The UK is a country of innovators and inventors: the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the World Wide Web and graphene. It is also a place where, arguably more than anywhere, innovation is often regarded as a means to break down barriers, reduce inequalities and empower people from every walk of life. More recently, digital technology has been a peerless force for good in Britain, acting as a great equaliser and enabling some 300,000 entrepreneurs to launch their digital startups.
Granted, challenges for the sector remain: people from disadvantaged backgrounds can sometimes feel alienated from technology companies; digital skills are unevenly taught and valorised across the country; and Britain’s infrastructure is not always up to the task of providing everyone with the tools of connectivity. Still, innovators, businesses and institutions alike are rising to the task of bridging those gaps.
How that is happening was one of the key themes touched upon during a roundtable discussion at Vogue House, Mayfair, on July 3. Sponsored by Cisco and hosted by WIRED editor Greg Williams, the event brought together several leaders from across the country to map out what genuine digital inclusion should look like.
One attendee defined digital inclusion as giving everyone an equal and fair opportunity to access the country’s digital tools and infrastructure in a meaningful and useful way. But how does that principle translate in different contexts?
A glance at the UK’s productivity map reveals that economic productivity goes hand in hand with the embrace of digital technology. Analysis carried out jointly by Cisco and economists from Oxford Economics found a direct link between technology investment and productivity.
Over the next few months, the impending launch of superfast 5G internet in the UK will present an opportunity to further tear down regional divides. While some of the attendees expressed concern that an uneven roll-out of the technology across the country might have the unintended consequence of entrenching existing disparities, most agreed that 5G has the opportunity to be a game-changer. The new technology could fast-track connectivity in less well-served regions and rural locations, make cities and towns smarter and more productive thanks to IoT applications, and power a connected vehicle revolution.
Still, some of the speakers attending the roundtable discussion pointed out that connectivity by itself is only part of the story. As the Cisco-Oxford study shows, digital tech jobs make up 6.2 per cent of the 50 best performing regions’ workforce, whereas worst-performing areas account for around half of that. While better infrastructure is imperative to change this situation, the question of unequal access to digital skills across various regions also needs addressing.
Some attendees underlined that this is a multifaceted challenge. Barriers to access can be eminently material: young people from less affluent backgrounds, for instance, often cannot afford cutting-edge digital devices, which are of the utmost importance to hone their skills. That has been changing thanks to initiatives backed by organisations that are donating computers to schools across the country, and by a series of government initiatives aiming at bringing digitalisation among pupils (already in 2014, 70 per cent of British schools boasted the presence of tablets in the classroom.) Cisco itself has been spearheading change with the NetAcademy programme, whose aim is improving the digital skills of a quarter of a million UK residents by the end of 2020. But there is still a lot to do to bring more people into the fold: one attendee noticed that up to 700,000 British young people still don’t have access to the internet in their homes.
More fundamentally, it is the very language around technology that ought to evolve. Luckily, that evolution is already underway. Until recently, one attendee said, the British government framed the question in forbidding terms: it would recommend people – young or otherwise – that they needed to simply “acquire digital skills”, a suggestion likely to fall on deaf ears when it came to groups that feel excluded from the technology industry. The framing is now shifting from touting “skills” to explain what sort of benefits and concrete outcomes those skills could lead to. That, one attendee said, is finally widening the digital sector’s appeal. Encouraging evidence of this new mindset’s approach is coming not only from some pioneering schools, but also from courses in digital skills held in prisons, where inmates have displayed a more goal-oriented – rather than tool-oriented – approach to their training as a path to reintegration.
The advent of 5G might thus be an opportunity to embrace that framing at a more general scale. During this paradigm shift institutions such as libraries, schools, universities, and educational organisations will all have the pivotal role of promoting a more comprehensive digital inclusion. As one attendee remarked, the UK’s digital revolution is inevitable – now let’s make sure that its opportunities are accessible for everyone.
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