We can build a digitally inclusive future. But we have to plan for it properly.
WE CAN BUILD A DIGITALLY INCLUSIVE FUTURE. BUT WE HAVE TO PLAN FOR IT PROPERLY.
Monday, 26 September
By Gyula Törzsök, Managing Consultant at Inner Circle Consulting
There is no doubt that we are spending more and more time online – headline figures about internet use get bigger with every report. According to the most recent summary by Datareportal, the global population is predicted to spend 12.5 trillion hours online in 2022, while internet usage has doubled in the last ten years.
But for me the most striking numbers are the ones behind the headlines. Datareportal tells us that 62.5 percent of the population is online – but that means that 37.5 percent of the global population are still not using the internet at all.
In a world where so many conversations are currently preoccupied with equality, inclusion and accessibility, 37.5 percent is a staggering statistic. It suggests that a great many organisations that are working on inclusivity are doing a lot more talking than doing.
When you’re building tech – indeed, when you’re building anything at all – you need three basic pieces of information: Why you’re building, who you’re building for and how you’re going to build. In terms of a digital inclusion plan, we’re often way off the mark on all three. Not thinking through the implications from the start means we often create biased systems even when the intention is to do good.
So let’s start by remembering what inclusivity actually means. Part of the problem is that too often it’s considered as a check box at the end of a project to enable people to demonstrate one or two actions that nod to it. But if you’re doing that, you’ve lost the ‘why’ entirely. Inclusivity which according to the Oxford Dictionary means “the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those having physical or mental disabilities or belonging to other minority groups”.
If you’re building something because too many people are currently excluded from it, you next need to know who those people are. We discovered a lot of them during Covid lockdowns when it became belatedly clear that home schooling was not an option for low-income households. We should have known this. The data is out there. Research of University of Cambridge shows that the poorest and most vulnerable are significantly more digitally excluded compared to other groups. Lloyds Bank research has found that about 21 percent of adults – some 11 million people – don’t have the essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life.
Next is the ‘how.’ In the work I do every day on digital inclusion I’ve discovered that the following approaches, combined, are effective:
- Share the knowledge. Learning and teaching is in our essence as humans. It’s why we are the most intelligent species on Earth (at least based on our current knowledge.) We have to create systems for communities to share digital knowledge and engage with marginalised groups.
- Collaborate. Local authorities are well positioned to understand who those people are and working in partnerships with organisations from the private and third sector we can achieve big things.
- Be practical. We have many different tools you can use to step into the digital world. We don’t need to limit thinking to phones or laptops. You can already use voice control or take a photo of a text that can be translated into over a hundred languages by hitting 2 buttons. Virtual and Augmented Reality is already extending the way we interact. Making all this accessible by default is key.
- Build partnerships to spread collaboration. Overcoming different ways of working between private and public sector is key. Everyone operating in this ecosystem must recognise that they can do better work by working with other parties that are doing the work too. There are many great examples to learn from. In West London I was recently part of a brilliant team that created an enabling environment to deliver fibre broadband to social housing blocks, connecting the most vulnerable to the internet during Covid.
Technology evolves so fast that it can be difficult to follow, but if we change our approach to a deliberately inclusive one, we can together have a better understanding of what is emerging, what that means for our communities and currently excluded groups and how we can influence change for the better.
Access to the internet was recognised as a human right by the UN since 2016, but we still have a long journey to achieve the aim of ensuring that every person on the planet has the possibility to engage in the digital world by choice. (It is important to highlight here that no-one should ever be forced into digital space who does not want to be there.)
Applying the above suggestions can help all of us, from public sector consultants like me, to local councils, housing associations and private broadband providers, to work together, achieve success and support a resilient and future-proof society.