
technology for social change?
How do we answer that question: To what end?
To answer the question, "To what end?," we will have to change some
Just imagine that for every Microsoft or Cisco engineer we certify to install
technology, we also raise the bar to certify "life engineers" who will be able
to apply this technology in innovative ways to address critical human needsfrom
literacy to health care.
To apply technology to empower the community infrastructure that serves
low-income areas and address social divides, the Digital Divide movement should
cultivate an environment that is conducive to experimentation, that will
stimulate innovation and that will yield high-impact breakthroughs that will, in
turn, trigger quantum change. Incremental change that maintains the status quo
of our lower-income communities simply cannot be an option.
Such environments and breakthroughs do not come from preordained, centralized
plans. This is about providing encouragement. This is about lending a sense of
hope that things can change and that resources exist to support those with
proven approaches and good ideas. This is about stimulating social
entrepreneurshipboth those seeking to change existing organizations as well as
those hoping to advance new solutions. This is less a matter of public policy
planning than of seeding experimentation and encouraging innovation within the
community infrastructure. Not every seed will bloom. But some willand those
will serve as catalysts for change across this entire sector.
This is the real potential of the Digital Divide movementand the direction,
in my view, toward which its leadership, energies and resources should be
In a moment, I'll discuss what the movement can do to create catalysts that
will seed broad-based change. First, though, I'll suggest some strategies for
the movement to consider that can create the fertile environments in which these
seeds for change can flourish.
- We must enable those within the community infrastructure to raise their
vision (and that of the people they serve) of what technology can make
- We must drive demand for and create interest in technology for people in
low-income areas by demonstrating what it can mean to their lives and
needsthrough awareness building, community organizing, winning over change
agents and demonstrating relevant results that will stand the test of time.
- We must invest in people and in building human capacityin the development
of leadership, in the capacity of organizations and in the skills of
individuals, first within the community infrastructure and then among those it
- We must encourage more funding for programs involving technology.
- We must convince those who fund programs involving technology to allocate
funding that helps organizations apply technology effectively. Organizations
should allocate 70 percent of the funding they receive for technology to
staff, process and organizational development and the remaining 30 percent for
acquiring the technology itself, the hardware, software and services.
And there is one overarching strategy that we also must consider: a greater
use of strategic investment models by philanthropic and government funders to
realize high-impact change to benefit those living in low-income areas.
The Digital Divide movement may be large. But its resources are not infinite.
Spreading them across the country in hundreds and thousands of small efforts,
with little support, is likely to spread them so thin they will be ineffective.
We must use strategic investments to target resources for maximum effect. We
must move beyond funding through grant applications to a more strategic
investment management model. Funders must go into the low-income areas, talk
with leaders firsthand and, based on their input, find those investment
opportunities that offer the greatest potential for a high social rate of
We must make significant, long-term investments that are supported by
strategic management and technical assistance. These investments should be made
over long periodsfour to six yearsand be tied to performance criteria. They
should focus on levers for change, the underlying points at whichif pressure is
appliedmaximum change will occur. And organizations that
clear missions, strong leaders and proven track records within their communities
should have priority for investments. Technology cannot overcome management
problems or replace clear missions. It does children little good to place
computers in a school with an ineffective principal. To the contrary, infusing
technology into an organization with an unclear mission or ineffective
management simply risksif not ensuresdiluting its effectiveness.
Finally, the movement must change thinking and do all it can to remove
barriers that stand in the way of the community infrastructure's ability to
apply technology effectively. These barriers include the incremental way in
which community leaders are forced to think about the future of their
organizations; the acute shortage of staff skilled in technology; the lack of
funding from traditional sources for building strong organizations and for
technology acquisition; and the debilitating complexity and life-cycle costs of
Turning a Movement into a Social Force
These strategies can create an environment in which experimentation can
flourish. Now let me suggest five actions to help transform the Digital Divide
movement into a social force by serving as catalysts for broader,
institutionalized, high-impact change within that environment.
1. Make the Case for "Applied Technology"
We must make explain and demonstrate how technology can be applied with
relevance to the needs of people and the organizations that serve them.
To those whose fervor for technology is evangelical, that may sound
unnecessary. But we must not forget that many people's enthusiasm, especially in
low-income communities, does not match that of those who work in technology
fields. Many just see little reason to embrace technology. Others, citing
concerns like privacy, distrust it.
A recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 57
percent of people without Internet access do not plan to log on. Cost is a
factor for some, but less than most suggest. Too much focus is placed on price
points, when relevance to people's lives is what is critical.
The Digital Divide movement must make an investment in demonstrating that
technology is relevant to the lives of people in low-income areas.
2. Create an Academy for Leadership in Technology
To raise the vision among the people within the web of social support and in
low-income communities about what technology can make possible, we propose
establishing an Academy for Leadership in Technology.
The Digital Divide movement has begun to address technical training. But it
is just as importantmaybe even more soto help organizations and individuals
see how technology can drive fundamental, if not transformative, change.
Top executives in corporate America have undergone this "conceptual
orientation," thanks to the efforts of technology vendors and management
consultants who must establish a vision of what technology makes possible in
order to convey the merits of their solutions. There is no obvious counterpart
in the nonprofit sector. The Academy for Leadership in Technology would serve
this role for community leaders and agents of social change.
