Mind the gap: The Risk of Digital Inequality

By Gabriel Leung

A digital economy is central to our post pandemic recovery, but those who lack digital skills or easy access to technology will be left behind.

We are living in a defining moment that will shape the fate of future generations. On the one hand, the pandemic and its economic fallouts uncomfortably exposed existing fractures in global societies, yet on the other, it inspired unprecedented international collaboration and innovation. The steps we take now to shape how we collectively emerge from this crisis will determine whether we are able to do so inclusively, or whether significant portions of society will be left behind, unable to access the opportunities of the digital economy.

Unquestionably, technology played a critical role in the world’s ability to respond so swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic; rolling out telemedicine, remote working and vaccinations in record time. As we watch digital advancements play a critical role in getting us through the crisis, it becomes clear that the world has become ‘digital first’ and the way forward will be in a digital economy. Those who are left digitally disconnected, whether due to lack of infrastructure or digital literacy, will become marginalized and unable to benefit from the evolving advancements and opportunities.

It is certain that we will continue to see significant investments in digital transformation beyond the pandemic. As we build this digital economy, global leaders and technology giants have an opportunity to ensure we address the risk of exacerbating the digital divide and intentionally create a digitally inclusive society that affords everyone access to the latest technology. 

According to The Global Risks Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum, infectious diseases, livelihood crises, extreme weather events, cybersecurity threats and digital inequality are the top five most concerning short term global threats.

It might come as a surprise to see ‘digital inequality’ ranked high on the global agenda, but it makes perfect sense that ‘digital inequality’ is a concerning threat when we consider that those who do not have adequate  digital knowledge or technology access are more prone to being left out and becoming ‘illiterate’ in the 21st century. That is not an acceptable outcome.

As we move through what we hope are the final stages of the pandemic, I see an opportunity to bridge the digital divide in three key areas: connectivity, digital literacy, and access to insights.

Connectivity - the fundamental building block

For people living in urban cities, it’s hard to believe that half the world remains offline. About two-thirds of school-age children, or 1.3 billion children aged 3 to 17 years old worldwide, do not have internet connections in their homes. Children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the most affected, with around 9 in 10 children unconnected.

As COVID-19 swept the globe, forcing school closures, the digital divide has only worsened. We heard stories of students without internet access huddled outside fast food restaurants to continue learning on shared Wi-Fi networks. Companies—including Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)—responded by offering Wi-Fi hotspots in buses, stadium parking lots, and even a passenger ferry.

While effective, these are all temporary solutions. Longer term, we must provide connectivity that is seamless, ubiquitous, affordable and secure. The reason is simple - the lack of internet connectivity doesn’t just limit children and young people’s ability to connect online; it prevents them from competing in the digital economy. It isolates them from the world.

Just as the United Nations pointed out that universal access to electricity is essential for participation in the modern economy, so too is connectivity essential in a ‘digital first’ world. Digital inclusion will require building digital infrastructure and skills that support all organizations, from rural hospitals in Cambodia, to farmers in Indonesia, to schoolchildren in poorly-connected rural areas across the world. This is precisely the reason why HPE is supporting the Smart Africa Alliance.

Digital literacy – the essential skills

Technology and education have long been considered proven channels for economic advancement. But the barriers are increasing. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 60% of adults lacked basic digital knowledge and skills when workplaces and schools suddenly closed due to COVID-19.
The divide in digital literacy in Asia Pacific is particularly distressing. While Singapore enjoys the top spot among ASEAN countries, about 150 million adults in Southeast Asia (SEA) remain unable to access digital technologies. In other words, nearly a third of the SEA population is digitally excluded.

While government and policymakers play a critical role in formulating rules and processes to bridge the divide, businesses, especially technology companies, can directly impact individuals’ digital literacy through upskilling training and STEM programmes. Many countries have already partnered with technology providers—including HPE  - to develop innovative STEM programmes such as Cyber Squad games, which help youths learn computer science in an engaging way and build necessary ‘digital muscles’ to brave this new world.

Critical insights – beyond data

Today we have left the ‘information age’ and are living in the ‘age of insight’. In order to compete and excel in the digital economy, businesses and organizations will need to be able to move beyond simply capturing data, to being able to analyse and draw insights from the vast amounts of data being captured by billions of devices around the world.
Those seeking solutions and breakthroughs in areas like healthcare, climate change, agriculture or food security will require access to and skills to work with advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. To build an equitable global society, these technologies need to more accessible to organizations that are currently too small, underfunded or underequipped to access and benefit from these advancements.

By creating a digitally inclusive world, people and organizations anywhere in the world will be able to make important discoveries in areas like precision medicine, population health, food security, and severe weather events. In a digitally divided world, entire populations could miss insights from medical records, lack critical climate data or suffer from inefficient food systems. The good news is – new business models are enhancing our ability to make the latest technology available to more organizations, regardless of their size or geographic location. By focusing on creating an accessible digital infrastructure, HPE and other tech companies can bring about an equitable age of insight that can ultimately drive solutions to society’s toughest challenges.

Looking ahead, we must first address a stark reality: unless we radically rethink how we make decisions and who benefits from the outcomes, we risk reducing the chances of participation in the digital economy for billions of people. Technology must be applied in meaningful ways for the benefit of all, and it’s time that we make it a reality.

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