Bridging the digital divide by fostering digital inclusion and economic recovery
If the pandemic has highlighted anything, it is that connectivity is synonymous with a lifeline and an opportunity. The level of connectivity an individual or a household has directly determines the quality of education and health care they receive. This also influences a person’s ability to establish and maintain a livelihood while also obtaining government and other critical services. So what happens to those that aren’t connected, and how much can we expect our economies to grow if equitable access to the internet is not available?
As of today, nearly half of the world remains unconnected. The inability to connect those roughly 3.4 billion people over the next 10 years of the digital age risks the effects of the digital divide becoming unrecoverable. In short, we are running out of time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged governments at the federal, state and local level to entirely re-evaluate their IT needs. Governments have re-imagined the continuity of core functions and delivery of public services while working to implement solutions that could enable new capabilities in digital technology. However, additional progress and objectives must focus on digital inclusion; not just because it is the equitable thing to do, but because inaction from this point forward will dramatically contribute to the widening of the digital divide.
The benefits of bridging the digital divide go beyond social responsibility. There are distinct economic returns attached to getting the unconnected online. As a global society, the ethical and economic dimensions of universal connectivity are not mutually exclusive but complementary.
According to a study conducted by PwC, global internet access could lift half a billion people out of abject poverty, allowing a potential $6.7 trillion contribution to the global economy. If you consider the United States, which has been struggling with an economic slowdown due to COVID-19, but working arduously to return to its profitable pre-COVID economy, getting more Americans online could be a strategy that leads to an increase in contribution capacity to GDPs at the state and national level. Leveraging the resources available through the internet could help lift people off social and government welfare programs, while boosting local economies that have been on a long road to recovery during the pandemic shutdown.
Increased connectivity will also help address the massive gap that exists between available jobs in the digital sector and the number of workers sufficiently trained to occupy them. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report indicates that digitization will displace roughly 75 million jobs in the next few years. At the same time, 133 million new digital jobs will be created. That leaves us in desperate need to not only train and re-skill those millions of displaced workers in areas like cybersecurity, network engineering and IT sales, but to create a steady and sustainable pipeline of talent to fill those additional millions of net new jobs. But in order to re-skill a range of workers at all levels, or to inspire high school students to pursue careers in STEM, we have to take great strides to foster digital inclusion. That is why access needs to be a fundamental baseline of any equitable digital strategy; the workforce of the future depends on it.
Cisco estimates that the world will have 500 billion connected things by 2030. There is a real opportunity to bring a balance through that and allow large populations to equalize in terms of access to online learning, virtual health care and remote work. Industry can certainly take the lead in coordinating these efforts, but the industry can’t do it alone. For example, Cisco has worked with Dallas, as well as the State of Arizona and several local governments in Michigan, to provide Wi-Fi access and cloud security technology to high-need communities in those jurisdictions. The vision and responsibility to move these projects forward rests with principled, action-oriented leadership and a collaboration between government, industry and academia. Investing in a country’s digitization thus requires great participation, but if all elements can work symbiotically then it is possible, and even likely, that we will be able to provide equitable digital access before the point of no return.
Guy Diedrich is Cisco’s global innovation officer.