Both the title and discussion of yesterday’s installment of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit left open the question of the relationship between tech innovation and the digital divide: is the question whether it is possible for the tech sector to both drive innovation and close the digital divide (i.e. are these ambitions at odds with one another)? Or, is it whether tech sector-driven innovations in the UK economy could possibly close the digital divide (i.e. is innovation the answer to inequality)? 

Depending on how one interprets the question, there are two potential debates and two sets of policy recommendations that might emerge from the provocation. The November 17th roundtable was hosted by the APPG PICTFOR and supported by a cross-party group of MPs and the Digital Poverty Alliance. Speakers included MPs from both parties and a representative from Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council, and there were also many contributions from attendees. One of the invited speakers framed the discussion by asking, “what can the tech sector do?” The speaker pointed out that this marked a departure from asking — as is often the case in parliamentary circles — “what can Government do?” 

And it is certainly a critical question. What can the tech sector do? To put it succinctly: arguably, the tech sector has done a lot. And, arguably, it could do a great deal more.

During the pandemic, collaboration between the tech sector, local charities, and Government helped mitigate some of the severe disparities in digital access and skills that were damaging people’s lives. I mentioned a number of these programmes in the blog about #DPIS21 Day 2 on Data Poverty — from device donation schemes to free data packages. Roundtable speakers also brought up the many digital skills bootcamps and apprenticeship programmes spearheaded by companies — Barclays Digital Eagles, Lloyds Bank Academy, Google Garage, and the Amazon apprenticeship scheme. The tech sector is also a major sponsor of digital inclusion initiatives more broadly — from research conducted by charities to afterschool code clubs to APPGs themselves. However, this smattering of fragmented interventions can result in incomplete user journeys, riddled with too many opportunities for vulnerable people to slip through the cracks. Still, it is clear that the tech sector is doing a lot.

It can also do more. One speaker described the “interdependence of innovation and closing the digital divide.” Transformative innovation is contingent on digital and social equity. This means access and accessibility — not just to connections and devices but to the tech sector itself. According to the Wise Campaign, just 16.7 percent of ICT professionals are women. Tech Nation reports that women hold only 22 percent of tech directorships. And a 2017 report by PwC finds that just 3 percent of women say that technology would be their first choice for a career. There is also a 20-point gap between men and women who study STEM in school. These figures point to a societal responsibility across all sectors — and especially those that benefit and create profit from the digital world — to address the systemic inequalities that make the digital world unfair and uncomfortable for many marginalised people and also make it hard for marginalised people to participate in building that world.

Ultimately, there were two questions to address at the roundtable and two resulting categories of themes that emerged:

Driving Innovation

The discussion on innovation centred on education and skills. Industry needs a more digitally capable workforce and stronger tech skills coming out of formal education in order to work in the tech sector. In fact, digital skills are needed across all sectors, with at least 82% of online advertised openings across the UK requiring digital skills and paying around 29% over those that do not. Beyond technical competencies, one speaker pointed out that a future workforce also needs to be adaptable, as the tech landscape changes constantly. 

There were strong resonances in this part of the discussion with themes from the roundtable on capabilities, and the issue of adaptability points to the need for creativity and abstract thinking skills alongside technical competences.

In addition, speakers mentioned the need for diversity in the tech sector, articulating a desire to encourage young people from underrepresented backgrounds to consider tech careers. Not only is the participation of women, non-binary, and BAME individuals critical for to achieve social equality, but their leadership in the sector can also help ensure products and services meet the needs of the whole population. 

However, the conversation stopped short of fully engaging with the question of digital exclusion and the negative feedback loop between digital poverty and employment prospects. The Nominet Digital Youth Index reports that “Tech jobs are least appealing to those most impacted by inadequate tech,” with men and those on higher incomes more likely to consider tech a viable career. Motivation was not mentioned, but it is also key here. A lack of interest in technology or the tech sector can be rooted in many intersectional factors contributing to digital and social exclusion — including negative experiences online like harassment and bullying. According to the same 2017 PwC survey cited above, 83 percent of young women said that they actively look for employers that prioritise diversity, equality, and inclusion.

