Not everyone is equally connected, now what?

This article is about how the pandemic has thrown the digital divide into the spotlight, and how brands can become more relevant by bridging this gap.

Due to the pandemic, many of our activities have moved online. People spend four hours more online on a daily basis compared to pre-pandemic. That being said, worldwide 3.7 billion people can’t access the internet. In the U.S. for instance 16% are digitally illiterate. How does the shift to online, impact people who can’t access the internet? And what role can brands play in this to become more relevant?

The digital divide, divides society even more
Technology touches almost all basic facets in modern life, from work to healthcare to education. It’s no surprise that the digital divide – the gap between individuals who have access to modern information and communication technology and those who lack access – is reinforcing the existing social inequality.
Marginalized communities are most likely to be affected by the digital divide. This is due to poverty, low literacy, a lack of digital skills, some problems with speaking and reading the official language and homelessness. Illustrative for how the digital divide is reinforcing social inequality is a recent study among students in the U.S. Researchers found that 36% of low-income students couldn’t complete their schoolwork as they didn’t have a computer compared to 14% of middle-income and 4% of upper-income students. The impact has been significant and, due to the transition to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic, continues to be even worse. Healthcare is another area in which this problem becomes clear. A lack of understanding on how to use the internet and access certain websites impacted the vaccine rollout, It created a barrier for those communities that have been harder hit by the pandemic. Hopefully the roll-out of the upcoming digital vaccine passport will be less troublesome.

The need for inclusive digital environments and digital skills
The digital divide will soon no longer be a problem associated with not having physical internet access. Within two decades, about 75-80% of the world’s population will have internet access. The biggest challenge lies in the digital skill set that’s needed to experience all the perks of being online. Currently digital innovations support mainly young people, people with high education and occupations, males, ethnic majorities and people living in an urban environment in developed countries. Whereas the elderly, people with low education and low occupations, females, ethnic minorities, people in rural environments and in developing countries are experiencing less advantages from all the digital innovations.

How brands can become relevant by bridging the gap
The digital divide could be an opportunity for brands to make a positive impact and build (or rebuild) trust. Digital inequality is of a relative kind (more or less) and not absolute (have or have not), therefore the role brands can play in this mostly comes down to these two points:

1. Build an inclusive online environment
Microsoft is a good example of how brands can build towards an inclusive online environment. Their inclusive toolkit is an open source used by different universities and brands. These guidelines are the result of hundreds of hours of research and conversations and provide a great starting point with practical tips and learnings for everyone that wants to create inclusive design. Another example is BOLO – the first banking app for illiterate people. With a voice-enabled payments solution, it helps illiterate people handle banking operations using nothing but pictures and voice commands.

2. Train people to become more digital savvy
Candoo Tech provides tech support and training to help the elderly feel more comfortable with digital devices. Another inspiring example is the telecom provider O2. During lockdown, they asked people to donate their old phones to someone in need. All you had to do was send your old phone and they made sure it was delivered to the right person who was provided with free data and digital skills training.

The digital divide is an urgent matter calling for brands to empower people to get ahead in life and as such, to be truly relevant.