The academy would help to educate these leaders about the potential,
applications and risks of technology. It must be large enough to reach tens of
thousands of these catalysts. It would show them tangible, real-life examples of
how technology can drive fundamental change. Most of all, it would empower them
with a higher vision for what technology makes possible for them and the
communities they serve.
3. Create a Digital Peace Corps
We propose seeding experimentation and investing in leadership and skills by
creating a Digital Peace Corps to serve lower-income urban and rural areas in
the United States. The corps would be composed of committed individuals who
would work to empower people and organizations in low-income communities to use
technology to improve social outcomes.
These individuals would possess strong expertise in a specific discipline,
such as K-12 education, health or micro-entrepreneurship. They would have both
an intellectual and a practical grasp of how technology can empower someone
working in that discipline. This elite corps would serve as involved advisors,
analysts and innovators,
not as technology specialists.
Just as the Peace Corps' mission is to empower people around the world to
improve their lives, the Digital Peace Corps would help to empower those who
serve low-income communities to be more effective change agents. Also like the
Peace Corps, its members would be experts in their fields. For example, a corps
member in education would be foremost a master teacher. But he or she also would
be armed with a conceptual understanding of and practical experience in
implementing technology-enabled education and learning programs.
Such a resource for a school could help create technology-enabled teaching
programs and enriched learning environments for students; it also could help
other teachers become more productive through their personal use of technology.
Imagine similar scenarios for health clinics, small business centers,
out-of-school programs, community development centers and others.
Corporationswhich already are in dire need of talent that can apply
technology to deliver solutionscould sponsor Digital Peace Corps members for
two years in exchange for the member agreeing to work with the firm afterward.
Such an employee benefit could help firms recruit and retain talented
4. Advance Alternative Technology-Delivery Solutions
We believe the Digital Divide movement should fund the exploration of
alternative ways of delivering technology to the community infrastructure. These
organizations and institutions must deal with macroeconomic challenges
like the complexity of technology and the cost of managing it over time. Yet
funders rarely help organizations cope with these issues beyond an initial
donation of hardware or software. Meanwhile, these organizations' ability to
attract personnel with the skills to handle those problems is severely
constrained by the dire shortage of technical workers in the private sector.
Creative solutions to these problems should seek to enable organizations to
deploy and manage technology more cheaply and reliably than they could by
themselves. They should also be inherently scaled to handle growth. These
alternatives might include options like:
- Standard technology outsourcing, in which information technology systems
and support are managed entirely by an outside contractor.
- Business process outsourcing (BPO), in which an outside contractor
provides business processes, like fund development or payroll, including all
the underlying technology to support and continuously improve them.
- Use of Application Service Providers (ASPs) and Managed Service Providers
(MSPs). These concepts are still evolving, but offer great promise in areas
like subscription computing, enterprise applications and Internet Portals.
Organizations within the community infrastructure can follow the lesson of
the commercial world, which has learned to focus on core competencies and
outsource nonstrategic activities. Wouldn't it be nice if a community
organization could focus on its mission to help others and know it would have
the technology it needs, when it needs it?
5. Nurture a Social Entrepreneurs Learning Community
We must provide a venue in which social entrepreneurs and change agents who
are applying technology to improve social outcomes can come together, learn from
one another, exchange experiences, codify and continually improve their
knowledge and create a web of mutual support. Such a community learning model is
difficult for many to grasp and even more difficult for institutions to embrace,
let alone fund. But creating a forum for turning individual actions into
collective intelligence can be a powerful source of support, growth, learning
For example, the Morino Institute helped to create an evolving, organic
environment of learning and support for New Economy entrepreneurs through its
Netpreneur initiative. Netpreneur is an example of how a self-organizing,
adaptive system can marshal the collective power of an entrepreneurial
community. The model for stimulating New Economy entrepreneurs is analogous to
what is possible for social entrepreneurs.
These five actions can serve as catalysts for change within the community
infrastructure for low-income Americans. There are, no doubt, countless others.
In this case, as in most in the New Economy, the most powerful possibilities lie
just over the horizon of today's imagination.
Our proposals are intended to be empowering, not limiting. We urge those in
the Digital Divide movement not just to do these things, but to undertake and
broadly encourage these kinds of actions. We believe that doing so will seed the
garden of ideas, enabling breakthrough changes to blossom. And that change, in
turn, will become institutional: Rather than simply disseminating technology,
technology will be thoughtfully applied to change the way the community
infrastructure in low-income areas works. The change will be organic. It will
occur from within, driven by innovation and the creation of demand.
The result will be powerful: The horizon of the Digital Divide movement will
be raised from simply extending access to technology to serving as a catalytic
force for social change. Individuals will be empowered to better their own
In the mid-1990s, the Digital Divide movement asked a powerful question: Will
everyone have access to technology? Now that that question is being answered in
the affirmative, our next challenge is to pose another one: To what end?
The movement to close the Digital Divide has unleashed a growing stream of
resources and built a momentum aimed at that challenge. The result is a moment
of extraordinary opportunity. If we lift the horizon of this movement from
technology access to its application to improve outcomespurposeful results for
peopleand if we focus our efforts to empower the organizations and institutions
that make up the community infrastructure serving our low-income areas, we can
close gaps not simply in access to technology, but in access to opportunity
This is the answer to the question: To what end? To