The phrase ‘Digital Society’ is of course now in common usage by hundreds of organisations, charities, businesses, innovators and our local and national governments, but how often do they, or we, step back and consider what it really means and the implications that surround it?

Is its development increasingly to be led by corporations with new platforms and apps, driven by data mining and profit? Is it to be a top down model where vital public sector services are corralled online, whilst a large percentage of people are excluded by poor connectivity or a lack of skills and their access to the services they need restricted?

Will new digital health apps, platforms and revolutionary personalised medical tools become available to all, especially the patients who need them most, or be there only for those who can afford them?

With data breaches day after day hitting the headlines of the national press, will people trust platforms enough to continue to submit their truly personal information online into the future?  How can platforms that are secure and trustworthy be developed and then sustained against smarter and more sophisticated hacks and attacks, or is there a better model going forward?

Corsham Institute, as an agnostic, not for profit, educational and research centre is focussed on a wide range of work that addresses these fundamental questions for the 21st Century.

At a societal level, Ci is working practically to find real-life and real-time models for trusted platforms and open, accessible, digital communities. These are not theoretical or top down models to be imposed, but active, developed, community-led solutions for the future, that can then be rolled out in our villages, towns and cities.

In Corsham, a market town in Wiltshire, 7 miles from Bath, Ci’s Digital Communities programme leads the initiative with Digital Corsham engaging local businesses, local charities, schools and community groups in new ways and through multiple platforms.

Our Digital Societal vision is an inclusive one and is not an end in itself, but one where the physical society itself is made more cohesive, where silos and barriers are softened and merged, where people begin to understand different groups of citizens around them more.

Our three level model is one that starts with the basic human right of connectivity. The right to be able to connect to the Internet is so important that it was recognised by the United Nations in 2011 as a fundamental human right, the need for which has grown exponentially ever since.

Connectivity has to become universal and ubiquitous, developed as a basic utility, equivalent to the electricity we depend on every day or the clean water we expect to come from our taps. This right to connect becomes ever more vital as more public services are delivered online and the IoT connects more and more of the objects around us. There is a huge amount of work to be done on the ethics of data and the right future model for the delivery of connectivity based on trust.

The second tier in our Digital Community model is engagement, designed to give people reasons to want to connect through rich content about their community. Developed with over 30 years of experience in the media, our local digital television platform is already delivering significant local content and engaging more and more groups in our communities.

Engagement is also led across multiple platforms from community led content on a partner, internet-delivered, community radio station, through weekly podcasts of people talking about their community, interaction through a range of social media platforms, a business incubation programme of support to digital businesses and innovators, the development and encouragement of clusters of existing and growing digital and cyber businesses and the physical widespread engagement with all sectors, decision makers, digital champions and influencers in the community.

The process is already opening up local democracy, with plans in place to begin streaming local Area Boards and Town Council meetings, to make them available to digital community audiences.

With a reason to connect, our third tier of interaction can increasingly be reached and further developed as new networks are built and people’s behaviour and engagement with their own physical space and community is transformed and enhanced. In turn, this develops a positive virtuous circle of digital engagement enabling further interaction.

As this model develops and its roll-out is increasingly realised, it has to grow through organic development and become led and owned by the community itself.  We have established a Ci Digital Communities Practitioner Group of different sectors of the community to ensure that the direction and the implementation of the Programme works across all levels and the developments we introduce are not hidden or imposed, but open to discussion and comment and most importantly change.

Corsham Institute’s Digital Communities programme will be expanding and engaging with additional communities during 2016, so further lessons can be learnt.

The results will be invaluable as many communities, organisations, companies and government come to grips with a positive and deliverable vision of a truly ‘Digital Society’.