Setting the Future Scene of e-Inclusion
15/12/2014 - 01/03/2019
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The ongoing digitization of services – both public and private – has led to an increased risk amongst the general population of being or becoming digitally excluded (van Dijk, 2005; Helsper, 2008; Marie¨n et al., 2013). The so-called digital turn is posing a threat for all individuals that do not have the necessary digital skills to handle the digitization of the various life domains (Helsper, 2011). Though significant scientific effort is given to research on e- inclusion in Flanders, Wallonia and Belgium as a separate entity, knowledge is lacking about the extent to which the digitization of services, routines and practices in for example schools, mobility or welfare, is hampering the ability of individuals to participate fully in society. Recent studies have shown that the socio-economic background of individuals no longer solely defines digital exclusion, and moreover, that mechanisms of digital exclusion go beyond socio-economic vulnerable groups (Brotcorne et al., 2009; Schurmans & Marie¨n, 2013).

Consequently, this implies that there is no longer a clear view on the groups at-risk of being or becoming digitally excluded. The traditionally defined two-folded and dichotomous categories of included versus excluded population groups – e.g. rich versus poor; young versus old; or male versus female – are no longer valid. Consequently, new and more contextualised approaches are needed to identify those at-risk of being digitally excluded. Moreover, research by experts in the field such as van Deursen en van Dijk (2014), emphasizes that digital skills and the ability to deal with digital media in an autonomous and strategic way are of increasing importance to ensure one’s full societal participation. This move towards strategic goals and added value gained through the use of digital media is also visible at the level of e-inclusion policies that have shifted from the mere provision of physical access to broader societal goals such as empowerment, inclusion and participation (Zillien & Hargittai, 2009; Witte & Mannon, 2010; Steyn & Johanson, 2011; Marie¨n & Prodnik, forthcoming).

The IDEALiC project aims to address these issues by focusing on setting the new scene of e- inclusion for the upcoming years. The central research question of the IDEALiC project is how e-inclusion policies and initiatives can provide solutions for the mechanisms of digital exclusion that coincide with the digital turn. Both project partners – iMinds SMIT and FTU Namur – have expertise that is situated at the fore end of (inter)national scientific knowledge on e-inclusion. With the IDEALiC project both partners aim at taking e-inclusion research in Belgium to the next level by applying an innovative approach at theoretical, empirical and policy level. The IDEALiC project is therefore structured around 6 work packages, and is built upon an interdisciplinary methodological approach that combines qualitative user-oriented research, comparative research, and policy analysis. It also entails a basic quantitative data- analysis from existing data sources.

Regarding theory (WP1), the IDEALiC project will lead to renewed insights on the crucial aspects that define the autonomous and hence, independent use of ICTs by studying aspects as problem solving skills, soft skills, autonomy in the learning process in relation to existing frameworks for digital skills. An underlying hypothesis of the IDEALiC proposal is that, in today’s digital society, autonomy leads to empowerment while a lack of autonomy leads to vulnerability. From a theoretical angle, the project also entails an in-depth questioning of the recent evolution of e-inclusion policies towards an increased focus on aspects as empowerment, inclusion and participation. What exactly is meant by these concepts and what kind of normative interpretations does this imply for e-inclusion strategies, both at the level of policy, implementation and evaluation?

From the viewpoint of empirical research (WP2), recent studies have highlighted that there is a need to study e-inclusion beyond disadvantaged groups such as people in poverty (Helsper, 2012; Brotcorne et al., 2013; Schurmans & Marie¨n, 2013). Moreover, most recent reflections on new paths for e-inclusion strategies focus on defining user media profiles based upon the use of (digital) media and contextual factors related to the daily needs and wants of individuals. This implies that e-inclusion is highly related to life stages, and the various aspects that define the daily needs and wants within a specific life stage. For example, the moment at which individuals get their first employment, and the opportunities that coincide

with this employment for developing their use of ICTs or diversifying their digital skills. Or, as research has shown: the significant influence of the presence of children in one’s household on the pressure, need and desire to gain qualitative home access to the Internet (Marie¨n et al., 2010).

