Solace Blog

Digital leadership: What is the role of digital communities?

By Alison McKenzie Folan, Deputy Chief Executive, Director Customer Transformation, 
Wigan Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Digital Leadership

There’s a lot of chatter about digital communities right now; how they develop and grow and the role they play. The term means different things in different contexts and the scale of the community varies greatly.


In Wigan, our digital community wraps right round the borough, but exactly what it means to us shifts depending on your perspective. So, for a digitally-engaged resident, that digital community relates to social media engagement, likes and sharing of posts from Council social media accounts, and to utilising our online tools (MyAccount and the Report It! app) to communicate with us in different, quicker, more convenient ways.  It’s also about those residents contributing to blogs, sharing photos and experiences with family and friends both near and far, applying for a job, or checking what they are entitled to. 

For our partners who work with residents that have low-level digital skills, our digital community spreads to the physical. It’s about places where residents can learn new skills, a bricks and mortar network that builds confidence and skills. This is a community which counts learners as part of it: it develops opportunities and this includes signposting between partners. It’s a community in the true sense of the word and one which really does bring people together. And those partners share their successes with us: we meet with them through our Digital Taskforce, we share outcomes, and we celebrate when funding is secured to further increase the reach of what we do. 

And then we have our businesses. Working with our colleagues in Economic Development, we have ensured superfast broadband connectivity right across our borough. We have recently hosted our second Destination Digital conference, bringing together ways in which, as a Council, we support and enable digital change. And of course, this digital community spreads far beyond the boundaries of our borough, into the Greater Manchester city region and far beyond. This feeds into a true global digital community, one of commerce and jobs.

So, digital community means different things, but at its heart, it remains the same. It’s about the concept of a network that unites and unifies people. Actually, for all the talk of digital, it’s important to remember the people in this: the ‘community’ itself.

Digital is an enabler. It helps businesses work smarter. It inspires all ages. It makes what was once impossible, possible. It’s easy to think of it as something virtual, but actually, a successful digital community has tangible impacts on the physical communities. In so many ways that’s its real strength: it brings people together, whatever may be driving them; it connects them to solutions; and connects them to something so much bigger.

Wigan is perhaps best known for having a pier. And ironically, that’s one thing that Wigan has never actually had (you know we’re not on the coast, right?). As a borough, the landscape wears the signs of its past well, with hints of coal mining and Victorian factories still claiming the skyline. Now, times are changing. We have a new confidence. Thanks to The Wigan Deal (since this is a digital blog, I’ll let you google that one!), we have the Deal for Communities Investment Fund, and that has funded a wide range of digital activity: we have The Blair Project (3D printing of racing cars, no less), WiganSTEAM (incorporating arts into STEM subjects with young people) and a community project that uses coding and Minecraft to connect with children. 

In Wigan we also know a thing or two about stereotypes. People think they know what to expect when they visit our borough and, often, we can surprise them. We’re a place that’s changing and growing: it’s those digital communities at work, as they inspire and shape people’s ambitions and aspirations. So it’s only natural that we seek to continue to challenge stereotypes, whether that is championing the role of females in digital industries, ensuring that digital opportunities exist in some of our most deprived areas, or taking the time to bring digital solutions into the homes of some of our older residents. 

Digital communities are an evolution of the traditional community: technology enables them to grow, develop and improve. They operate outside of traditional, physical boundaries and have a reach that can spread far beyond the world that an individual is familiar with, taking them outside of that ‘bubble of familiarity’ and bringing new opportunities. In Wigan, digital communities are changing how we work with residents, growing our businesses, and helping to burst those bubbles that residents may have traditionally found themselves in.