Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point illustrates the premise that movements and ideas, like tall objects, often have tipping points; once they hit that precise point, dramatic change can come about quickly. The book has struck a powerful chord with entrepreneurs and change agents from both for-profit and nonprofit enterprises.
Where is the tipping point for America's digital divide efforts? What will it take for the nonprofit sector's investments in information technology to begin to achieve hard and fast outcomes on a national level? No one can say for sure, but trends in the business world may provide some hints.
Business investments in information technology grew modestly between 1987 and 1994, rising from 3.6 percent of business income in 1987 to 4.0 percent of business income in 1994. Business investment in information technology exploded after 1994, rising from 4.2 percent of income in 1995 to 6.3 percent in 2000, an increase of 50 percent. It is probably no coincidence that this explosion in spending occurred as information technology was beginning to make its imprint on national productivity growth.
Assuming for the moment that the tipping point for nonprofit organizations is roughly comparable to that for businesses, what would it take to spark widespread change in the social-service sector of the nonprofit world? Back-of-the-envelope estimates suggest that it would take an additional $3 billion per year in funding for technology and another $10 billion in training, development, and support for that technology.
As a society, we must summon the finances and moral courage to push toward this potential tipping point. The window of opportunity is small, and the price of inaction would almost certainly be far steeper than the cost of action. The consequences of inaction would take two forms. First, enormous opportunities would be missed, through the loss of financial and social contributions that people in low-income communities could be empowered to make. Second, tens of billions of dollars would be added to entitlement payments and other social payments. It is no exaggeration to conclude that if we do not dramatically increase the size and effectiveness of our efforts, we could cement a permanent underclass in our society.
The challenges are large, but so is the
opportunity. Efforts to close the digital divide have mobilized resources
and sparked attention across the nation. Now is the time to leverage the
resources already committed to this cause and use them as a down payment
toward the far more sizeable investments that will be required. Together,
we can unite our efforts around shared expectations and goals and create a
powerful social movement. Together, we can work to create a broad,
grassroots awareness that it is crucial for technology applications to be
firmly rooted in the real needs and realistic capacities of the low-income
communities they are meant to serve. Together, we can achieve lasting
improvements in the lives of America's most hard-pressed citizens.