Our pledge to bridge the digital divide will shape our post-pandemic future

Tuesday 14 June 2022 6:30 am


Daniel Korski

Daniel Korski is chair of Unlock Digital and a London tech entrepreneur

Many Londoners still don’t have access to the devices they need for online learning.

Laptop on, coffee mug in hand, smartphone charged. This was many people’s mornings during the pandemic. As Covid-19 ravaged London, we all had to shift from being office-bound commuters to stay-at-home workers. It was then that the digital divide in our city became apparent to everyone.

It wasn’t just the divide between the retail and technology sectors, or hospitality and entertainment. Those in new, digitally-native firms were able to easily transition while more traditional companies, who still stored much of their files on their premises, and with little experience of remote working, struggled.

While many families fought over laptops and desk space, others did not have access to the devices they needed in order for their children to access online learning or do the homework assigned by their schools. Many parents did not have the skills necessary to help their children make the most of the many online learning resources required. Some of my children’s classmates were stuck sitting on the floor of their one-room bedsits, using their parents ’phones to access homework.

As this discrepancy continued to drive a wedge through communities, initiatives were launched across the city to help Londoners gain access to computers, programs and support. Some were individual; I donated to my local school. Others were communal or organized by local councils. Yet in each case, it was Londoners who came together to help.

Eight months since restrictions ended, this effort has lost momentum. People have returned to their offices and schools have reopened their doors. Yet the divide that inspired action in the first place remains.

In fact, it has gotten worse. More than 800,000 Londoners can’t connect to Wi-Fi to apply for jobs, shop online or access government services, and with online learning still in place, many risk falling behind in literacy and numeracy. This group is falling further behind in their basic digital skills, which has a direct impact on their chances of employment and career advancement.

Despite the number of initiatives available, uptake and awareness of courses remains low. Devices aren’t readily available to those who need them. Access to support is patchy. In a city where the tech industry has become one of the key drivers of growth, the chasm of digital skills is widening.

This is not just about startup jobs in trendy East London, or even about careers in IT that require advanced skills like coding or design. This is about basic opportunities for all Londoners.

New research by Adzuna, the jobs portal, shows that jobs which require IT skills now represent the majority of all jobs listings having increased dramatically since 2019. That means that many applicants lacking IT skills in search of work in the fallout of the pandemic are falling at the first hurdle. And given the rate of growth, soon more than two-thirds of jobs will require digital know-how – from supermarkets and bakeries to clerical work and art galleries.

Closing the digital divide is about more than helping London’s technology sector continue to thrive. It is about giving Londoners the tools to succeed.

Unlock Digital, a new initiative I have co-founded with Wol Kolade, of LivingBridge, will address the digital skills gap across London boroughs. The first is to launch an interactive map to display all the courses and support available. We want young Londoners to know about the host of great programs and inspire them to be excited by showing the potential application of digital skills. We also have a program of action in the works to further our mission.

Hundreds of years ago reading and writing were understood not just to be skills for certain people or certain professions. Society rightly saw these as foundational to a successful life in the modern world. Offering Londoners the digital skills necessary to excel in any field requires commitment and energy akin to that which has driven London to success in so many other areas, and which is sorely lacking.

We cannot leave this mission to chance, random acts of kindness or a patchwork of local efforts. Let us make sure that we approach digital skills today in the same way as we have other areas of education – not as luxuries, but as necessities to unlock a better future for all Londoners.

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