I’m writing a brief for Beyond Access: Libraries Powering Development — on innovation spaces.

In it, I start by defining a range of innovation spaces: telecentre, hackerspace, coworking, fablab. (I’m working open: see and comment on messy work process.)

The definition of a telecentre wasn’t working for me. It missed some crucial aspects:

  • Access to support: people (formal and informal infomediaries) and services, such as training.
  • The fact that “telecentre” is a high-level, catch-all term to describe a type of space, stand-alone or embedded into an existing organization. So folks this means that you can be/run a telecentre even if you hate the word or don’t think of yourself that way.
  • Highlighting the diversity of business / organizational models.
  • Highlighting the focus on advancing well-being and development at all levels (individual, community). I decided good to leave this broad and not start enumerating different kinds of development (social, cultural, economic), or specific domains, such as health, democracy and governance, the environment, or education.

You can go look up the old definition on Wikipedia. Here’s my update:

“Telecentre” is catch-all term for a public place where people can access digital technologies and the Internet, information, and support and services that enable them to create, learn, play, and work — while building skills and connecting with others. Telecentres go by many different names (community multimedia/knowledge/ technology centre, public Internet access point, etc.), operate under a range of business models, and are sometimes embedded into existing institutions, including libraries, community organizations, nonprofits, and businesses. The common denominator is a commitment to advance well-being and development — of individuals and communities — which often includes efforts to support groups facing social and economic challenges, including youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, immigrants, and displaced workers.

I expect it will change a bit. The last part is still clunky. But you get the idea.

4 Comments

  1. Manuel Acevedo
    August 22, 2012

    Dear Christine,

    Your post (which I learned about from ICTWorks) had the ability to distract me from doing my normal ‘urgent’ work and focus for a little while instead on the ‘important’ work. Thanks for that!

    I’m in charge of strategy and planning at the Red LAC, short for the verbose ‘Network of Latin American and Caribbean Telecentre Networks’ (www.telecentros.org). Your post (and brief for Beyond Access) comes at a time of transition for telecentres. This means that the understanding of what a telecentres is in transition too, which makes it more challenging (and fun!) to venture a definition.

    Let me characterize this transition by its phases:
    • Initially telecentres were essentially like public (and mostly free) cybercafés: access to computers and the Internet, services like printing, and perhaps some basic ICT training.
    • Along the way (5-10 yrs. later…?) some telecentres extended the range of products and services available: more specialized ICT training (eg. for small businesses, on programming languages like Java, etc.), e-government services, teleworking, university-level e-learning, perhaps even some telemedicine facilities.
    • More recently, some telecentres add to the above the hosting of socio-digital innovation. Here the telecentre emerges as a kind of incubating space for the type of innovation that emerges where social demands intersect digital tools/capacities. To be sure, there are very few of these (IMHO), it’s still more of a horizon than an actual location.

    Thus, a working definition of telecentres will have to incorporate elements that hold true regardless of the stage. One can always add specific aspects of telecentres from specific stages of evolution, to bring in subtleties as needed. All while recognizing that an ‘advanced’ telecentre in one place or country may be ‘old-fashioned’ in another, just like innovation is strongly location-dependent.

    What would be the common elements of a telecentres regardless of where one looks? I’d propose the following, as a start:
    – access/production of information via digital technologies, mainly computers and the Internet – also access to communication, if we get picky (after all, we communicate information);
    – a managed space (ie. someone is looking after it), with someone who provides some extent of support to the users;
    – it is a public service, even if offered by a private operator, so it is open to the community; and, sure enough,
    – it is meant to advance development and well-being

    According to these elements, if we had to twit it (for brevity), they would be public places where people go to use information via digital technologies for developmental purposes. Of course this would just be the start of a more descriptive definition. Could be called ‘Community Information Centres’…? It doesn´t matter, particularly since the term ‘telecentre’ has stuck and is widely known.

    Let us critically – and constructively :-) – examine your definition, which is after all what you´ve after. I think it’s mostly correct, as is the one in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecentre).

    “Telecentre” is catch-all term for a public place where people can access digital technologies and the Internet, information, and support and services that enable them to create, learn, play, and work — while building skills and connecting with others.

    – the Internet is a digital technology. The Wikipedia version is more precise “…where people can access computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies”
    – I think the ‘building skills’ bit is optional. If interpreted as deliberate training, it does not always happen. Telecenter the Internet is a digital technology.
    – ‘connecting with others’ is a nice way to merge ‘communication’ (remote) with on-site collaboration.

    Telecentres go by many different names (community multimedia/knowledge/ technology centre, public Internet access point, etc.), operate under a range of business models, and are sometimes embedded into existing institutions, including libraries, community organizations, nonprofits, and businesses.

