The future is digital, the future is now

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a webinar on how we can fight the cost of living crisis using digital technology. It was organised by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT and the Digital Poverty Alliance, organisations that believe we are all responsible for ensuring technology-led change is safe and positive for everyone in society. I have wanted to write about digital transformation and digital inclusion for some time now, so it was good to spend time in the company of people who care about this topic as I do and to learn from them also.

Woman and young boy using a computer.
Image by Julia M Cameron on Unsplash.

Living in a digital world

Digital skills are no longer a nice to have, they are life skills, something we have to master if we want to live in the modern world and for those who do not have digital skills, there is a huge negative impact — those with digital skills are paid more and there are further cost penalties for those who say are unable to manage their bank accounts online, view comparison websites, find the best interest rates on savings accounts and take advantage of offers that are only available to online customers. Without digital skills people may have difficulty accessing government services; accessing local information such as planning applications, changes to bus services and waste collections; finding and applying for jobs and staying connected with friends and family. Yet 10 million people in the UK do not have digital skills and 5 million do not use a computer.

Image of three older women. One of the women is taking a photo on a mobile phone.
Image by Centre for Ageing Better.

Digital poverty

The Digital Poverty Alliance define digital poverty as the ‘The inability to interact with the online world fully, when where and how an individual needs to.’ On its website it states:

  • 1 in 5 children in home schooling during the pandemic did not have access to an appropriate device like a laptop
  • 26% of young people do not have access to a laptop or similar device
  • 53% of people offline can’t afford an average monthly broadband bill
  • 2.5 million people are behind on their broadband bills.

As such, those who are digitally poor are becoming excluded from society, whether that be accessing education, the social security system, job opportunities or cheaper gas and electricity. Being able to do these things online is now an essential part of how we live but with each new technological development, people are getting left behind, making existing inequities around race, gender, age, ability and income worse and in the face of the cost of living crisis, things seem set to get worse again, not better.

Image of two women looking a mobile phone.
Image by Centre for Ageing Better.

Digital inclusion

Digital inclusion covers: 

  • Digital skills
    Being able to use digital devices such as computers, smart phones and tablets
  • Connectivity
    This is access to the internet through broadband, wi-fi and mobile, however people also need the right infrastructure, so if you are say in a rural area where it is generally more expensive to deliver broadband and where there are fewer people, meaning the commercial return for providers is low, you may find yourself digitally excluded
  • Accessibility
    Services need to be designed to meet all users’ needs — these are many and varied and could include visual and hearing impairments, issues with speaking, mobility issues or learning disabilities.
Two women working at a computer.
Image by Centre for Ageing Better.

So providing access to a device alone is not a cure all and will not end digital exclusion. People need to have the digital skills to use and maintain the devices, the money to buy the equipment, a good internet connection and websites need to be built so they are accessible to all and take into account all users who may struggle due to age, health and many different types of disability.

Coming to get you ready or not

My parents who are in their seventies are very switched on digitally — I am hugely impressed with the way they have adapted and I know my dad likes to have fun with unwanted telephone callers trying to scam him by getting access to his computer, which I have done absolutely nothing to discourage. However I know people in the same age bracket who are not and are excluded from so much because of this. So how do you change the mindset of someone who does not want to learn, has always done things face to face or by telephone, always paid by cash or written cheques, always got their local news from a newspaper, who may be fearful of change or of looking foolish and maybe enjoys the social interaction of talking with someone? Sometimes it seems we are waiting for all the old people to die so we no longer have to consider their needs and that does not feel at all good.

And even with digital skills, there are times when digital technology is not up to the task. At the time of writing this blog post, I have been unable to manage my pension online for seven months, following the online portal undergoing changes; it is not unusual for me to order a prescription online and for it to arrive with items missing or duplicated and for items I have not ordered to turn up; and recently I listened to a podcast which discussed the rise of mobile phone theft as a way of accessing online banking apps, in which an example was cited where it was possible for a loan in the victims name to be taken out at five in the morning, by the thieves who stole his phone. We are being pushed to do everything online but are we really ready? Everything is better when done online — or is it?

Man sat working at a computer.
Image by Centre for Ageing Better.

Digital technology is not without consequences for any of us, including the traditional financial institutions which now find themselves at the mercy of digital upstarts, if they are unable to move with the times and master the new technology. And when we think of online safety, we tend to think in terms of how we can best protect ourselves and others online from abuse, trolling and scammers but consumers only have limited control over the platforms they use. As such businesses and government need to take responsibility for prioritising the safety and wellbeing of their customers rather than prioritising profit over people.

Yet it is very much a case of ‘coming to get you ready or not.’ The UK has had a digital transformation strategy since 2014 and having worked in a local government digital transformation team, I have seen first hand the mulish way the strategy is being rolled out. So if this all sounds like something you don’t feel ready for or you know someone who may struggle, the time is now to start thinking about what you can do, so that you or they do not get left behind.

Image by Centre for Ageing Better.

Further information and sources

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