A new manifesto for digital inclusion

16 Apr 2020 |Written by Adam Micklethwaite


Covid-19 will change the world. Nobody knows exactly how deep the changes will go, and how different the world of a year’s time, or five years’ time, will be.

But two things seem certain. We will continue to rely on digital technology as a major part of our lives, both in and out of lockdown. And however deep the scars, technology will be one of the most powerful tools we have to remake society.

Digital inclusion is critical now: in the future it will be just as important.

Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate on the basis of wealth or place. We should hope that, in the aftermath, our choices about how to support collective wellbeing and social equality adopt a similar principle.

The power of the digital world - to foster creativity and learning, to access essential information and services, to make and take opportunities - is undeniable. Whatever the ‘new normal’, this power should be available to everyone.

And yet 9% of UK adults don’t use the internet, and 22% have limited digital skills. 6 million people cannot turn on a device, and over 7 million cannot open an app. A substantial part of the population cannot realise the benefits of being online that most of us take absolutely for granted.

Some will undoubtedly cross the digital divide out of necessity as the impact of Covid-19 continues to play out, and some will be helped by new technologies, including increasingly sophisticated voice-controlled devices: but large numbers will remain excluded.

The UK Government had already taken a positive step by putting ‘essential digital skills’ on the same educational footing as English and Maths. From September, in current law adults will be able to enrol on a digital skills course free of charge.

But not everyone can go back to college, or will want to. Digital exclusion is experienced most by those who are older, poorer and have low skills. 19% of 55-64s are offline, rising to 33% of 65-74s and 48% of those aged 75+. 40% of those in the lowest income bracket are digitally excluded, 62% of those with low digital skills had a poor experience of compulsory education, and 58% have done no learning in the past three years.

Digital exclusion frequently comes on top of unemployment, poverty and crisis, so it’s not as simple as ‘lay on the courses and they will come’.

This is where digital intersects with community. The overriding reasons people give for their digital exclusion reflect poverty - they can’t afford a device or connectivity - but are also strongly based on motivation. Lack of interest and fear of harm are at the top of the list. So widening access to technology can only happen if these barriers are addressed.

Only by building trust, and finding the way digital can be relevant for that person at that time, can you build the confidence to start learning digital skills. And this is the special skill and passion of special people in our communities: those who work in community organisations, from small charities and libraries to social enterprises and housing associations.

Devices are needed, and connectivity too. Poverty and geography mean that too many families don’t even have access to the internet.

But fundamentally, only by investing in people can we open out the digital world to everyone.

  • The charity sector needs money to carry out this vital work, embedding digital confidence, skills and safety alongside the core support it provides to those in need. Job clubs, homelessness charities, support groups, health classes and others need to be funded to fight digital exclusion. During lockdown, they are finding new ways to keep helping those in greatest need, and in whatever period that follows, they will need support as they continue to adapt.
  • We need to find new ways of harnessing the goodwill of friends, family and neighbours to help: Covid-19 is already shifting the foundations of our communities in ways which are positive, but also bring uncertainty.
  • And above all, we have to do this together: digital inclusion should be part of all policy, all business activity, and all social action; and all sectors have a part to play.

This is a shout out to policymakers, philanthropists, business leaders and corporate CSR champions. It will be easy to sideline digital inclusion as other urgent issues dominate the headlines and roundtables in the coming months and years. How to rebuild employment in an economy reeling from lockdown, and how to maintain public health, will rightly be at the top of the agenda.

But choosing between digital inclusion and other social action is a false choice. It’s a both/and, not an either/or. Digital inclusion is part of social inclusion, and should be integral to the remaking of society.

Digital has the potential to connect and empower us all in ways that complement our humanity, not displace it. So let’s use the energy of this wake up call to our generation to make sure we use the gift of technology well. Let’s make digital a point of unity, not division. Everyone deserves to benefit, not just most of us. Let’s not waste this chance to get it right.