Digital poverty: Creating a more digitally inclusive society
2020 brought the need to access services remotely sharply into focus. We now realize that working from home is not a temporary situation. Access to devices, the skills to use them and good quality connectivity are essential for nearly everyone in our new digital society.
The world continues to change and the pace of evolution of fourth-generation technologies (like wearables and virtual reality) in everyday life is staggering. Gartner observed that COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation by five years, and the digital gap between those that can and cannot take part is widening.
In the UK, Ofcom (the nation’s communications regulator) estimated that around one million households – more than one in 20 – reported at least one affordability issue with their broadband services. Nearly 250,000 households cannot access a broadband service with speeds of 10Mb/s. We all know that a pixelated face on an online meeting just doesn’t allow that person to take part in an engaged fashion!
Moreover, a survey conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of Lloyds Bank showed that 22% of UK adults do not possess the technical skills required to perform what are now regarded as commonplace actions such as digital banking.
It is not just individuals who need to bridge the divide – COVID-19 has meant that many businesses have not survived in their current form and there is a huge upsurge in the need for business owners to be able to market themselves online. Many organizations have to provide kit and working spaces for employees to work from home, and many may be required to do so for longer if shielding.
For digital inclusion efforts to gain momentum, it will require greater access, skills, motivation and trust. Pandemic-related lockdowns have certainly provided the motivation, but the access and skills are still sorely lacking and trust will be the next hurdle. Let’s examine each of these factors in greater detail.
For digital inclusion efforts to gain momentum, it will require greater access, skills, motivation and trust.
Access to a suitable space to be able to work anywhere is critical. Many schools and universities are antiquated buildings, unsuitable for efficient provision of technology or connections, and coffee shops are becoming a default workspace. We need to take some lessons from aviation: previously, we designed planes and plugged the digital components in. Now we design cockpits around the technology required. We need to do the same for our cities – creating Smart City or Smart Campus workspots to create flexible working spaces and extending the reach of this connectivity into individual homes.
The provision of laptops and other devices is another key limiter. Recycling can be expensive, requiring complete hard drive replacement and warranties applied. The logistics of distribution are also challenging, such as borrowing through local libraries, or focused schemes such as private companies providing recycled laptops to educational institutions. Investment from the tech sector to create an end-to-end proposition would support the creation of a circular economy.
Skills: Self-sufficiency and curiosity
Digital skills are critically important. For example, understanding the basic standards and keeping up with the pace of change, or helping individuals understand and manage computer upgrades. Over and above the life skills mentioned above, the next issue is the element of self-sufficiency. Training an entire society to be curious (and ambitious) about how they use technology is a cultural element that will help any economy rebound.
Governments should work directly with business leaders to get them involved in designing technical courses and allowing people to access flexible student finance and learning modules throughout their lives. Getting society to acquire these new skills and apply them will be the issue – but for now, our hopes are pinned on new job creation strategies to provide this motivation.
Motivation: New types of employment
It’s all about society — particularly for young people and students for whom not being connected to the internet is like not being invited to the biggest party in town. Limitations on access in a fast-moving society means people fall behind even faster. COVID-19 has provided a lot of motivation in a stick kind of way – we needed to change to survive. The carrot going forward is not going back to the way it was before. It’s the opportunity for new employment dynamics, and businesses in desperate need of digital and engineering skills have a huge part to play.
Trust: Attitude and security
The lack of understanding of new things often leads to a lack of trust. Worries around data and increases in phishing and cybercrime exacerbate this problem. When mistrust exists, people will not engage. For example, facial recognition software carries a risk of privacy invasion. Companies have an urgent responsibility to make sure that they create certainty in the data used for the general public, and this must be at the forefront of regulators’ minds as they develop the skills, access and industries for the future.
The way forward
Both governments and businesses need a design thinking approach to the provision of services based on the real needs of our new digital society and to encourage skills, trust and adoption. In design thinking, we start with the user and build a holistic solution around the personalization of use. Reassurance and support are critical.
We must add to the list of criteria to manage out of digital poverty by adding digital self-sufficiency as a goal. No country can afford to be complacent in this. Creating this capability and thereby accessing an untapped pool of potential talent will support innovation and entrepreneurship and help us build back better.