#DigitalSociety2017: Challenges and opportunities of rapidly changing technology

Neil ArmstrongMy granny was born before the Wright brothers made their first flight and she lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. That seems such a huge change in one lifetime but in truth its glacial compared to present times. 

The kind of change is not simply in the technology – which changes so fast the latest gadget is out of date as soon as it launched –it has impacted how we take in information, analyse it and use it to make decisions. It has even begun to reshape our brains.

Whether it be the computer we use at work to type a document, the phone we use take pictures for social media or the equipment used to make ground-breaking medical discoveries or diagnosis; what and how we use our digital technologies for impact the world, and with that brings huge social change.

New approach to education

Just one example is how it is changing the way we approach education, no longer are knowledge and skills attained solely from school, university, apprenticeships or hands on work. Digital technology has given birth to a wave of change in which we can continue to learn and self-educate. It could be in a YouTube tutorial, TED talks, online news articles or books, language learning apps or just using a search engine. This use of digital technology gives others who have previously faced barriers to education a new path to expand their knowledge and skill set or gain a better understanding of the wider world

In April we launched Ask Alex, a digital campaign that allows people to ask questions to Alex on Facebook messenger relating to his homelessness, the factors that led to his situation and what his plans for the future are. This platform has allowed for people to educate themselves on the reality of homelessness, question our society and ask “what can I do to help or facilitate change?”

Bringing people together

Using social media to encourage questions and conversation can drive real social change. Social media connects in ways we never thought possible. Ask Alex brought us into contact with people across the globe who share our commitment to ending homelessness. This ability to interact with people from all over the world brings new and sometimes challenging insight on the social issues which directly impact our lives and make more informed decisions or opinions. However, with this comes the risk of being plagued with false narratives and “fake news” which is why we need to embed the art of critical thinking in our school curriculum as being as important as literacy and numeracy. The question is not just can we read but when we read, where did it come from, who wrote it, what is the evidence for the argument, why did they write it and what does it mean to me

We take the capacity for connectivity to bring resources to people who otherwise would not know about them. For example; through FareShare FoodCloud. Cyrenians FareShare saves good food destined for waste from supermarkets and sends it to other charities and community groups who transform it into nutritious meals for vulnerable people. Local stores upload estimates of their good quality unsold food to the FoodCloud and matched charities or community groups receive text messages to let them know what is available to pick up to use to turn into meals for other in need. This technology allows for a change in how food waste is handled and in doing so facilitates huge grassroots social change.

The dangers of a growing digital divide

We know the biggest danger in the coming times is the potential for a huge digital divide between those who can’t afford to access technology and those who can; as more and more of support services goes online, from benefits to paying for school dinners to initial conversations with support workers. We need to continue to mitigate this through directing real resources at a very individual level for the most excluded.

At the same time, Ask Alex showed us some of the potential for reaching people we had not previously reached and being available in ways we had not be able to be before. In some ways it still feels at the level of the Wright brothers yet we know if we are willing to think unconventionally and take some thoughtful, informed risks we can reach for the moon and beyond – and get there far more quickly than my grannie had to wait to see Neil Armstrong take one small step…!


Ewan Aitken is Chief Executive of Cyrenians, an independent charity that supports people excluded from family, home, work or community on their life journey.