November 2017

A watershed moment for the UK’s digital inclusion agenda?

13 Nov 2017

Chris Ashworth

Chris is Programme Director at Nominet Trust. He leads the research, design, implementation and evaluation of the Trust’s portfolio of investments tackling specific social challenges, including reducing the effects of disadvantage and vulnerability in young people’s lives.


This article originally appeared on the Observatory for a Connected Society , powered by Corsham Institute and RAND Europe.


The world of tech loves to predict future trends. I and many others will avidly consume the prophecies of global strategists and tech evangelists on what will come to pass as our digital future unfolds. Whether it is the emerging technology of the next 12 months or the mega-trends of the future, it’s compulsive, healthy and a very necessary exercise, critical in the never-ending search for competitive advantage and economic wellbeing. However, there is a growing community of interest concerned with a different agenda: digital inclusion. This is not just a digital agenda, but an important social and economic one: in 2017, nine percent of the UK adult population is still offline and 11.5m adults have no basic digital skills. For those of us working in this area, anticipating and preparing for the future is just as important as it is for those immersed in predicting tech trends.

So, in that same spirit, what might the crystal ball show us in the digital inclusion agenda over the next five years? At the heart of the predictions I make below is a sense that we are on the cusp of a watershed moment where our approach needs to respond to a very different landscape. Looking at the Lloyds Consumer Digital Index over the last few years, trends and patterns are emerging that suggest self-motivated individuals in the UK who are open to exploring the benefits of digital technology are already on their journey. But, for those on the other side of the digital divide, the attitudes, beliefs and lived experiences are markedly different.


1. We’ll be concentrating on the pixels rather than the picture

In relative terms, the concept of digital inclusion – at barely 15 years old – is in its infancy when compared with other social challenges. So we should actively learn lessons from other areas that have battled through their own phases of evolution – be it mental health, homelessness or social inequality – and look at how their structures and systems evolved and converged. We’re then much better placed to accelerate towards a situation where every intervention or initiative is building on and learning from the last.

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In practice, this means that over the coming five years we should expect to see increasing depth and granularity in the research around digital inclusion – with initiatives and funding acting on that evidence. Looking more deeply into the research, gleaning insights about what works and what doesn’t, and anticipating the changing patterns of those experiencing digital exclusion means we’re starting to examine the pixels that make up the picture and approaching digital exclusion with an action research mindset.

The underlying factors preventing the development of digital skills by, say, a young adult who might be transitioning from the care system, and who might have weak or precarious relationships with support networks and local provisions, are far removed from the challenges facing an older person, retired in rural Scotland. Both are considered “digitally excluded”. But are we using that knowledge to improve our approaches, the models we fund and the initiatives we champion? We’re starting to emerge from a situation where a singular, sometimes far too simple diagnosis of digital exclusion dominates and instead embracing adaptive approaches.

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2. User-centred design dominates, standard solutions decline

The characteristics and experiences of the individuals who now make up the majority of those who are not digitally included are markedly different from those in the past. Moving to a user-centric approach now, before the efforts of the past become less productive, is essential.

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As a social issue, digital exclusion is the symptom of a web of underlying factors. It has downstream effects that further exacerbate social isolation, but it exists because of a range of preceding factors, influences and events in people’s lives – all different, and every situation unique. There’s a growing appreciation of this through our work at Nominet Trust, ( https://www.nominettrust.org.uk/blog/digital-reach-making-headway/ ) by Good Things Foundation (https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/) and by Carnegie UK Trust (https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/digitalworld/ ) of these forces. We’re examining not just that someone is digitally excluded – but the most important question of all – why? We’re now starting with a deeper appreciation of the problems that have conspired to create some form of digital isolation for the individual, rather than just trying to define their digital needs. Programmes and initiatives that put the people at the heart of their thinking will be those that are more likely to succeed in the future. We can learn from the tech sector itself here: agile, user-centred design approaches should become far more prominent in the delivery of digital inclusion programmes.

 

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3. The changing face of the community of practice

If the first two predictions are right, and we do see a greater emphasis on the underlying issues together with a more nuanced granular appreciation of digital exclusion, then we should also see changes to the breadth and skills of the actors involved in the structures that support and lead in this space.

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There are relatively few social research professionals and voluntary sector organisations leading or even engaged in the conversation compared to the relatively higher number of tech sector professionals and CSR specialists. If more of the sharp minds and experience of the professionals in these fields are joined up, it would add immense value. They will bring deep understanding of how to provide support to people who face multiple but very different forms of disadvantage or exclusion. So, it might be through introducing systems-based thinking, transferring or augmenting research and evidence-based models from other social issues, or challenging and disrupting current orthodox approaches – whatever emerges, it will add welcome insights, critical thinking and challenge to our community.

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4. The divergence of digital skills and digital inclusion

It’s common to use digital skills and digital inclusion in the same breath, seeing them in various models and frameworks as part of an overarching continuous spectrum. Segments of the population can be plotted, linear pathways assumed where an individual will progress from benign to basic, general and so on. But over the coming years we are likely to see a clearer distinction between the concepts of ‘digital skills’ and of ‘digital inclusion’.

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But with this separation comes diverging interests, investment and funding. ‘Digital skills’ has an economic and commercial imperative where long-term growth and profitability relies on ready access to affordable talent. This in turn creates the need to invest in, and collaborate on, digital skills initiatives. Conversely ‘digital inclusion’ is increasingly allied to having a social imperative and social cost. As such, it may become much harder to access the same type and level of funding – and the same degree of interest – compared to that of digital skills. It’s a real issue: digital inclusion has not yet made it onto the radar of traditional philanthropic sources, with many of the usual funding channels not having a deep enough understanding themselves of what ‘digital’ means. We have a collective duty to ensure support for digital inclusion doesn’t fall by the wayside as digital skills investment grows.

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5. New models – ‘digital by default’ takes on a new meaning

Efforts to support people acquiring greater digital understanding have tended so far to follow a pattern, taking on an accepted approach that is then iterated upon and improved. That approach has been to focus on and emphasise ‘digital’. Put simply: to train people to have basic digital skills.

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On the face of it, it seems to make unquestionable common sense. But when one steps back and looks at how people acquire any number of skills, competencies and capabilities, then the input and outcome aren’t necessarily so neatly packaged and linear.

When it comes to digital disposition, whether it was through learning at school on tablets, in the workplace through trial and error on Office, or at home with our first smartphone, most of us have acquired our own basic capability – without ‘digital’ being the purpose for its own sake.

This is where win-win initiatives and innovation may find more traction over the coming years. The gamification of reading, writing and arithmetic has existed long before digital products and services entered the classroom but are starting now to be considered valid approaches to this area. Similar principles are being trialled and tested in digital inclusion; our own pilot programme with Action for Children (https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/ in Scotland is examining how basic digital skills can be acquired through assimilation in employability programmes for vulnerable young adults. Another example is Lloyds Bank’s work exploring digital and financial inclusion together. If we focus on outcomes and users, rather than just inputs, innovative approaches are out there Moreover, they will often provide individuals with a more rewarding, relevant and important outcome that they value – particularly if we are to acknowledge that 68% of those offline state that nothing is currently providing them with a motive to go online.

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Predicting the future

What digital inclusion has in common with tech trend-spotting is that no one really knows how things are set to evolve. We can, however, use the insights we’ve already accumulated to shape our decisions in the future. I hope this piece has been successful in its objective to support – maybe even challenge – the thinking, actions and initiatives we’re pursuing so that we continue to collaborate and put every individual in the UK at the centre of their own digital journey.