Dismantling the shaky bridge metaphor

Blog | 2021-04-13 | By: Digital Council for Aotearoa
Source: Shutterstock

This week we have been thinking metaphoric bridges. Bridging the digital divide. Bridging the gap. Acting as a bridge between the government, the industry and communities. 

This was prompted by discussions we had at our youth town hall held on 17 March, attended by people who work with and for young people in Aotearoa. We wanted to know their hopes and aspirations for digital technologies and the issues they were grappling with. 

It’s interesting to see how their insights somehow fit a bridge metaphor, but for the wrong reasons.

Why the bridge metaphor is a little shaky

A bridge suggests if we build the infrastructure, then people will use it.
Our youth town hall participants were very clear that, even though many young people were given computer hardware during the COVID 19 lockdown, they didn’t necessarily use it. They didn’t know how, or there was no-one in their family who knew how and who could show them, or a crowded, noisy environment or having to look after siblings didn’t allow them the space. 

If you’re going to bridge the gap, why would you ask the people who have fallen through the gap to build the bridge for you?

Youth town hall participants have a clear vision and aspiration for more Māori and Pasifika youth to take up careers in technology. But we heard that employment narratives, policy settings and short-term COVID responses are not bridging the equity gaps. Instead, they drive Māori and Pasifika youth into low wage, low skilled jobs. We were told apprenticeships offered to Māori don’t include technology apprenticeships. Participants saw this as a wasted opportunity to advance the opportunities of technology for everyone. 

You can’t always see to the other side

Town hall participants told us that young women, Māori, Pasifika and disabled people don’t see enough people to aspire to who look like them. As one participant said, you can’t be what you can’t see. Self-belief is key, as are role models to show you the way. 

A bridge is binary

A bridge only goes in one of two directions without deviation—a bit like algorithms that reinforce one-sided perspectives, said one participant. 

Similarly, there are multiple pathways into technology. There are also connections and transferable skills across a range of pathways. Young people need help to navigate these different pathways and to know specifically what that pathway looks like and what they need to do to begin their journey. 

If you don’t get it right first time...

Adding lanes, cycle pathways or pedestrian clip-ons is not a sound solution to lack of inclusion. As women fall behind with technology we heard that STEM is still seen as a clip-on, an extracurricular activity in schools. Participants want to see it as part of the main curriculum. To do this, we heard that the biggest beast under the bridge to tackle is the education system not keeping up with digital advances and teachers not having digital-specific training. 

Moving from metaphors to actions

So how do we move beyond the bridge metaphor? Perhaps that’s up to our young creative minds to figure out. They’re already playing around with innovative responses to equity and inclusion, such as tikanga for online modalities, virtual placements in trade apprenticeships, e-sports/robotics competitions. 

Meantime, we could move on from metaphors and focus on actions. What changes did town hall participants think would make the biggest difference for the challenges they face? 

  • Involve young people in the regional recovery programmes and the reform of vocational education. Design these engagements in formats that engage young people (eg, not forming a committee to advise a board that advises a Minister) and create more spaces, levers, funding to get people into these discussions that will impact their futures. 
  • Meaningfully engage with youth in their spaces, not through old colonial structures.
  • Equip youth with the right skills so that when they do have a seat at the table, they have the confidence to talk and contribute.
  • Put wahine in charge and they’ll do it differently. Empower women to lead and use technology as a tool (this is a deep, humbling experience for men, said this participant).
  • Boost support for women in the STEM space.
  • Take a long-term perspective especially in relation to career pathways, equipping youth with transferable skills, and information on what their pathways are.
  • Address discrimination and bias—unpick the presumptive narrative about what young people, women, Māori, Pasifika, people with disabilities can be. 
  • Help young people to see what their future can be. 

And perhaps stop trying to build bridges to close gaps. As inanimate structures and technical solutions, bridges might actually be keeping us apart rather than bringing us together. Their binary nature is not suited to our dynamic industry and the dynamic relationships needed to achieve equity. Let’s give our young people a chance to suggest new ways of coming together in our journey towards technology that is in service to our growing, connecting, learning and wellbeing.