Despite the transformative impact of technology on society, there is still a digital divide between those who have access to technology and those who do not, giving rise to inequalities in access to opportunities, information, services, and goods. Technological change means that digital skills are increasingly important for connecting with others, accessing information and services and meeting the changing demands of the workplace and economy. But unfortunately, those who are not engaging effectively with the digital world are at risk of being left behind.
The reality is that 4.5 million UK adults have never used the internet. Furthermore, 21% of British citizens lack at least one basic digital skill, leaving the equivalent of 11.3 million adults ‘digitally excluded’. It is also forecast that in 20 years, 90% of all jobs will require some element of digital skills. Yet, research published from the House of Commons Library shows that almost 4,000 public computers have been cut from public libraries and job centres in England since 2010, with some 680 internet-connected machines lost in the past year alone.
A large proportion of those excluded are some of society’s most vulnerable citizens and they are far more likely to be disadvantaged according to other social and economic measures. Access to job centres, letting agents and local councils, for example, all require the internet; but what can do if you do not have access to the internet? What options do you have?
Access to digital skills can greatly enable society’s most vulnerable citizens to participate in the UK’s digital economy, improving a person’s life chances and quality of life. Yet, vulnerable people are rarely considered when it comes to the introduction of new digital services. So, how can we develop an inclusive digital society and ensure the internet is accessible to everyone?
Investment in connectivity
While technology, especially its rapid development, is often considered the root cause of the problem, it can also offer a solution. Let’s look at the city of Leeds as an example. Despite the vibrant state of the city’s digital economy, thousands of adults in Leeds still have no access to the internet or related digital skills. Council bosses say around one in four tenants living within council housing in the city do not have access to the internet, whether that’s due to the cost of maintaining it or because they do not have the skills and confidence to do so. To close this digital divide, the council is aiming to give all local residents the chance to benefit from online opportunities with a programme called 100% Digital Leeds, which focuses on increasing internet access around the city.
Investment from local councils in full-fibre broadband and freely available access points on high streets and rail and tube stations, amongst other initiatives, will go some way to improving the situation. However, we cannot ignore that local councils are tackling the biggest cuts to government funding since 2010. Faced with a challenging economic climate, securing access to the necessary funding for digital innovation and increased connectivity is a considerable issue for local councils.
While local councils may not have sufficient funding to make these investments, working in tandem with the private sector will help them to achieve more where it is needed. Given the value they represent to the digitally excluded and in turn, the wider community, such initiatives are a smart way of investing in local communities, particularly those in deprived areas.
Upskill the workforce
In today’s digital-by-default society, providing vulnerable citizens with access to technology and connectivity and equipping them with the skills to use the services available to them will deliver tangible benefits for both the individual and society – and upskilling the population will also become increasingly important in post-Brexit Britain.
After all, the UK is no longer a manufacturing nation, so cultivating new, digital skills is crucial if we are to secure the country’s economy. Universities are expensive, so we need to ensure the younger generation is able to access educational and training resources online. Through digital inclusion, we can avoid an unnecessary ‘brain drain’ and by doing so, steer the country through whatever challenges may lay ahead, once we finally leave the EU.
Failing to tackle the digital divide will mean that by 2028, 12% of the UK’s adult population will lack the basic digital skills needed to participate in the modern world, meaning that we’ll also be missing out on almost £22 billion as a direct result of digital exclusion.
In today’s digital age, everyone should have access to the internet. Further action and investment in full-fibre technology that can provide ultrafast, reliable connections will go a long way to improve the digital divide across Britain. Local councils must work in tandem with the private sector to invest in initiatives which break down the barriers to digital inclusion. In turn this will upskill the nation and cultivate new, digital skills which will help us to secure the country’s economy post-Brexit.
Matt Bird, General Manager at InLinkUK