Editor's Note: Stuart Meadley and Alex Stock contributed to this report. This article series is sponsored by DXC Technology and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Our society and economy are built on connections and relationships. Digital technology provides the possibility of a truly inclusive society, supporting the greatest number of participants, with services and quality of life never before possible.
However, this future may be unreachable for many vulnerable or forgotten members of society. People unable to engage with the modern world have less access to services and a lower quality of life. People unable to engage with the Digital Economy are less able to participate through, for example, buying and selling goods, applying for jobs, and accessing government and health services. Thus, digital inclusivity is critical to the success of our society and economy.
Digital inclusion is about family: both our family by blood—our parents and our children—and our metaphorical family, the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. As the Disney movie Lilo & Stitch (2002) teaches us: “Family means no one gets left behind.”
If we are true to our goal of leaving no one behind, we can meet the needs of individuals and communities through a caring society and a thriving economy.
On the flip side, not considering your audience and their digital capability may cause your organization to miss potential markets and increase the cost of servicing your clients or citizens.
Who are the digitally forgotten?
The digitally forgotten are those who are excluded from our modern society because they lack the necessary digital skills or literacy. They include the elderly, who may prefer to talk to a human rather than visit a website. They include the disabled, who may have difficulty reading a screen or using a mobile device. They include the neurodiverse, who may have difficulty using a social network. They include those living in remote areas, who can’t access the technology and bandwidth that many of us take for granted. And one day, as your body ages and technology becomes omnipresent, the digitally forgotten may include you.
We are all vulnerable to being left behind by the progress of technology—unable to access the increasingly digital services and information we need to function.
The digitally forgotten are already poorly catered for, and are often left out of policy and design decisions. However, this group has the most potential to benefit from technology. The digitally forgotten should therefore be the core consideration for, and the litmus test of, a truly digitally inclusive society.
For example, examining the challenges faced by the elderly is enlightening, because:
- We will all be old one day and will face similar challenges;
- Many of their challenges are also faced by other disadvantaged members of society, such as those with a disability;
- Many of us will be, or already are, caring for elderly members of our family or community; and
- The elderly represent both a significant proportion of the digitally forgotten and of the population as a whole.
According to United Nations reports, the elderly cohort (those aged 60 years or over) is growing faster than all other age groups. In 2017, the elderly made up 14 percent of the world population (962 million), while in 2050, they are expected to make up 24.1 percent of the population (2.1 billion). We need to consider who our current and future digital audiences are and what digital accommodations they need.
Further, 6 percent of the population was blind or visually impaired in 2015, according to a study published in the journal The Lancet. The World Health Organization reports that in 2019, 5 percent of the population is hearing impaired. These numbers will only grow as we live longer.
Other digitally forgotten groups include:
- People without a digital education for reasons of inadequate schooling or forced displacement
- People without access to technology, such as those living in rural and remote areas
- People with physical, intellectual or sensory disabilities.
Digital services that can be overlooked
Organizational services: Businesses and organizations are constantly adopting the latest technologies to compete in an aggressive marketplace, to provide better services at more affordable prices, and to protect themselves from increasingly sophisticated cybercrime. Governments need to provide better, cost-effective, convenient and expanded services to their constituents for lodging tax returns, paying parking fines and accessing information.
Vulnerable and less technologically-savvy individuals and populations can be very easily overlooked through speed-to-delivery digital products and services. Simple accessibility accommodations that might be overlooked include:
- Enabling text-to-voice on websites and documents
- Scalable fonts
- Providing documents in multiple formats
- Using clear language
- Simple, understandable security processes
Do you incorporate accessibility from the design phase, or just as an after-thought during testing? If it's the latter, you may want to reconsider how your organization deploys technology to avoid leaving people behind.
Cybersecurity: A large volume of day-to-day transactions take place online, including paying bills, booking flights and banking. Through the drive to create more flexible products and reduce costs, many organizations—including government agencies and financial institutions—expect their clients to divulge personal details to verify their identities. Unfortunately, this makes them more vulnerable to scammers and cyber criminals.
Elder fraud, as it is known, has a huge impact on society, including the health and wellbeing of the elderly and implications for their families and communities. A 2015 True Link Financial study found that the elderly lose over US$12 billion each year to criminal fraud, much of which is digitally enabled. This figure is based on reported incidents, and some claim the actual loss could be three times as high.
The True Link Financial report estimated that 954,000 seniors are forced to skip meals as a result of financial abuse, while a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis study found that 1 in 18 cognitively intact, community-dwelling older adults (in the U.S.) is subject to fraud each year. But it's not only the elderly who are vulnerable: The same research indicates that young people are equally likely to get scammed, and Cifas reports the number of identity fraud victims who are under 21 reached a new peak, increasing by 24 percent in 2018.
Technology has enabled these problems, and it could help to solve them. Organizations need to consider how they provide education and security to those who are vulnerable and at risk of being forgotten.
Employment: Employment is a big part of participating in society, and the share of job vacancies advertised online is steadily increasing. In Australia, online job vacancies have risen from 45 percent in 2012-13 to 60 percent in 2016-17. Digital inclusion in recruitment processes is critical to accessing the best available talent. If we exclude digitally forgotten segments of society, the consequences include unemployment and associated social issues, such as crime and domestic violence.
