Innovation to fix the digital divide

As we launch our VocTech Challenge Fund, Helen Milner of Good Things Foundation looks at how projects should tackle the digital divide...

by Helen Milner, Group Chief Executive at Good Things Foundation

We see a lot of talk in politics and in industry about the need for digital skills. The digital future is presented as one fuelled by AI, big data, and machine learning. 

These are exciting innovations – but they mean nothing to those without the very basics. The ‘sexy’ innovations make for eye-catching manifesto pledges, but they don’t help the millions who are being left behind by the digital divide. 14.9 million people have low internet engagement, and 39% of those who are offline are under the age of 60. 

These figures are shocking. And they don’t even tell the whole story. Too often, the digital divide is presented as a binary – either online or offline. But we know that’s not true, and that people of all ages and backgrounds have varying competencies and strengths. 

Meeting the Challenge

I want you to think about how you’ll design solutions that will meet these basic needs. Solutions that engage with local communities and determine what works best for each person. Solutions that will be sustainable – that inspire people to keep learning.

Good Things Foundation has years of experience in delivering digital skills to people out of work. Our program of support uses an end-to-end, embedded approach – where digital inclusion is responsive to individual circumstances, not bolted-on to uninspiring training.

Most of the people we meet don’t come to us asking how to use the internet. They come with specific, situation based needs – like how to respond to engage with a public service that has moved online, how to make a payment, or how to book a GP appointment. Our flagship platform, Learn My Way, is designed around this ethos – meeting people where they are in their digital journey.

When designing tech solutions, I’d encourage you to keep this ethos in mind. Make sure that your ideas can work with people at their level. You should try and frame digital skills solutions around everyday life experiences, rather than seemingly abstract concepts. And take an empathetic approach to digital by embracing co-design.

Empowering people

Your solutions will also have to consider how to empower people. Learning new digital skills can be a frustrating process, particularly with outdated tech where errors can frequently occur. So how can you ensure people stay motivated and eager to learn?

We know from our work that this is particularly common for people who are unemployed or in ‘lower-skilled’ jobs. These are the people who are in greatest need of digital skills support to get them back into the workplace and to adapt to the threat of automation. 

The programs and content you produce will also have to work for people who might have limited access to the internet. Learn My Way is a great example of a program which doesn’t require a significant amount of data to operate. 

These considerations are just the start of what is needed to make digital skills accessible to all. When designing your solutions, you’ll need to think really carefully about whether you’re meeting these points – or whether you’re inadvertently exacerbating the barriers to digital inclusion.

We need innovation from all across the country to fix the digital divide. It’s this creativity, combined with new technological advancements, that will allow us to become a 100% digitally included nation. 

Thinking of applying?

The VocTech Challenge Grant Fund is now open for applications until 30th July 2021. Interested? See if your project fits the bill...