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This is how to counter the global digital divide

Digital divide: Digital inclusion can transform people’s lives by providing the knowledge, tools, and infrastructure to go online and benefit from the digital economy.

The digital divide persists. This is how to fix it. Image:  John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Vaishali Rastogi
Global Leader, Technology, Media and Telecommunications Practice, Boston Consulting Group
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Digital Inclusion

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The digital divide persists with 2.9 billion people lacking opportunities to go online and engage purposefully with the digital economy, meaning they face a worsening cycle of disenfranchisement.
  • Digital inclusion can transform people’s lives by providing the knowledge, tools, and infrastructure to go online and benefit from the digital economy.
  • The Digital Inclusion Navigator, sponsored by the EDISON Alliance, is designed to tackle shortfalls in access to affordable online technology and participation in the digital economy.

Countering the global digital divide is an increasingly urgent imperative because several essential aspects of everyday life – including banking, health care, education, media, communications and even identity – depend on access to digital tools and technologies. Connectivity has become a conduit to information, communication, education and societal wellbeing. People who lack opportunities to go online and engage purposefully with the digital economy face a worsening cycle of disenfranchisement.

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Unfortunately, that’s a lot of people. Despite some improvement in recent years, a third of the world’s population (some 2.9 billion people) suffers from the digital divide – even though 95% of the world’s population resides within range of a mobile broadband network. Despite that, limited device availability, combined with a lack of digital know-how and skills, impedes efforts to get more people online, particularly in rural areas. (The share of internet users in cities is twice as high as in the countryside.) Further, only 53% of the world’s population has access to high-speed broadband. Lower connection speeds inhibit participation in virtual activities and force households to make compromises on how to use their limited bandwidth.

Overcoming the digital divide

Recognizing the need to act, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) partnered with the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to create a platform that will give public- and private-sector policymakers and analysts, NGOs, and regulators easy access to curated facts, figures, research, databanks and case studies pertaining to digital inclusion.

This project, the Digital Inclusion Navigator, is sponsored by the EDISON Alliance, a 47-member group of governments, companies and global organizations established to tackle shortfalls in access to affordable online technology and participation in the digital economy around the world.

digital divide
A third of the world’s population (some 2.9 billion people) suffers from the digital divide. Image: Statista

Likewise, the Navigator was developed to overcome the impediments standing in the way of cohesive global action targeting digital inclusion – namely, the lack of collaboration and the abundance of redundancy among organizations focused on the issue. Although numerous organizations are working on the problem, reliable information is often siloed, scattered across thousands of separate platforms and websites. Consequently, it takes hours to sift through the data. And while best practices continually evolve, few organizations learn about these insights in time to adapt them to local scenarios and to develop real learning and scaling.

The Navigator contains a high-quality search engine that accesses a curated content library, constantly updated from a wide range of trusted sources. The goal is for users to have close to real-time access to a large stable of digital inclusion narratives, lessons learned, and advances and innovations everywhere, giving users the chance to explore and try out approaches that would fit their unique circumstances.

Working closely with the Forum and UNDP since the project’s inception, in early 2021, BCG helped to develop the concept and to build the Navigator. Over the course of the year, a global team of BCG consultants helped draw up the Navigator’s concept and vision, produced a minimum viable product, and ran a series of beta tests to gain end-user feedback from policymakers and others around the world.

The Navigator is live and available for use. Wider exposure and use will strengthen the tool, making it an even more effective platform for addressing the digital divide.

An inclusive future for everyone

BCG strongly believes that digital inclusion is a pivotal area given that more and more aspects of life require connectivity. We are committed to the idea that improving social and economic conditions globally is an unequivocal responsibility of all stakeholders across the public and private sectors. In fact, we built our total societal impact (TSI) perspective around this concept. TSI aligns company performance and profits alongside the role of business in society and in addressing critical challenges such as economic inclusion.

Digital inclusion can transform people’s lives by providing the knowledge, tools and infrastructure to go online and benefit from the digital economy. This would accelerate development for the most vulnerable communities, advance sharing of ideas across boundaries, and engage more people as active participants in local economic and social opportunities.

We believe that these gains are inherently valuable to all stakeholders and that they dovetail with long-term public- and private-sector aspirations.

Beyond the digital divide: The journey ahead

In many ways, the Navigator is a crucial first step in the ambitious goals of the EDISON Alliance. Our hope is that this platform will bring together and motivate policymakers, business leaders, and global organizations to access insights and experiences about digital inclusion and engage with the EDISON Alliance and its initiatives. Indeed, we hope that stakeholders will share their own insights and experiences. This will lead to better collaboration, open dialogue and targeted programmes to address and bridge the digital divide.

The progress of the Navigator and the Alliance toward these goals will be easy to measure. We have a third of the world left to be digitally included.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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