    – sounds fine, just a minor point. Perhaps one can use the term ‘business/operational’ models instead, some people in development circles don´t like applying the term ‘business model’ to any entity, whether it´s commercial or not.

    The common denominator is a commitment to advance well-being and development — of individuals and communities — which often includes efforts to support groups facing social and economic challenges, including youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, immigrants, and displaced workers.

    – the Wikipedia definition described more the development part: “While each Telecentre is different, their common focus is on the use of digital technologies to support community, economic, educational, and social development—reducing isolation, bridging the digital divide, promoting health issues, creating economic opportunities, and reaching out to youth for example” You single out various types of excluded groups, but the list is necessarily long; ie. you could add ‘women’, ‘ethnic minorities’, ‘indigenous communities’, etc. Perhaps it´s better to refer to people who are excluded or lacking opportunities (socially, economically, digitally), and throw in just 2-3 examples.

    Anyway, this type of definition (of wide-ranging and changing concepts) are tricky yet necessary. To make my life easy, I normally take the one in Wikipedia (which does need updating, it´s dates more than 10 years…) and adapt it to the context. But I will certainly check on the one that you eventually come up with!

    What’s the model of telecentres I’d love to see most of them moving towards? Telecentres that act as community development centres, and whose differentiating feature would be the wide-ranging and advanced use of ICTs in their work. And which offer a variety of ICT-mediated products and services, including those offered by the State (e-gov, e-health, etc. ). I’d be happy then if a small percentage of these would actually engage in socio-digital innovation, since through network effects the benefits would probably spread widely.

    This is addressed in an IDRC publication from 2010, the ‘Guidebook for Managing Telecentre Networks’, which might be of use to your research. We wrote in it that: “ (…) Just as the concept of ‘digital divide’ evolved from being strictly related to infrastructure to one combining infrastructure, capacity and content, we can talk of ‘effective universal access’ which isn’t just about devices; but rather integrates devices, goods, services and context to allow people to make effective use of ICTs. Telecentres continue to play a key role in allowing greater levels of connectivity, becoming even more important as the diversity and complexity of ICT goods and services grows. Telecentres help constituencies to gain ICT capacity, to find relevant content, to make use of a growing range of services and to connect with other users (across towns or across the world), all within the ‘supportive environment’ outlined earlier by Prahalad. Therefore, as telecentres are shifting to becoming community resources for human development, reaching beyond their initial recognition as technology access points, they will be increasingly recognized as fundamental actors in spreading the benefits and opportunities of ICT use. (http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/A_Guidebook_for_Managing_Telecentre_Networks/Introduction)

    To conclude this long response (you provoked it, and I was bored doing other things today…), it’s no coincidence that you´re dealing with telecentres while preparing your publication in reference to the evolution of public libraries. Both face similar challenges (though libraries have existed for much longer and are very well-respected anywhere in the world). In fact, back in the early 2000’s, while countering criticism about telecentres (they’ve always had a tough press), I liked to say that telecentres would become the public libraries of the XXI century.

    Perhaps they’re both evolving towards becoming the same thing: a pleasant public place (they have to nice and comfortable!), where one finds information, meets people, and can work on things useful for personal/collective development. Already today, some of the organizations that integrate the Red LAC base their telecentre work on public libraries.

    Cheers,

    Manuel Acevedo

  2. Christine Prefontaine
    August 22, 2012

    WOW Manuel. Good thing you were tempted away from your other tasks today. Thank you for taking the time to write this. And, yes, I wanted critical feedback. I’ll read through it again carefully when I have a moment — and before I finish the brief :)

  3. Silvia Caicedo
    August 27, 2012

    Manuel, Christine,

    This is a great discussion. As we were discussing yesterday when you asked me “what is the difference between a library and telecentre?” and I said, the difference depends on the who is asking the question: if it is a user. Well then, it still depends. If I go into a public area and it has books, computers and a safe space for human interaction, this could be considered a telecentre, a library or a community space, where social innovation could take place. As as user, I need access to such spaces and the label may come as a result of the use I make of it.

    On other hand, if the person asking is a politician or a policy maker, then the perspective will be different. For a policy maker the library may be conceptualized a space where people can find books, and perhaps information and thus policy to support such pre-conceive use will be formulated accordingly.

    For a Minister, for instance, a distinctive label means ensuring the allocation of potential budget for her/his portfolio or watching go to somebody else’s. And therefore it could have financial implications for programming and career advancement.

    All to say that the definitions have implications and these perspectives and discourses have to be managed by telecentre leaders as they move to other areas of work.

  4. Manuel Acevedo
    August 29, 2012

    If we need to find a new name for these centers (I’m not so convinced, BTW), what about ‘infocenters’, ‘infotecas’, ‘mediatecas’, ‘community infocenters’, ‘public infocenters’… Something about the common denominators for what their users go there for: information.

    Manuel