Digital Participation RSA Fellows Response

Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation –Royal Society of Edinburgh INTERIM REPORT

This document frames a response on behalf of a small group of RSA Fellows and external guests who, by invitation, attended one or both of two consultation events hosted at the RSE, the link having been made via the RSA Fellows’ Media, Creative Industries, Culture and Heritage Network.

It should please therefore be formally noted by the RSE that this is therefore not a formal response on behalf of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA – www.theRSA.org). It has, however, been seen by Matthew Taylor, the Society’s Chief Executive prior to submission in accordance with the formal Guidelines for Networks.

Ann Packard, MCICH Network chairman formally records sincere thanks to the RSA Fellow who drafted this submission and to the RSA academic who had input regarding culture etc.  These thanks are on behalf of the groups who attended and the MCICH Network Steering Group.

The initial group (in 2012) included:

RSA Fellows – academics x 3 including Director of New Media Scotland

RSA Fellows – digital industry consultants x 2

RSA Fellows – one solicitor and one QC

MCICH Network chairman and others

The second group (in early 2013) comprised:

RSA Fellows – one lawyer

RSA Fellows – one board member of Creative Edinburgh

RSA Fellow and academic  – Scottish Government NXD

Invited guest – a retired GP

MCICH Network chairman and others


The study is both a useful contribution to a complex debate around rights to digital participation and a practical step forward for Scotland.   A statement of the importance of right of access is framed with relevant research and mapping of online services and consumption in Scotland.  Primary research that revealed key differences with the UK position was particularly interesting concerning an unmet demand for digital participation.  The report also points to the pitfalls of adopting a savings driven approach to online services in the public and not for profit sectors.


The focus of the report is on ‘digital deprivation’ in both community and business settings.  The potential contribution of formal education to digital participation is also discussed. The challenge of scaling up interventions from a dispersed and project based picture was flagged up, and conclusions are sound.   Implementing the report recommendations will both extend and encourage digital participation.  The report also provides a platform for a wider consideration of an intimidatingly far reaching subject.


Digital participation in relation to place in Scotland clearly illustrates national and international trends, such as the opportunities created by citywide approaches and the challenges experienced by rural communities.  The report might be strengthened by referencing cutting edge initiatives developing directly aimed at improving digital participation in Scotland.  For example Glasgow is a Future Cities Demonstrator, winning £24m. in a competitive process to explore how an innovative and integrated approach to technology can improve cities.  At heart it is a kind of virtual one stop shop for the public that uses digital technology to link most aspects of city life, from transport to health or environment.  The public will be encouraged to map their communities in an ambitious citizen science project.  The project aims to integrate over 200 data streams to allow the public to create their own customised ‘city dashboard’ of real time information on websites and smartphones (1).

The findings of the report that point to demand for broadband services in rural areas that can outstrip urban places is supported by other research (2).  Furthermore the impact of ‘superfast’ and Next Generation Access networks in rural areas has not prevented a widening gap between average download speeds in urban and rural areas, from 9.5Mbit/s in May 2011 to 16.5Mbit/s in May 2013 (3).  There is a need to consider economic and social outcomes when intervening in rural broadband provision, rather than ‘pursuing speed as a proxy for progress’ (4).  Consumers and small businesses should also be empowered in their provider relationships through personalised information and building capability.


“Cultural engagement impacts positively on our general wellbeing and helps to reinforce our resilience in difficult times. Cultural participation is known to bring benefits in learning and education; there is a significant association with good health and satisfaction with life. Our culture is key to our sense of identity as individuals, as communities and as a nation” (5).

In 2012 the Scottish Government added “Increase Cultural Engagement” as a new Performance Indicator in the National Performance Framework – the quotation above explains why. Cultural engagement includes a range of activities and digital participation is an increasingly important part of it. Thanks to ambitious digitisation programmes over the past two decades, plus a growing amount of “born digital” culture, there is now an enormous amount of high quality curated material available online, usually at no cost to the user, from the “GLAM” sector of galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Scotland’s National Collections all provide digital access to their collections online (6), and there are any number of other online archives from around the country, plus a wealth of material from the wider visual and performance art worlds.

The target audience for online cultural engagement is very broad, but certain sectors are likely to participate more than others. One of the features of an ageing population is a growing number of people not in full-time work, who may have time and motivation to explore and enjoy their cultural heritage, but who sometimes have limited mobility so that travelling and physically visiting heritage sites may be difficult, too expensive, or require careful planning. For these groups, including the elderly, disabled and housebound, access to authoritatively curated and well-presented material, and to online groups who share their interests, is a real benefit. Such people are certainly not the only ones to benefit from cultural engagement but, for them, it may provide the motivation for venturing online, whilst the motivating factors mentioned elsewhere in this report could be less compelling.

The question is whether more could be done.  The report recommends widening public access to public on-line assets and this approach could also embrace the quality of public access.

Libraries are, perhaps, the cultural institution that can provide the most far reaching contribution to digital participation.  They rest on principles of universal access and self-improvement and the report could be firmer on the need for a national approach that secures a libraries digital offer for everyone that is much improved.  Some consideration of what kind of minimum standards for public library’s contribution to digital participation may be useful in addressing current imbalances.   Projects, such as National Library of Scotland’s ‘Project Blaster’, can show the way for a national approach.

