Emerging Technologies

Access and skills training: The actions that will help us close the digital divide effectively

The digital divide means half the world's population can only dream of internet connectivity

The digital divide means half the world's population can only dream of internet connectivity Image: Getty Images

Francine Katsoudas
Executive Vice-President and Chief People, Policy and Purpose Officer, Cisco
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Emerging Technologies

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • About 2.6 billion people still lack access to the internet — approximately one-third of the people on Earth.
  • Each of those individuals faces a barrier to the opportunities that connectivity provides.
  • To close the digital divide, connectivity and digital skills training is required, and we have a greater chance of successfully bridging the divide if we take a shared approach to providing access to skills training.

As a leader in technology, I recognize its power to connect people — to each other and opportunities. And that’s often where my attention is focused. But technology is moving faster than people and this acceleration impacts all aspects of our lives.

Increasingly, we pursue our personal, academic, civic and professional lives digitally through tools and interfaces that continue to evolve. For those already connected, this shift brings exciting developments — such as advances in virtual reality, the metaverse and generating content with AI. But for the unconnected, the shift brings increasingly daunting and isolating changes. If we refocus our attention on the needs of people, it becomes clear that the pace of change is leaving some behind and they’re often the most vulnerable groups.

Digital access and skills are and will continue to be fundamental to engaging with our societies, services and an increasingly digital, global economy. They’re no longer just an option for some but a necessity for all.

While some incredible progress has been made in bridging the divide between those who can connect and obtain the skills to participate and those who cannot, our collective efforts continue to miss some groups entirely. To build truly inclusive societies and economies, we must commit to defining success differently — reaching everyone — before the divide becomes a crisis.

One-third of the world

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2.6 billion people — approximately one-third of the people on Earth- still lack access to the internet.

Each of those individuals faces a barrier to the opportunities that connectivity provides. Moreover, the data reflects that connectivity is closely linked with a country’s development. Per the ITU, 93% of people in high-income countries use the Internet, compared with only 27% in low-income countries. Globally, more men than women are connected.

Expanding access would have a transformative impact on individuals and our economies. According to PwC research, global inclusion in the internet could bring 7% of the world’s population above absolute poverty levels and add $6.7 trillion to global economic output. If we fail to connect everyone, we risk exacerbating income inequality and continuing to concentrate opportunity in too few hands.

As a worldwide leader in technology that powers the internet, Cisco has a role in connecting the unconnected. Through our Country Digital Acceleration (CDA) programme, we co-invest and co-innovate with government and private sector leaders to expand access and harness the power of connectivity in global communities. We’re learning what works and what can scale, but we know there isn’t a single solution to ensuring global connectivity. All sectors must come together to do more in this moment.

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Access alone isn’t enough

Connectivity is fundamental, but it’s not the only thing needed to close the digital divide. Digital skills training is the key that unlocks the potential connectivity holds. To enable everyone to engage with our societies, creating opportunities for everyone to gain skills and reskill must be a priority for all sectors and leaders.

At a recent event at a school in Mexico City, an older gentleman in the audience shared about his struggle to access financial services given the rapid transition to tech-first interfaces. The conversation highlighted the critical need for people of all ages to learn digital skills to access services — and simply to function — in this era.

We have a greater chance of successfully bridging the divide if we take a shared approach to providing access to skills training. All organizations that offer digital products and services — across sectors — have an engaged constituency. The people who buy and use our products and services need to have the skills to use them. We'll reach more people across all groups if we all commit to providing these skills to our stakeholders based on our focus areas.

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Digital skills are also vital for an increasingly global economy. World Economic Forum research estimates that half the global labour force may need reskilling over the next two years, and 1.1 billion jobs will be transformed by technology in the coming decade. The demand for workers in networking, cybersecurity and software development continues to grow in all regions, but many organizations and economies struggle to meet it. According to Deloitte, 90% of technology leaders struggle to recruit and retain talent, particularly for high-skill roles. For cybersecurity, in particular, the gap between the workforce we have and the one we need is approximately 3 million workers, according to the World Economic Forum.

Closing the skills gap will benefit companies and societies around the world and open doors of opportunity for many who are disproportionately impacted by economic inequality, such as women, ethnic minorities, seniors and people with disabilities. The potential economic benefit of these efforts is also staggering, according to the World Economic Forum, accelerating progress on education and upskilling could add $8.3 trillion to global GDP by 2030.

Cisco Networking Academy (NetAcad) is one of the longest-standing IT skills-to-jobs programmes worldwide. Since its inception, we’ve trained over 20.5 million learners in 190 countries. Last fall, we announced a new goal: to offer digital and cybersecurity skills to 25 million more global learners over the next 10 years. These efforts are significant, but there’s more all sectors can and must do.

Focusing on people is the way forward

No single entity can close the digital divide. And, with the emergence of AI, technology is again accelerating. This could deepen and accelerate the digital divide if we don’t recognize the urgency of this moment. The private sector, governments, educational institutions, nonprofits and communities all have roles to play. As the pace of technological change increases, we must increase the velocity of our collaboration to meet it, or we’ll leave those without connectivity and skills even further behind.

In my role, I have the opportunity to meet with government leaders around the world and learn about their challenges. Increasingly, these include information and communication technology (ICT) leaders focused on expanding connectivity and skills training for their constituents. At Cisco, we’re exploring new ways to expand online access and the reach of our digital skills curriculum through CDA and NetAcad — with the help of partners.

As we begin the fourth industrial revolution, we’re more interconnected and interdependent than ever, and our needs are clear. Digital access and skills — for all — are fundamental to participating in our societies and economies. We must all remain open to listening, considering new ways to reach people, and continuing to focus on who we’re leaving behind. If we do this, we can close the divide and open opportunities for all.

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