The gig economy can provide the digitally forgotten with the opportunity to work by offering greater flexibly in time and place of work. This could be particularly beneficial for stay-at-home parents, people with disabilities and the elderly. It also provides opportunities for unskilled workers and people without formal qualifications. In the U.S., the gig economy contributes 1.07 billion work hours per year.
Again, the elderly are not the only disadvantaged group in this field of digital employment. Companies and recruitment houses often use pre-interview video applications to review and short-list applicants. This disadvantages some indigenous applicants, for example, who may not want to appear on camera for cultural reasons. The neurodiverse may be disadvantaged if they don’t perform well on camera. In short: Video applications can encourage self-deselection by possible candidates, who may otherwise have a lot to contribute to your organization.
On the other hand, electronic applications may help some disadvantaged groups. Candidates with mobility limitations can apply from their homes. Those with social or cognitive challenges may perform better in an electronic application than a face-to-face interview. Ask yourself: Is your business inadvertently de-selecting valuable applicants by requiring face-to-face, question-answer based interviews? Digitally inclusive recruitment options could significantly advance your capability and innovation.
Our company, DXC Technology, works with people on the autism spectrum, so we are aware of the needs of people on the spectrum and the flexibility and accommodations that they require in the workplace. We cater for people with light or sound sensitivities; who struggle in social settings; who require consistent and logical business processes; who struggle with executive functioning; and who are not familiar with common idioms. How are organizations considering technology to support these people in their development? In designing your physical (and virtual) team spaces, are you able to accommodate these sensitivities?
There is indisputable evidence that we don’t all learn the same way. Amongst the autism community, and the community at large, there are people who best learn kinaesthetically, visually, aurally or by reading. Yet many organizations offer only online training, via videos or reading materials. Those clients and employees who have difficulty learning online will struggle to understand and develop in this environment. Ask yourself: Does your organization consider different learning styles when you create training content? Do you provide multiple channels and formats? Online universities are embracing the digital, offering a range of courses, but here too, we need to consider digital inclusion for accessibility and diverse learning styles.
Inclusion by location: There are many places where cutting-edge technology would be beneficial, but where it is too difficult to provide and maintain. In countries where most of the population lives in cities, rural infrastructure development struggles to reach critical mass. This impacts both indigenous and non-indigenous populations. Just getting reliable Internet services is a challenge in many regional areas, let alone remote communities.
Rural communities' lack of infrastructure and technical literacy are significant barriers to accessing basic services such as weather forecasts, news, communication and health services. This excludes people from our digital journey.
Technology allows people with differing abilities to remain in their homes, rather than moving to care facilities. To ensure that rural communities don’t become part of the digitally forgotten, governments need to provide these communities with the infrastructure necessary to participate in the digital world.
Who is responsible for digital inclusion?
We are all responsible for planning a digitally inclusive future. Government and private-sector providers have a particular responsibility, as their decisions impact clients’ quality of life. If a person can’t use an organization’s digital platform, he or she will use higher-cost channels, such as phone calls and physical shopfronts. Thus, service providers have an interest in providing digital engagement options that are inclusive and flexible. In some cases, the old-school way might remain necessary for some time to come, albeit for an ever-decreasing number of clients.
From a social perspective, governments and industry need to invest and collaborate better to do more to address mental health matters associated with digital-related addictions including gambling, sex and pornography, gaming and social media.
Collectively, we must support our digitally forgotten citizens and provide adequate opportunities for them to adjust to a digital future. We can also support carers of the digitally forgotten. Some examples of this could be more flexible and secure means for carers to do things like order groceries, liaise with phone or utility companies, or deal with financial institutions on behalf of others.
At the crux of this is understanding the needs of the digitally forgotten and including them from the outset when designing services and systems. Digital inclusion isn’t just about some naïve vision of a future utopia. Though altruism may be involved, it is also about self-interest: addressing our own needs, and those of our loved ones.
Now is the time to cultivate digital inclusivity and to foster continual learning, awareness of our interdependence and positive engagement between all participants. We can improve physical and mental health at individual, community and societal levels. To achieve this, we need to develop a social, ecological and technological environment for our children to inherit—and a world where everyone can thrive. Now is the only time we can plan for this future. So, what is your digital inclusion plan?
Stuart Meadley is a Team Lead and the Technical Platform Manager for the DXC Dandelion Program, and Facilitator of the DXC Social Impact Practice Indigenous Program Workgroup, with a background in information management, and interests in community engagement.
Alex Stock is an experienced IT professional, and graduate of the Dandelion Program. He works as a Test Analyst at DXC, and is a member of the DXC Social Impact Practice Indigenous Program Workgroup. Alex has an interest in advocating for vulnerable members of society.
Michael Fieldhouse is the Leader of Social Impact Practice at DXC Technology, and Director of the DXC Dandelion Program, an initiative to build valuable Information Technology, life, and executive functioning skills to help establish careers for people on the autism spectrum.