The empirical research of the IDEALiC project therefore initially focuses on delivering a renewed state of the art of figures on e-inclusion in Belgium, based upon a basic quantitative analysis of secondary data that is readily available (WP1). Furthermore, it entails a new and innovative empirical study by considering experiences of e-inclusion from a life course perspective. Mapping usage patterns is highly complex and particularly difficult because of the reciprocal influence of determinant characteristics – eg. socio-economic background, skills, attitude, support networks, quality of access, etc. (Helsper, 2012). An explicit focus on life stages allows to grasp meaning through a focus on life events, life experiences and attitudes. Moreover, it enables an in-depth understanding of the subjective perceptions of individuals and the complexity, ambiguity and dynamism of their use of new media; along with their particular experiences regarding the acquirement of digital skills. This life course perspective will be based upon in-depth interviews amongst 90 respondents (45 in Flanders, 45 in Wallonia) that are equally distributed across three life stages, pre-defined by the level of autonomy and societal participation (WP2). More concretely have been identified: Life stage 1, age 18 to 30, as the period in which individuals are building up autonomy and steadily increase their social, economic and political participation in society; life stage 2, age 31 to 50, as the period in which individuals are assumed to have developed autonomy and participate fully in society; and life stage 3, aged 51-70, as the period in which the desire to remain active participants of society and to remain independent while aging is considered an important policy challenge. In-depth analysis will be realized both within and beyond these three life stages.

However, in order to move forward with e-inclusion policies in Belgium, three issues are at stake. First, it is clear that both project partners have extensively been involved and contributed to e-inclusion policies at regional or federal level, and hence, have a clear view on the various actors that are currently active in the field of e-inclusion policy (see Brotcorne et al., 2010, 2013; Marie¨n et al., 2010). However, there is no view on the potential added value of actors and policy fields that are currently not yet involved. Consequently, there is a stringent need to do an extensive state of the art on the current situation of e-inclusion in Belgium, complemented by a critical reflection on how an ideal e-inclusion policy in Belgium should be constructed at local, regional and (inter)national level. Second, little is known on the supply side of digitized services and the relation between individuals and these digitized services. Questions as to what extent the ongoing digitization of services is leading to mechanisms of digital exclusion remain currently unanswered. Do institutions at the supply side reflect upon mechanisms of digital exclusion when digitizing their services? To what extent do they undertake actions to ensure all citizens are capable of using their digitized services in an autonomous way? And third, e-inclusion policies are characterized by a combination of top-down and bottom-up strategies. For e-inclusion policies to succeed a high variety of actors from policy, public service, private sector, civil society, poverty organisations and similar partners need to be involved and recognize the strategies, actions and initiatives behind e-inclusion policies as valid and useful (Bianchi et al., 2006; Heeley & Damodaran, 2009; Marie¨n et al., 2010; Wright & Wadhwa, 2010). Hence, an actor-driven and participatory approach is needed to stimulate a broad societal support for e-inclusion policy recommendations to ensure effective take-up and implementation of actions and initiatives.

Consequently, the IDEALiC project contains a significant part of research in the field of policy analysis that consists of an elaborated state of the art of e-inclusion policy in Belgium, at local, regional and (inter)national level and a critical analysis of current and potential actors, with an identification of their (potential) competencies (WP4). Next, in order to deliver answers regarding the potential mechanisms of digital exclusion that coincide with the digitization of (public) services, the relationship between institutions and users will be studied extensively through three case studies (WP3) – mobility, mutual health insurances, portal – with a focus on the user-orientation in the design and implementation of digitized services for the general public. Next, in line with action oriented policy research methods, two brainstorm sessions (WP4) will be organized, to discuss the results of the user-oriented research (WP2) and the results of case studies on the supply side (WP3), and move towards the identification of future policy challenges and recommendations. At a final stage, the IDEALiC project will consist of delivering policy recommendations, along with a policy brief (WP5), that will make the Belgian society able to take the digital turn in an inclusive way. Overall, the IDEALiC project, thanks to the multifocal and interdisciplinary research approach, aims at developing updated and systemic knowledge of e-inclusion today, in alignment with international research but rooted in the characteristics of the Belgian society and population. 

Partners: FTU Namur