Digital participation in engaging audiences is headlined in Scotland’s National Strategy for Museums and Galleries (7).  European research, however, found that while most museums are digitising collections there is not always a longer term strategic approach to fully exploit the results (8).  The quality of engagement with the arts through digital media can also be  limited to marketing led approaches (9).

Geo-demography challenges cultural access and the opportunity to deliver to people beyond an organisation’s physical catchment through, for example, streaming of performance, presentations or rehearsals.  This raises the question of what obligations should be placed on publicly funded organisations.  Creative Scotland’s Strategic Plan consultation document devotes a section to digital technology and directly addresses participation in supporting organisations to share their work and in an aim to ‘make sure everyone in Scotland has the opportunity to access great art and culture’ (10).  Specific aims include encouraging live streaming of building based work and there will be an expectation that all Creative Scotland clients ‘build digital thinking into their work’.  There may be a case for Scotland’s national arts organisations to lead the way in what can be achieved and ensuring Scotland is at the forefront of digital cultural engagement.


“Libraries stand for freedom – a 24 hour library everywhere is now a technical possibility but we need to change copyright law as well as resources to achieve this.” (11).

Digital society is not separate from analogue society and digital literacy builds on a platform of analogue literacy.  The Digital Participation Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament considered that Intellectual Property rights play an important role in information literacy (12).  Scotland’s ambitions to be a nation that embodies the values of the  ‘renaissance’ rest on a commitment to knowledge exchange and education.

Access to information is also a digital poverty issue and the application of current copyright and licensing legislation may be widening the information gap.  Consider the enormous difference in online experience between a University student and a young person using a local library.  While the former will have better online and wifi connections they will also have access to a much wider spectrum of information.

Intellectual Property in the digital era is a fast moving and complex arena.  The market must adapt to new forms of distribution and use, and legislators must provide systems of rights and limitations that both allow for participation and support creation and innovation.   The European Commission is working to modernise the EU legislative framework on copyright.  Consultation is ongoing (13). The Universities UK response (14) emphasises the need to be able to apply Exceptions and states ‘Fair use of Exceptions to copyright law is giving knowledge intensive economies like the US and Singapore competitive advantage over Europe’.  The response proposes that the recommendations of the Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property and Growth in the UK (15) be adopted in European legislation.

The UK, however, adopts a particularly stringent approach to copyright Exception and much of the Hargreaves recommendations concerning Fair Use and Exceptions have not been adopted.  While advocates for Hargreaves implementation focus on economic impacts there are also social and cultural impacts arising from a less informed public.  There are questions around whether the Westminster response to the Hargreaves recommendations are in the interests of digital participation in Scotland and the RSE report could usefully point to future importance of these issues.

Public broadcasting

We are almost all digital bricoleurs and there is a growing body of work on how each aspect of our rights to digital participation, access to information and power to transform it relates to democracy.  Responses range from the BBC’s links (16) to the workings of government and small initiatives like Berlin’s ‘Digital Society’ (17) which focus more on the democratisation of digital culture.   Discussions over the future of public broadcasting in Scotland are likely to address these issues, and could pick up on the BBC’s pre 2010 pioneering approach to digital engagement.  For example it is not too difficult to imagine a successor to BBC Blast, created by Scotland’s public sector broadcaster, Youth Scotland and Young Scot, and reaching almost all young people in the country.

Future Work

The report’s recommendations can make a step change in digital participation and a suggested timescale for implementation would ensure that they are not bypassed by  a fast developing sector.   Spreading the benefits of digital participation in Scotland will need both imagination and legislation.  This requires a cross sectoral approach and the report could usefully lay out a future agenda for collaboration, addressing questions like:

– the role of libraries in developing digital participation;

– the contribution of existing publicly funded institutions;

– literacy, culture and democratic participation;

– the blurring of digital production and consumption;

– the impact of copyright law and how it is implemented;

– the contribution of major cities in pioneering development;

– the strategic priorities for Governmental intervention in rural areas;

– simplifying and improving the public sector interface;

– public broadcasting ambition.



1. http://futurecity.glasgow.gov.uk.

2. (http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/analysis/a-growing-digital-divide)

3. ( http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/other/telecoms-research/broadband-speeds/broadband-speeds-may2013/).

4. (http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/publications/the%20superfast%20and%20the%20furious.pdf).

5. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/About/Performance/scotPerforms/indicator/culture

6. The Scottish National Collection bodies are: National Museums Scotland (NMS), The National Library of Scotland (NLS), The National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), and The National Record of Scotland (NRS).

7. http://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=694645

8. (ENUMERATE Report  /www.egmus.eu)

9. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/doc/Digital_audiences_final.pdf

10. (http://www.creativescotland.com/sites/default/files/editor/Strategic_Plan_Consultation_-_Jan_2014.pdf)

11. Gerald Leitner, Sec General of Austrian Library Association, Culture & Democracy in the Digital Era, December 2013.

12. http://dpcrosspartygroup.wordpress.com

13. (markt-copyright-consultation@ec.europa.eu).

14. (http://www.international.ac.uk/media/2485794/uuk-iu-response-eu-copyright.pdf)

15. (http://www.ipo.gov.uk/ipreview.htm)

16. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/)

17. (https://digitalegesellschaft.de/)