Technology has a runaway effect. Through devices and broadband, people can find services, resources and opportunities – and those who have access to them get further ahead. However, billions of people are still left behind due to a lack of availability and cost of devices. This is the paradox of the digital divide, and it affects communities, societies and economies globally, including here in Singapore.
In Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ), around 90% of the population from each of the top ten most digitally advanced economies use the Internet, a significant difference from the 20% of the bottom 10 countries today. Unless proactively addressed, this divide is likely to exacerbate inequalities.
However, it is critical to understand the issues that create and compound digital inequalities and how organisations can work together to promote greater digital inclusion worldwide.
The global digital economy needs strengthening
At a glance, digital inclusion is improving – 2019 proved to be a turning point, with over half the world having internet access. However, while many countries have employed new technologies to mitigate the pandemic’s societal and economic effects, nearly 52% of the 4.3 billion people here in APJ still lack internet access.
It comes as no surprise that this disproportionately affects developing nations. In countries such as Bangladesh, only 32% of its population has access to the internet. Meanwhile, in Singapore, where the government is in the midst of transforming itself into a Smart Nation, over 90% of its population has access to the internet. Despite being ranked the world’s most digitally inclusive nation, Singapore’s digital divide is wider than its global peers, due to income gaps.
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Across the world, including Asia Pacific, one of the leading barriers is the cost of both devices and connectivity. This has led to lower digital inclusion rankings for the largely low-income populations in the region’s emerging nations. Such social and economic disparities will serve to widen the wage gap between digitally skilled and unskilled workers.
Digital technology is also critical to staying connected and productive in times of upheaval or crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, global Internet usage went up 70%, the use of mobile apps doubled, and streaming services have seen massive gains—and organisations with robust online operations and reliable internet access could continue to grow and thrive.
Not just access to Internet, but access to skills
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Meanwhile, other organisations – including small businesses and critical in-person services – suffered from their lack of digital adaptability. In Singapore, one of the most prevalent and essential in-person services is education, and while classes have moved online for some institutions, home-based learning has highlighted the inequality in Singapore. Close to 40% of Singapore's low-income households still do not have laptops, desktops or tablets.
Digital access is an especially big concern when it comes to education because there are two key ways in which its impacts are immediately felt. First, there are “hard inequalities”—for example, a lack of infrastructure, internet connection, communication technologies, devices and other tangible assets that limit students’ ability to learn.
Secondly, there are resulting “soft inequalities” — including the lack of knowledge, skills and opportunities that prevent youth from fully participating in the digital economy and building better futures. It is not just digital devices and connectivity that are necessary; it is digital training and literacy that empowers individuals to take full advantage of these tools.
In Singapore, there are programmes empowering citizens of all ages to acquire digital skills needed to address today’s workplace demands, such as the AI Student Outreach Programme or SkillsFuture.
Last year, Dell Technologies partnered with four Institutes of Higher Learning in Singapore to co-develop new tech content for curriculum modules, specialist diplomas, and degree courses to equip over 5,000 students with critical core skills tied to new and emerging technologies. Beyond internet access, digital inclusion can only happen with the right infrastructure and skills as well.
A global push for digital inclusion
Global upheavals can widen digital gaps, as seen in the case of COVID-19 — but sometimes, it takes a disruption to drive change. In APJ, 84% of businesses were found to have fast-tracked some digital transformation initiatives, while 86% reinvented their business models. Currently, 80% of APAC businesses are involved in a 5G rollout, or plan to do so in the next three years.
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Technology adoption levels vary across countries, but steps are being taken to improve access across the region. With the pandemic serving as a wake-up call, firms are looking to transition to multi-cloud environments. Last year, the South Korean government announced the Digital New Deal; and Dell Technologies partnered with Korea’s largest Internet-only bank, Kakaobank, to help its financial platform leap forward.
From providing access to digital infrastructure to upskilling the workforce and creating jobs, tech companies can take the lead in driving and enabling more people and organisations to participate in the digital economy.
The public sector plays a unique role in spurring business innovation. Despite varied efforts across Asia, divisions in the public sector that invested in digital transformation pre-COVID have been found to be in a much better position.
For example, countries like Singapore have made ‘transformational shifts’ to digitalise their healthcare sector, enabling healthcare institutions to remain resilient and continue operating efficiently amid the pandemic. To drive the long-term success of digital inclusion initiatives, the public and private sectors must work hand-in-hand to deliver the devices, broadband and connectivity solutions, skill-building and resources that the underserved communities need.
By bringing Internet connectivity to more areas, “digital highways” are delivering information to more people. However, digital inclusion is not simply about providing people with a laptop and internet connection. You will also need the skills, training and technology to help this highway move both ways, creating a world where digital technology enables human potential.
Andy Sim is the vice president and managing director for Singapore at Dell Technologies