Why digital skills are essential for an inclusive and sustainable society
By Victoria Johnson, Digital Impact and Sustainability Campaigns and Engagement Director, BT Group
The Covid-19 pandemic led to a leap in digitalisation with the Lloyds Bank UK consumer digital index 2021 report – which takes an annual snapshot of digital skills in the UK – suggesting that there are 1.5 million more people now using the internet since the start of the outbreak. Whilst this means that 95 per cent of people are now ‘online’, up from 92 per cent pre-pandemic, it also highlights that five per cent are not online, putting them at greater risk of being excluded from day-to-day services and activities. The same report also highlights the value of local support to help people build their digital skills and confidence. In fact, 67% of people surveyed said they would improve their digital skills if they knew local support was available.
This week, we celebrate Get Online Week - the annual national campaign delivered by Good Things Foundation, the UK’s leading digital inclusion charity. Now is a great time to reflect on the issue at hand and how championing digital skills is essential to ultimately create a more inclusive and more sustainable society.
Lack of digital skills is an issue that spans both generations and socio-economic groups.
Conversations around digital inclusion tend to focus on older people as they struggle to get online. The Ageing Better’s State of Ageing 2022 report demonstrated this, highlighting the surprising fact that over three million people aged 55 and over have never been online. Lack of digital skills can also affect others – including people who face wider challenges around poverty, education or disability – and people who have the means but lack the support and encouragement.
There is also the challenge, when tackling an issue such as digital skills, that there is such a broad range of skills required. From those starting at the basic level of turning on the laptop to more intermediate skills such as sending an email or catching up with friends on Zoom.
But failure to act as we move further and further into a digital world risks putting more and more people at becoming isolated from society. An example that illustrates just how pressing this issue has become is how critical digital skills are to accessing health services today. The shift to digital was catalysed by the pandemic but will likely remain a necessity moving forwards. Worrying statistics from research by Opinion Matters on behalf of BT Group that found that almost half (45 per cent) of those in the UK have either struggled, or know someone who has struggled, to access NHS health services using apps or online tools since the start of the pandemic. These services are absolutely vital as we enter the winter months, especially for older people and more vulnerable groups, so we need to ensure that everyone has the knowledge, skills and confidence to use them.
Sustaining a developing society
Without greater inclusion, we also run the risk of reverting backwards on the growth and development we have seen to date. The aforementioned prospect of digital automation is becoming a greater part of our lives, and if we do not support further people to get to grips with it, the only solution is to go back to our old ways. This also then has a knock-on effect across industries who depend on these systems, a worrying thought given that businesses are already seeing a huge gap in talent that are proficient in digital skills. Good Things Foundation set up Get Online Week 14 years ago - and it is even more relevant and important today, with 10 million adults lacking the most basic digital skills needed for everyday life. Helen Milner OBE, Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation, commented “We invite everyone to #TryOneThing this Get Online Week to develop your digital skills. We want everyone to feel able and safe online, and have the internet access they need. Fixing the digital divide has never been more important or urgent.”
Bridging the Gap
While bridging the digital skills gap will take a multi-pronged, joined up approach across the technology value chain, one of the quickest and easiest solutions we can put in place is making information accessible to those most in need of it. Organisations such as Good Things Foundation - with its free resources like Learn My Way and the National Databank - offer valuable support to charities and local organisations across the country working to close the digital divide.
At BT Group, we are committed to supporting the nation to improve their digital skills. To date, we have reached 14.7m people with help to improve their digital skills, including supporting SMEs, jobseekers, empowering young people to get PhoneSmart and tackling online hate with Hope United.