The discussion highlighted the importance of focusing on the small — local and regional success stories, and the role of small startup companies in the tech ecosystem. Supporting Combined Authorities that drive innovation in their regions as well as small businesses can not only open up opportunities for innovation but also encourage workers to consider working locally and in smaller companies.

Finally, the hunger and need for collaboration across sectors (including Government) and internationally emerged as a prominent theme. The digital economy is a global one, so it will be vital to learn lessons from other countries and build bridges beyond borders at a time when Britain is having to renegotiate its relationship with even its closest economic partners.

Closing the Digital Divide

On closing the digital divide, the roundtable discussion focussed mainly on infrastructure to deliver connectivity. In 2021 it is unacceptable that parts of the UK are entirely without internet connections, particularly in rural areas. Recommendations on this topic included the need for the telecom sector to be completely transparent about where there is market failure (that is, an area that is not commercially viable to connect) so that Government can step in or assist. 

And, as one speaker put it, the policy cannot be “connect and forget.” Connectivity must come with long-term, community-embedded digital and social inclusion in the form of robust digital education in schools and local resources on digital skills.

The rural-urban digital divide is still an important consideration in the UK, where of the roughly 2% of properties in England unable to get even 10 Mbit/s connections, over 50% are rural. Although it did not get a mention at the roundtable, Government initiatives like the Rural Gigabit Voucher programme have helped telecom operators extend coverage to harder-to-reach areas, including small and community-owned internet service providers (ISPs). For the last several years, I have done research in rural communities that are working to get internet connections, and they often face bureaucratic barriers (the process of applying for vouchers requires whole departments for many ISPs) or severe delays (when local councils give a tender to a provider that will not build within the year). Despite infrastructure sharing regulations that allow multiple operators to use existing passive networks, another issue in infrastructure rollout is overbuild, where telecom companies install more infrastructure where it already exists rather than extending infrastructure to new areas. These are important issues at the intersection of the tech sector and Government, which deserve discussion in a forum on the role of industry in closing the digital divide.

There is a tendency for conversations about the tech industry to veer toward what academics call “technological solutionism,” meaning that technology is seen as the answer to social problems. Forums like these throw up an important question, as the tech sector steps up to fill some gaps in digital inclusion: is tech solutionism inevitable when we leave the solutions to the tech sector? Almost in response to this unspoken question, a final big theme from the roundtable was the role of Government. Echoing the first two days of the Summit, discussions pointed to the need for Government to set a clear agenda and to help the tech sector with the kind of social transformation — of education, for instance — needed to address both inclusion and innovation. 

In my view, the conversation skirted some of the most pressing issues in relation to the tech sector’s role and responsibility in relation to the digital divide (which encompasses many more issues of exclusion beyond connectivity alone). For example, there is the issue of technology design — and the need to centre the experiences of disabled users, second-language speakers, the elderly, cognitive diversity, and more. There is also the issue of how the tech sector contributes to deepening disadvantage for some people — through surveillance and risk profiling, for instance. And there is the role of the tech sector in mitigating online harms — including both the content people access online but also how their data is extracted and repurposed. 

Of course, the tech sector is a broad category that could conceivably include everything from online platforms or telecom companies to hardware manufacturers or infrastructure suppliers. It is a challenge to unpack the role of such a diverse sector, let alone in a single roundtable. By the end of the discussion, though, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: technology is likely part of the solution to the digital divide, but it is certainly not all of it. 

“We all want to help,” said the final speaker, an attendee representing a tech SME. There is an unmistakable drive within the tech sector to close the digital divide and end digital poverty; we need a collaborative and critical cross-sector community to accomplish it. This is a space that the Digital Poverty Alliance hopes to occupy, as a convenor of dialogue and collaborations. As a member of the Digital Poverty Alliance community, I see these roundtables as crucial starting points for updating the agenda around digital poverty, and the recommendations and gaps that emerge will inform the UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022. 

Read the interim evidence review here.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG PICTFOR, in collaboration with the APPG Digital Skills, APPG Data Poverty and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.