The world is moving in a clear trajectory towards a digital future. Organizations are prioritizing digital transformation and governments are embracing digital technologies to create smart, sustainable cities. Early iterations of the metaverse – an immersive and universal virtual world – also point to a scenario where many physical interactions and transactions could take place in a digital environment.
It is essential that digital equity forms the foundation of this digital era.
What is digital equity?
The concept of digital equity is clear: ensuring everyone has the same access to digital technologies and the opportunities that can be created, as a result.
But, when it comes to putting this into practice, the concept becomes more complex. Today, it is estimated that 3.7 billion people, the majority from poorer countries, have no access to the internet.
“Digital equity is hard to define [and action], but it can be measured in three broad areas: age group, gender and income level,” said Vijay Guntur, President, ERS at HCLTech.
Understanding these areas can help public and private sector organizations improve access to digital.
Guntur explained: “Generally, older demographics don’t have access to digital technology, while younger age groups are widely enabled. From a gender perspective, different percentages of men and women have access to digital technologies.”
When it comes to income levels, this remains the biggest barrier to digital equity. Those from the lowest income households often have the least access to digital technology.
Higher income households have more opportunities through access to platform technologies. These individuals, for example, can send cross state transfers within a country and sell their products or services via digital means.
Guntur continued: “Income levels will play a big role in how digital equity will become available. To change the current landscape, where there is a large discrepancy between high and low income households, the public and private sectors need to do a lot more to break down income level barriers.”
Facilitating digital equity in the public and private sectors
There are two main barriers to digital equity that can be solved through public and private sector action, collaboration and innovation.
The first, according to Guntur, is digital infrastructure.
Digital infrastructure refers to the foundational services of a country or organization’s digital technology capabilities. This includes the smartphone penetration ecosystem, access to broadband and availability of hardware, such as laptops.
Looking to combat the issue of broadband access, the Indian government has set up the MyBharatNet initiative that connects rural villages with broadband access. There are also numerous initiatives in other countries, such as the US and UK, to make broadband more accessible in rural areas.
“If you look at cities in India, the concentration level of digital access is approximately 45%, but in rural areas this falls to 15%,” said Guntur.
Private enterprises can help improve the availability of digital infrastructure by providing mobile devices at lower price points so more people can get access to them.
The second barrier is digital education.
In this area, private enterprises can have a significant impact.
For example, “HCL has a program called TechBee that helps people in India – both men and women, which is crucial – who have just finished their school education by providing them with a continuity digital skills base, in order to continue their learning,” said Guntur.
This type of initiative is growing and by improving digital education, organizations can improve digital literacy and equity,” he added.
Healthcare and education
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated eLearning and telehealth around the world. The transition to virtual environments in the education and healthcare sectors now means that those without access to digital are at risk of being neglected by these essential services.
“A digitally equal society will create greater access to education and healthcare, which are now increasingly in a digital setting. This will contribute to an increase in income
levels for generations, which in turn, will create a cycle of accessibility and equitability. We are moving in the right direction,” said Guntur.
Digital equity in action
There are numerous examples of digital equity in action.
Guntur points to Aadhaar, the 12-digit identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India, which is a KYC enabler, creating a digital identity for people in India. “This digitally inclusive initiative has provided people with access to banking," he said.
Delivering frictionless payments in India is another use case of digital equity in action.
The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is a system that powers multiple bank accounts into a single mobile application (of any participating bank), merging several banking features, seamless fund routing & merchant payments into one hood.
“Access to microfinancing options brings down the cost of capital significantly for people at the bottom of the pyramid, which catalyzes income generation,” explained Guntur.
Ecommerce platforms, like Amazon and FlipKart, create a level playing field and provide market access to artisans, weavers, handicraft self-help groups and other groups, while aggregator platforms, like Urban Company, improve the regularity and consistency of jobs for blue-collar workers.
Driving “financial inclusion through initiatives and platforms like these improves the usage of payments, which creates opportunities for citizens. This is a big part of creating a digitally equitable society,” he concluded.