The fact that you’re either reading this online or have downloaded the PDF means you fall into the ‘digitally-savvy’ category. This is in contrast to approximately 39 million adults – over half the population of the UK, according to our Digital Futures Index – who are not comfortable consuming information online. As technological developments accelerate, there is a real risk the digital divide could become one of the biggest social issues of our time, undermining any advancements, hindering the UK’s progression towards being a global digital leader.
Research has shown that a lack of digital skills often correlates with existing deprivation and disadvantage, whether by age, income, education, disability or unemployment. With today’s society operating almost exclusively online, access to the jobs market – and the skills to succeed within it – is only one area in which digital skills can be transformative, enabling a stronger, more inclusive economy. ‘How do I’ is such a searched-for phrase that it has its own trending chart on Google, with ‘how to’ videos one of the most popular content categories on YouTube. Whichever platforms are being used, the internet has opened up opportunities for self-learning, whether for educational or vocational reasons or just for fun.
There is also a documented link between wellbeing and digital inclusion. Access to the internet can reduce issues such as isolation and loneliness, especially in older people or those housebound due to disability or illness. Digital healthcare devices can empower society to take control of their own health and make intervention more accessible when needed. A sense of independence and autonomy is also a by-product of digital competence; the internet can help people to find their niche.
These are the concerns for today, but in the future, when technology plays an even more pivotal role in our lives, questions of digital inclusivity become more acute. In ‘smart’ cities, a degree of digital savviness is needed simply to get from a to b, healthcare increasingly uses digital for the purposes of diagnosis, and more and more tasks are being performed by AI. While much of the interaction with technology with be visual and verbal, people must still have digital skills to understand their devices and access services with confidence and safety.
That isn’t to say the country is stagnating: the Lloyds Consumer Digital Index 2017 found that 1.1 million people had gained basic digital skills in the year since the previous survey. Many community and national projects are working hard to equip the digitally unfamiliar with the skills they need – and educate them on the benefits of being online. This latter point is crucial, as Lloyds also found that 68% of adults that are offline say nothing would motivate them to get connected. We must help these people recognise the necessity of being online.
While much of the interaction with technology with be visual and verbal, people must still have digital skills to understand their devices and access services with confidence and safety.
A lack of digital skills is not the only stumbling block on the journey to a vibrant digital future. Equitable access to a good internet connection is becoming a necessary component of life, yet there are still blackspots in the UK where people struggle to get strong connections – or any connection at all. There are a variety of issues causing these blackspots, from challenging topography that prevents service providers connected communities (especially those in rural, isolated areas) to people lacking the credit rating or reliable income to allow them to sign up to a monthly internet contract.
Affordable and strong internet connections could soon be seen as a basic human right in this digital era. A recent report into Universal Basic Services by IGP’s Social Prosperity Network codifies this. According to co-author Jonathan Portes from King’s College, London, a former senior Government official,“The role of the state is to ensure an equitable distribution of not just money, but opportunity to participate and contribute to society”. The importance of free internet is stressed as a need alongside housing, food, transport being provided to all British citizens.
Beyond basic skills and access to the internet, a vibrant digital future is one that utilises all the skills of the diverse population we have. It has been much documented that there is a shortage of women working in STEM-related careers. There is also a ‘digital skills crisis’ in terms of tech workers across the board – the Government estimates we need 745,000 workers with digital skills to meet demand in the coming years. Both these issues have complicated social and cultural causes, with both issues traced back to school days and the environment in which children are educated. Encouragement, visible mentors and an understanding of what a tech career can really involve are all valuable means of bucking the trend to ensure the future generation of workers can fulfil their potential and meet the demands of our industry.
Inclusivity cannot be underestimated as we journey towards the next digital revolution. With each advancement in technology, the need to remove the digital divide becomes more pressing. Improvements will be measured in all the ways highlighted above – the percentage of women in tech roles, the percentage of people online and how many in our society feels ‘digitally-savvy’, not to mention the shortfall of workers with digital skills. For the sake of a strong, fair economy, inclusion is vital to optimise the benefits of technology and support whatever innovations lie ahead.
Russell Haworth is CEO of Nominet. Jericho and Nominet have collaborated on the Digital Futures Index, using concrete metrics to track the UK’s progress in implementing a vibrant, inclusive digital economy.