For those of us who spend our work and social lives in the digital realm, here is a hard fact to consider: 4.8 million people in the UK never go online. That’s more than seven per cent of the population. It is also the clearest illustration of the digital divide that exists in our country.
The NHS has warned the “digitally excluded” are at risk of worse access to services and worse health outcomes. With the accelerating adoption of digital technology in response to the pandemic, there is every danger this inequality will increase.
As the UK plans for recovery, this blog for techUK’s #placeledinnovation week will share some examples of how our tech sector can help to reshape places and improve outcomes for citizens. It’s our responsibility as an industry to help Britain “build back better” for the benefit of everyone, not just those who can afford the latest smartphone or fibre connection.
Around 11 million people in the UK lack basic digital skills or do not use digital technology at all. These citizens tend to be older, less educated and in poorer health than the rest of us. In fact, they are the ones in the greatest need of care and support from the health and care system. But if they cannot be reached in the digital world, how can we help them, especially in a time of social distancing?
For places, free public connectivity is a powerful starting point. At IntechnologySmartCities, we have harnessed the power of 5G-ready technologies to deploy next generation digital infrastructure in 10 major towns and cities across the UK with more in the pipeline. This means places can connect individuals with institutions.
In Edinburgh alone, more than 1.12 million users have signed up for our network, delivered in partnership with the city council, helping to supercharge digital connectivity for Scotland’s capital. Earlier this year, we rolled out a superfast free WiFi network at Portobello Market in west London, providing a vital economic boost for traders at this world-famous retail destination.
In Coventry, IntechnologySmartCities is working with the city council to improve air quality with a network of sensors to monitor and record harmful pollutants. The local authority is using the new insights to inform policies on road improvements, traffic management, travel planning and electric vehicles. These are just a few examples of how we can use tech to reshape places.
For people, we need to address how people access services. Our sister company Inhealthcare has pioneered digital inclusion in remote care services through the use of the humble landline telephone. It can found in an estimated 73 per cent of UK households in 2020 and is relied upon by many as the main source of telecommunication.
The Harrogate-based company offers the channel to patients as part of its digital health offering, along with apps, SMS and Alexa. Using the landline for safely and securing sending and receiving information, this tech can reach parts of the country that smartphones simply cannot. No-one is excluded.
Coronavirus has shown us yet again how the most disadvantaged fare worst in any crisis. It is a lesson repeated time and again throughout history. With all the known benefits of digital technology at our fingertips, surely we have a unique opportunity in 2020 to right these wrongs and provide a brighter future for people and places across the UK.
• Natalie Duffield is CEO of IntechnologySmartCities and vice chair of techUK’s Vice Chair of techUK’s Local Public Services Committee