Talking to Sian Computers, a community business
Updated: Jul 13
Sian Computers Community Initiative C.I.C. builds the skills, confidence and trust of local people in digital technologies.
Sian Computers store in Wolverhampton
The ‘Black Country Connected’ programme is an important initiative by the NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board (ICB) to encourage all communities to engage with digital health technologies. The programme offers residents from the Black Country with limited or no access to a digital device, connectivity, and skills in the use of digital technologies, the loan of a Geobook Laptop gives an option to receive connectivity. The aim of the programme is to enable communities with limited engagement to digital technologies to access health, care, social, educational and well-being websites to shop online and connect with people via email, video call and APPs.
Central to the delivery of the programme, the NHS Black Country ICB, as part of the Black Country Connected Programme, commissioned a Support Service (Sian Computers) to manage the digital device distribution. Sian Computers & Sian Computers Community Initiative C.I.C, are companies established in Wolverhampton with the explicit purpose of serving their community. Sian Computers was established in 2012 and they sell and repair IT equipment such as mobile phones, gaming consoles, laptops and a range of accessories; the company also has an internet café.. Sian Computers Community Initiative C.I.C was established in 2017 and is officially recognised as an Open College Network West Midlands Quality Endorsement Licensed Centre. I spoke to Sian to gain insights into the nature of community businesses and the role they can play in building inclusive digital health innovation eco-systems.
Sian was established in 2012 by people who had worked in local government for 25 years and felt they had a deep understanding of their local communities. When working for local government the founders of Sian often felt that the directives they received from the council didn’t meet the needs of people in inner city areas. This unease led them to develop their long-term vision of creating a local business that could become a ‘community hub’. They started as a business selling IT devices and hosting gaming sessions which allowed them to
identify the skills gaps and training needs of their community. This was a time when there was a lot of anti-social behaviour in the local shopping area, so Sian got together with other local shopkeepers to find ways of engaging and helping their community. To do this, they developed a questionnaire to ask young people why they were behaving in that way and this is how they began to identify local training needs. Sian founders describe this as a real ‘ground-up initiative’ that allowed them to develop a training programme that could be presented to the local authority for funding.
Inside the Sian Computers store
Sian started their training work in their shop, tailoring their programmes to the specific challenges faced by different groups of people from their community, for example, not in employment, education or training (NEET), those with disabilities (e.g. sight impaired residents) and older residents. This often meant starting with very basic IT skills training which could be built on as people’s confidence grew. To get young people involved in their programmes they raised funds via EU funding, Local Authority funding to organise gaming tournaments. To tell people about their courses and training events, Sian uses the local community radio station and local media as well as tapping into local churches, local schools and hard-to-reach groups to advertise their activities and training.
According to Sian, people in their community “do want to learn about IT but they don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the devices i.e., smartphones and laptops” which is why the Black Country Connected programme is important for communities. However, according to Sian, the programme is not just about giving devices but it’s also about the training and the work being done to increase the confidence of the community. Over the years Sian has gained a rich experience of how to develop the skills of different groups of people from their community. Based on this experience, Sian argues that to bring down people’s initial barriers to the use of technology you first need to build a relationship with them, gain their trust and then the training will be successful “You need to engage with people in order to get them to use IT. To move from not using digital at all to using digital you often need to explain everything”. This is why having a community ‘hub’ where people can come to, talking to people and building local relationships is such an important part of their work. Sian argues that their success is because “people from the community can relate to us. We are not a business just to take money from people. We are the same as the people that come into our shop”.
The conversation with Sian showed me what community-based businesses can achieve, the deep knowledge and understanding of local communities these businesses develop and how, when working in the interest of their communities, they can establish strong relationships based on trust. Their flexibility and ability to adjust to the diverse needs of different groups within their community suggests that community-based businesses can have a critical role to play in inclusive digital innovation eco-systems.
A flyer for one of Sian Computers' training courses