Economic and social participation depend on digital inclusion

| February 7, 2020

“The benefits of the digital economy cannot be shared when some members of the community are still facing real barriers to online participation” – Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019

The recent GAP economic summit highlighted that lifelong learning is essential to assure Australia’s future.

The concept of lifelong learning usually focuses on the goal of supporting all citizens to be fully equipped ‘agents’ capable of an uninterrupted economic contribution in a changing world.

Related topics such as “the future of work” and “the evolution of work” are frequently intertwined with the term “lifelong learning”.

It is clear that lifelong learning is essential for continued and effective workforce participation in economies that are being disrupted by technology at what appears to be warp speed.

This however obscures the fact that lifelong learning is also essential to assure continued, full participation of citizens in our increasingly digitised society.

This introduces the notion of ‘digital inclusion’ as measure of the extent to which a person is able to fully participate in a digitised world.

Digital inclusiveness covers the human factors such as intellectual and physical capacity and having the requisite basic ‘technology’ skills, as well as access issues that relate to both the availability of technology (hardware, software and networking) and its affordability.

No one should for a moment believe that Australia has a digitally egalitarian society. A large group of ‘have nots’ remain.

Australian digital inclusion

To understand the scope of the challenge facing us, I commend to readers the latest Australian Digital Inclusion Index report.

The 2019 study notes that: “[a]cross the nation, digital inclusion follows some clear economic and social contours. In general, Australians with low levels of income, education, and employment are significantly less digitally included.

There is consequently a substantial digital divide between richer and poorer Australians. In 2019, people in Q5 low-income households have a digital inclusion score of 43.3, which is 30.5 points lower than those in Q1 high-income households (73.8).

Although this gap has narrowed by 0.4 points since 2018, it remains at the same level as recorded in 2014 (30.5). Since 2014 the gap between employed Australians and those not in the labour force (NILF) has widened from 12.6 points in 2014 to 13.1 points in 2019.

Bridging the divide

The efforts to narrow the gaps by organisations such as Infoxchange and groups such as the Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance have delivered excellent results but not at scale.

These initiatives have relied heavily upon funding by large corporates. The absence of significant state and federal government funding for such initiatives is noticeable and somewhat baffling.

If we are to achieve our society’s full potential as envisaged by the work of the GAP Task Force, we must ramp up Australia’s digital inclusiveness, not only because it is the moral thing to be doing, but also because without it, we do not have the basic hygiene or foundational starting point for lifelong learning.