Capgemini: how business can help bridge the digital divide

By Aiman Ezzat
Aiman Ezzat, the newly appointed CEO at Capgemini, discusses the ways in which business can help to bridge the digital divide. Access to the internet i...

Aiman Ezzat, the newly appointed CEO at Capgemini, discusses the ways in which business can help to bridge the digital divide.

Access to the internet is rapidly becoming a basic human need, not merely something that is nice to have. Any lingering doubts that we are now as reliant on digital connectivity in our daily lives as we are on established essentials like water, power and heat have surely been eliminated by the experience of lockdown. Even to a tech exec like me, the fact that so many people in so many different countries have been able to do so much online with such ease – work, learn, shop, play, socialize – all without leaving their own homes has been a real eye-opener.

But there is a downside to this demonstration of the undeniable power of the internet – the digital divide. Whether because of cost, local availability or a lack of digital skills, not everyone who wants internet access, has it. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic that digital divide was growing, as the latest findings from the Capgemini Research Institute have highlighted. It’s a divide that crosses geographical, age and social boundaries and flips many common assumptions about who is more likely to be digitally excluded on their heads.

The survey of over 5,000 people across France, Germany, India, Sweden, the UK and the US, found that 69% of the total offline population in those countries lives in poverty, and that the age group with the highest proportion offline is not, as is often assumed, the elderly. On the contrary, it is those aged between 18-36yrs, of whom no less than 43% are digitally excluded, compared to only 16% of those aged over 72. 

I strongly believe that tackling this digital divide should be a global priority as we emerge from the pandemic, and that we as business leaders have a key role to play in bridging the gap – to be good corporate citizens and address the needs not only of employees, customers and shareholders but also of the society in which we operate.

This is because being offline has serious implications that can rebound on everyone, not only those directly affected. It leads to social isolation, with 46% saying they would feel more connected to friends and family if they were online. It limits career mobility (and also employers’ access to talent) - 44% of the digitally excluded believed they would be able to find better jobs online. And it makes it harder for those in greatest need to access government support – only 19% of offline people who were living in poverty had claimed a public benefit in the last 12 months, despite the fact that online access to such services is increasingly the norm. 

Many of the digitally excluded are not offline out of choice – 48% of those without connectivity say they would like to have it. The current crisis, with its sudden emphasis on online access to everything from grocery shopping to education and even health services, has only exacerbated the problem.  

Affordability is clearly a major factor in determining who is online and who is not. 56% of those aged 22-36 who are offline say the cost of devices and 51% the cost of an internet subscription are the reasons they are not online. New developments such as 5G mobile networks should boost competition and improve the affordability of both devices and subscriptions, but we cannot just sit and wait for technology evolutions to solve the problem.  Besides, fear and a lack of confidence are also big causes of digital exclusion – as one 65yr old respondent in France told researchers ‘I’m afraid to use the internet, because I don’t know how to use it.’

A complex and multi-faceted problem like the digital divide requires a collaborative and multi-partner approach. One that involves businesses, the public sector, NGO’s and policy makers coming together in a global community of action. Corporate leaders have lines of communication with all these groups and can be the catalysts in creating just such a global community. At Capgemini we work closely with clients, NGOs, think tanks and public bodies to maximize the impact we can have. 

It’s also important to build real-world digital inclusion programs into your CSR programs, and to revisit those you may already undertake to ensure they are really hitting the mark.  At Capgemini our digital inclusion efforts are focused on four selected areas: boosting digital literacy to empower the digitally excluded, setting up digital academies to help disadvantaged groups gain vital employment skills, technology for positive futures (solving tricky societal problems through new technology) and thought leadership to help us engage more effectively with other digital influencers.

The internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity – the gateway to better economic and career prospects, to welfare and education, and to social and professional networks. Connectivity is the key to post-pandemic prosperity not only for individuals and families but also for wider society and indeed the entire globe.  As business leaders we should be in the forefront of ensuring that everyone, regardless of their age, income bracket or education, has equal access to all those vital online opportunities.


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