Voices of Digital Communities

Immigration, the Internet and Inclusion

But the need for inclusion seems clear, as dramatically expressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech in which she said that "the multicultural society has utterly failed."

by / December 16, 2010

The more successful your community is at using information and communications technology (ICT) to build its economy, the more you need to think about those who are not online.  I wrote in my last post that we don't always know who they really are – but the odds are good that they are largely people at the economic or social margins, whether due to poverty, lack of education, age, disability or other factors.  

Why, aside from common humanity, does success breed a need for digital inclusion?  Because when ICT is the route to success, it can actually deepen economic and social exclusion, which breeds social ills that cost everyone else a lot of money for criminal justice, social services and health care.

A 2009 report from the European Commission looks at ICT supply and demand in immigrant communities within major countries.   It's a long report, so I focused on just one country: Germany, Europe's economic engine, where Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin recently published a controversial book lamenting that his country was being overrun by foreigners.  The magazine Die Stern found in a survey that 61% of Germans agree at least partly with his conclusion.  Immigration is similarly controversial in most of the OECD nations.

In 2005, about 19% of the German population had a "migration background," as the report put it, and immigrants make up almost 40% of the population of big cities like Stuttgart and Frankfurt.  The single biggest group of immigrants comes from Turkey, and a new study from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development says that they are poorly integrated into society.  They are much worse educated, with 30% failing to graduate from secondary school and just 14% passing university entrance exams, about half the German average.  In the labor market, they have high rates of unemployment and are more likely to receive state benefits.  More than half of them report facing discrimination because of their ethnic origins.    

In Germany, the population of Turkish descent clearly fits the "exclusion" label.  So how do they fare when it comes to the digital world?

According to the EU report, which uses data from 2007, 98% of the Turkish population own a television set and 71% a DVD player, about equal to the German population as a whole.  (They don't listen to radio for some reason: only 61% own one compared with 99% for the general population.)  But here's an interesting statistic: 76% own a computer or laptop, compared with 69% of the German population.  They are also more likely to own a mobile phone and MP3 player, and are twice as likely to own a digital TV.  

Some of this is age-related.  The average age of the Turkish population is 34, compared with 39 for all Germans.  Sixty-five percent are under the age of 40, compared with 50% of all Germans.  Younger people have a bigger appetite for digital technology than older ones.

Despite their high computer ownership, however, only 22% of the Turkish population regularly used the Internet in 2007, compared with 28% for all Germans.  Why?  Language is a big reason.  Looking at all immigrants in Germany, 67% of those who were born there – and presumably grew up speaking German – are regular Internet users.  But only 23% of those born in another country are regulars online.  If you are an immigrant fluent in German, you are almost five times more likely to be a regular Internet user than one who speaks it poorly.  And Turkish immigrants lag in language.  Only 42% were rated as having high language competence, compared with 63% of Polish immigrants.  

So what is a German community to do about digital inclusion of Turkish immigrants?  Well, one thing they don't need is programs to put computers in their homes or public facilities.  They already have them.  In fact, the young Turkish immigrants are digitally enabled but when it comes to the Internet, they don't seem to be finding anything online worth their time.  

But maybe, just maybe all those computers in homes, all those mobile phones and MP3 players are an opportunity waiting to be exploited.  Can they become a channel for the delivery of language and cultural learning?  Can it be made compelling enough for a young audience of Turkish background to prepare them for economic success?  I certainly don't know.  But the need for inclusion seems clear, as dramatically expressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech in which she said that "the multicultural society has utterly failed."  Perhaps the most startling statistic to come out of the European Union report is this one:  despite their low economic achievement, 37% of the Turkish immigrant population is fully employed, compared with 36% of the German population.  It's not about employment – it's about being employed at something that earns a living wage. 

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.