What does local mean in a connected world?

When we talk about localism, have we ever questioned what we mean by it? For those not acquainted with the term, it’s primarily used to call for approaches which start at the local level, from raising taxes to running services. Within those debates, the local can mean local government or the local community. But local government is based on geographical boundaries that go back several decades.

Local used to be fixed geographical areas within which people grew up, went to school, worked, develop friendships, met their spouse, brought up children, retired and died. Not only was the school, the workplace and the shops nearby, for most people, they couldn’t travel any further than the area they lived in.

But what does “local” mean in a world where we can be connected with and exposed to different people, emergent ways of thinking and doing and different cultures?

Whereas local defined in geographic terms creates not just physical boundaries, like within which catchment area we can send our children to school, which surgeries we can go to when we’re feeling ill or which decisions we can influence when we vote, digital can help break down those borders. It opens us up to a world where we can curate the networks and activities that we want to connect with, but also where we can be exposed to people that we couldn’t experience in our local neighbourhoods.

We can do everything online, learn new skills, go to work, shop and make friends. We participate in all of these activities in different ways to our neighbours. Digital opens up new opportunities, but also engenders new forms of inequality. It stimulates new forms of community, while also creating new forms of social autism. You might be part of an online study group with people from different countries, while your neighbours might be trying to find the time to go to college in between work and putting the kids to bed. You might be 3D printing chocolate at home and selling it to people in the Middle East, while your neighbour might be working out how to keep their sweet shop afloat when kids buy theirs at the supermarket aisles.

As Tessy Britton argues, “digital has excited people with its interest, immediacy & interactivity — want that translated into their live local experiences”

This isn’t just about how we use technology, it’s about how the labour market has disconnected us from our neighbourhoods. Even if we’re not working online, which most of us aren’t…yet, many of us don’t work in the area we live. We spend more time with our fellow commuters, let alone our colleagues, than our neighbours. Even if you can’t retire online, many of us have to retire in old people’s homes that are far away from where we live, because we can’t afford anywhere closer.

Simon Parker comments “Places are the 21st century what factories were to the 20th. Digital drove that”.

The opportunities that digital provide us don’t reduce our need — even it might complicate it — for feeling part of a community of people that we can bond with, that we can trust, even one we can depend on.

In a connected world, how can we make sense of the world around us? How do we cope with the changes taking place? How do we influence the world around us?