Bridging digital divides: a framework for digital cooperation

PROJECT OVERVIEW: Report investigating digital divides as complex socio-economic phenomena. It proposes a framework for multi-stakeholder collaborations for bridging the divides. A 2019 collaboration with Digital Future Society think tank. Date of publication: April 2020.

MY ROLE: Digital Divides expert group member and report co-author.

WHY IT MATTERS: Digital divides are also a “first world problem”. The report makes the case for going beyond the traditional approach of providing access to ICTs and the internet in areas lagging in digitalisation, suggesting digital cooperation for digital literacy initiatives as a more effective tool to bridge digital divides.

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As the internet transforms every sector of the global economy, paradigm shifts like the growing data economy, the spectre of automation, and the ubiquity of interconnected objects, are challenging our understanding of the digital divide. No longer simply about the ability to access ICTs like the internet, the traditional singular definition of “digital divide” has evolved to encapsulate the multifaceted gaps between levels of economic opportunity, security, personal agency, skills and knowledge, and individual and collective agency available to some and not to others.

Moreover, in a global context of digital transformation, digital divides can be found even in the world’s most developed countries. Despite having access, considerable segments of populations in rich nations are left behind as access to ICTs and the internet and digital literacy fail to advance at the same speed. Globally, over 750 million people still live in areas that are not covered by mobile broadband. While closing this “coverage gap” remains a priority, it is important to recognise that a much larger “usage gap” exists with more than 3.3 billion people living in areas covered by mobile broadband networks but who are not using mobile internet services. Thinking in terms of digital divides (plural) is one way this report acknowledges the complexities of digital inequality in all its forms.

Faced with a tangled plurality of digital divides, access and technology provision can only ever be partial solutions. Digital literacy can fill this gap by granting citizens the agency and confidence required to fully reap technology’s benefits and to participate more fully in an increasingly digital society. A recent GSMA survey found that in low- and middle-income countries, literacy and digital skills are the main factors limiting mobile internet use among those who are aware of it. The concept comprises both digital skills — the ability to use ICTs and the internet to one’s own advantage — and digital understanding, which refers to an awareness of what goes on “behind the screen.”

The goal of this report is to provide policymakers and other players acting in the global public interest with essential knowledge to understand both the societal impact and multifaceted nature of digital divides, as well as practical guidance and tools to implement initiatives that bridge digital literacy gaps more effectively.

The key contributions of this report to the digital divide debate are two-fold. First, it proposes an updated multi-stakeholder framework for digital cooperation, comprised of civil society, research institutions, international organisations, as well as the public and private sectors. The framework is then used as a lens to explore four international case studies, which allows for a clearer understanding of how it works in practice. Secondly, in the form of a three-phase roadmap, the report provides guidance on how to apply the digital cooperation framework when implementing initiatives to bridge digital divides.

The ultimate ambition of this document is to support sustainable multi-stakeholder ecosystems, equipped with built-in resilience to digital divides in order to promote equitable growth. This is only possible under two conditions: if digital divides are treated as complex social challenges instead of a matter of technology access alone, and if a diverse set of players is engaged in shaping collaborative solutions.