You can’t go a day without hearing another news story about how rapidly-developing technologies are disrupting the way that we live and work. Artificial Intelligence, virtual reality, blockchain, robotics and more constantly frame headlines around the globe.
While some are excited to embrace and explore these new technologies, many around the world - many even in a city near you - are unable to, held back by a lack of means, a lack of access, a lack of understanding, even fear.
The gap in tech literacy is growing, and creating more than a digital divide – it’s rapidly creating a societal one.
Technological literacy used to be a luxury...a hobby domain for the curious and technically-inclined.
When I started my career in tech, many of my software programmer friends were self-taught - building their skills as teenagers by nerding out on the computer at home.
Technology was understood by a relative few, while the rest of us carried on with our comparatively analogue lives. We still walked to the library to find information from a printed encyclopaedia, still paid for items using hand-written cheques that took days to clear, and still waited punctually under the clock at the train stations when we had arranged to meet someone.
Today, the need to understand and use technology is required in almost all walks of life...it affects everyone, and in some cases now is the only means by which we can bank, shop, study and work. The increasing pace of development presents huge opportunity - but also real risk in the widening gap of skills and access. A large portion of the population, often just out of sight for many at the leading edge of these changes, lacks adequate skill and knowledge in the digital and technology space, and the consequences for their lives - and our economies - are real.
Without an accessible and affordable space to upskill and learn about tech, this growing group are at a significant disadvantage which will lead to broader inequalities in income, education and opportunities.
It’s not just about individuals either, the collective foundational technology skills of a nation are what help it to thrive. Smart, tech-savvy people have more potential to become the technology founders and problem solvers of the future, helping to grow the economy which in turn funds education and infrastructure.
So what’s holding people back from increasing their tech confidence and knowledge?
Access: In many regions, access to technology remains a significant barrier. This includes not only hardware but also affordable and reliable internet services.
Education: The educational curriculum at all levels lags behind the latest technological advancements. This leaves our high school and university graduates leaving education underprepared for the modern workforce and embedded with a mindset that learning only happens in a classroom.
Lifelong Learning: An accessible model of lifelong learning is the only way that the everchanging skills required can be obtained, but to do this we have to move away from our classroom in a school environment and towards hybrid/multimedia micro-credentials taught by a diverse range of experts not just those with a teaching degree.
How do we fix it?
There is no one-fix-solves all solution, but there are some things that we can all help to collaboratively build together through public-private partnerships to reduce the digital inequality challenge:
Improve infrastructure: Governments and businesses can collaborate to improve infrastructure, ensuring more widespread access to technology.
Curriculum Overhaul: Integrate technology education more deeply into school curriculums, starting from a young age and including the expertise of technology experts as well as classroom teachers.
Community Initiatives: Fund upskilling workshops in local community centres such as libraries or sports centres to help to provide in-person education that is kinaesthetic and provides physical resources for ongoing education (nothing demystifies virtual reality better than immersing yourself in a theme park simulation by throwing on a VR headset).
Digital Initiatives: Fund public online introduction workshops and free-to-air television shows that are delivered in an accessible/jargon free way to help people to be aware of what’s on the horizon with technology as well as learn about what new technology terms mean and how they can be used (Tomorrow's world might not have been correct in all of their future-of-tech predictions but the mindset of change they created was invaluable).
Corporate Responsibility: Businesses will fall behind unless they invest in training and upskilling their workforce, recognising that a technologically proficient workforce is more innovative and productive. Businesses can also help by donating older hardware such as laptops and tablets to those in the community that might struggle to afford them.
We can’t wait for the Government to fix all of our problems, and we can’t leave it up to businesses to solve it either. The power of community is strong, and if you are reading this then you are in the privileged position to do something to make positive change. Whether it’s volunteering your skills, mentoring or teaching others, or providing technology resources to those who don’t have access or leading hardware donation initiatives in your workplace, think about how you can contribute to closing this gap.
He waka eke noa, we are all in this together – if we work together, we thrive together.
Dr Michelle Dickinson is the co-founder of Nanogirl Labs Ltd, an education company dedicated to helping to empower everyone, everywhere to have a meaningful relationship with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).