In 2020, technology has been at the centre of enabling a remarkable change in the way that we work and live. From high-speed Internet replacing high-speed trains, to collaboration tools and social networks replacing face-to-face interaction, technology has become the essential ingredient keeping us all working and learning, getting hold of essentials, and connecting us to our friends and families.
For many, this extraordinary experiment in isolated living has been a success. As my colleague Charlie Morgan wrote a month into lockdown, technology has been leaned on to address our full hierarchy of needs more than ever before. Organisations that had to accelerate their digital strategies and move to remote working almost overnight have found that their technology infrastructures, services and devices stood up to the challenge. In all likelihood, many of these organisations will never look back. Friends and families have embraced social media, video-conferencing, gaming and virtual reality to connect in new ways. With families increasingly living further apart, there’s no reason to believe that this won’t continue, even as lockdown measures are relaxed.
And so, for a large number of people, technology has become a lifeline in a way that none of us could have anticipated as we entered 2020. We’re the lucky ones.
Because at the same time, never has the digital divide yawned so wide. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) points to high-speed Internet being “key for working from home, for children’s education when they can’t attend school in person, for telemedicine, for benefiting from social support programs, and for enabling access to financial services for everyone,” but states “the digital divide is more like a chasm, both within and between countries.”
The UK, like other advanced economies, has amongst the highest Internet access rates in the world, yet recent estimates from the BBC’s Make a Difference campaign suggest that there are still around one million families across the UK without adequate access to a device or connectivity at home. A further 700,000 young people do not have the skills or devices they need to properly complete their homework.
As both short-term needs are driven by lockdown and the unrelenting progress towards digital societies and economies see the reliance on technology grow, how do we ensure people don’t get left behind?
In the UK, programmes designed to increase and accelerate digital inclusion generally fall into two main categories: infrastructure and the physical access to the online world, and skills and education to increase understanding of how to use digital services. Both of these strategies will figure highly in this Autumn’s digital strategy, which will focus on how to use digital to drive the post-COVID economy.
From an infrastructure perspective, Building Digital UK (BDUK) is driving nationwide 5G and broadband rollout, aiming for nationwide deployment of full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) as part of its full-fibre broadband report for Openreach shows that as well as boosting economies and productivity in communities across the country, nationwide full-fibre could see half a million more people enabled to access employment including carers, older workers and parents, and 400,000 more people could work from home. However, this is an ambitious target, not likely to be helped by this week’s decision to ban Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G mobile and full-fibre broadband networks.
The government has also launched initiatives to try to tackle the lack of access to devices and connectivity that has been brought so sharply into focus during the lockdown. One example is Devicesdotnow, a programme led by FutureDotNow – a coalition of leading companies and civil society groups working in collaboration with government – that asks businesses to donate devices, sims and mobile hotspots to support the 1.9 million households in the UK that don’t have access to the Internet. However, although DevicesDotNow has delivered 2,370 devices to date, it is still overwhelmed with demand and does not yet have the funds necessary to reach its first goal of helping 10,000 people. And fundamentally, it doesn’t matter how great the Internet is if you’re one of those who can’t access it.
When it comes to skills, the government’s focus is again on how technology will help pull the UK out of recession, drive productivity and create jobs. In his closing speech at the Roadmap to Recovery summit, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, described his desire to “build a highly-skilled digital workforce across every region of the UK, so that people can shift into the digital or tech sectors or indeed digitise their own businesses”. Reforms such as the recently announced major overhaul of higher technical education, including the introduction of new T Levels from September, are designed to help plug the digital skills gap.
I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the two sides of this technology coin – both the benefits that technology brings when it’s added to our lives, particularly in times of disruption and the potential of increased reliance on technology to create a wider gap between the digital haves and the digital have nots than ever before. I welcome the ambition to create world-class infrastructure and a highly-skilled digital workforce, but can’t help but feel that a stronger emphasis needs to be placed on the realities some people are facing right now, and those that are most disadvantaged by digital exclusion. The government and private sector must work together to create a level playing field and ensure that the benefits delivered by technology are felt by everyone.