The UK government’s plans for “levelling up” have, justifiably, come in for criticism. Nice rhetoric, but where’s the delivery? Fair comment. But for the tech community, attempts at digital levelling up have been around for a lot longer, and the same critique could easily be applied.
A recent report found that 11.8 million people in the UK workforce lack the essential digital skills for work. In London – pitched internationally as a global centre for tech investment – around 270,000 people remain completely offline, and around two million have a device but cannot get online or use online services. A first-of-its-kind report last month from the Digital Poverty Alliance found that the scale of connectivity, skills and access issues all play a crucial role in exacerbating existing inequalities and social divisions.
And yet – not unlike efforts to bring more women into the tech sector that have failed to shift the needle – none of this is new. Over many years there have been campaigns and programmes and all sorts of initiatives, backed by private money and government support, aiming to address this digital divide.
The current government is aware of this. Digital minister Chris Philp told Computer Weekly recently that there is a “very explicit focus” on these types of issues. His many predecessors would – and often did – say similar things.
There are numerous examples of how digital access exacerbates the poverty trap. Online users of energy typically get cheaper tariffs than those offline or using pre-pay meters. Many high street products can be bought more cheaply online than in stores. E-commerce algorithms build profiles of customers in order to better target special offers and promotions. It’s an issue that underpins much of what’s happening in the digital economy. Here’s a topical example:
The government’s latest attempts to develop a digital identity system are – rightly – placing emphasis on making sure any new tools do not exclude people with minimal digital footprint (a notable failure of the previous Verify system). But talk to players on the supply side of digital ID, and there’s a sense of frustration that developments don’t target the “easy” users first, and then worry about the “difficult” issues of inclusivity after getting the basics in place. It’s an argument likely to be played out in many different areas of the digital world.
Ultimately, it’s a question of priorities. The tech sector wants its products in as many hands as possible, as soon as possible – and worries about the consequences later. Campaigners insist that digital inclusion should be a fundamental part of product development – as much as security. The levelling up potential from tech is enormous – and the digital community needs to make this a priority.