Digital inclusion as a fundamental block in building a digital society

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Imagine a world where everything is just a click away… A world where you can access education, healthcare, and 99% of government services at the touch of a button. You don’t even have to imagine it. It’s a world that we’ve been building for years, and the pandemic has only accelerated our reliance on digital technology. But as we celebrate the benefits of digital transformation, we cannot forget the millions of people worldwide who remain wholly or partially excluded from the narrative.

The digital transformation of society is a global phenomenon, with digital services, tools, and resources becoming increasingly accessible to more people. Still, the digital divide persists, and many groups of people are excluded from the narrative. The World Bank’s 2022 GovTech Maturity Index (GMTI) Update notes that “despite progress in online service delivery and underlying shared platforms, the digital divide widens.” 

Even though the level of disconnect does differ from country to country, region to region, and continent to continent, not even the digital transformation giant nations have been able to achieve true digital inclusion. From the e-Governance Academy (e-GA), Kristina Reinsalu, Programme Director of e-Democracy, Randel Länts, Senior Expert on e-Democracy, and Kristi Kivilo, Senior Expert on Smart Governance, share insights on the digital divide and ways to enable a more inclusive digital society.

The state of digital inclusion in Estonia

According to Kristina, smart decisions such as Tiger Leap early on in Estonia’s digital transformation journey helped to avoid the classic digital divide where economic status and similar social strata allow digital access only for the select. Even the mere existence of the “Digital Divide In Estonia and How to Bridge It,” a detailed report published by Emor and PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies as early as 2002, hints at this. 

Today, not only do most young people have superb digital skills, which has spurred the startup wave among others, but even the elderly population are active users of diverse digital solutions. However, Kristina goes on to note that even though Estonia, for the most part, is excluded from the typical digital divide, there is still a divide based on where people live, creating a “lottery” system when it comes to digital engagement and participation. 

Randel adds that this uneven access to digital resources is further exacerbated by the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. Those who had access to digital tools and resources had a significant advantage than those who didn’t. And not just in Estonia but all around the world. For instance, millions of school kids worldwide were put out of school for months during the pandemic due to the unavailability of online teaching/learning resources. UNICEF calls the impact “nearly insurmountable.”

Implications of this gap

Kristina highlights that the gap is even wider for people with disabilities. “For them, it gets more complex because they are not only restricted in terms of access to the typical e-services, which are accessible to everyone, but they also face physical obstacles and barriers due to the general lack of accessibility in private and public spaces and facilities,” she points out. “This should not be so!” she says emphatically.

digital inclusion e-estonia kristina reinsalu

Meanwhile, the digital divide has far-reaching implications on society, from impacting citizen engagement to economic growth and social equity. For example, those with access to digital resources take advantage of them and enjoy greater economic opportunities in the short and long run, while those without access are left behind. 

At the same time, the digital divide also leads to social inequality. Those without access to digital services are typically excluded from participating in meaningful conversations, which in turn affects the overall development of a nation. Likewise, it heightens digital vices such as bias in AI because while the computer is not inherently biased, the humans and the data behind it can be. 

What does it take to bridge the gap of digital inclusion?

  • Understanding the why

Kristi notes that service design is at the root of enabling digital inclusion, and at the initial stage, it starts with understanding the “why.” Why is digital inclusion important? How does intentional and non-intentional exclusion affect these minorities and vulnerable groups? What is the impact of their exclusion on society? 

She said, “take the needs of people with disabilities as an example; understanding why accessibility features are crucial for them will make implementing these features a priority.” Kristina also notes the importance of paying attention to new digitally vulnerable groups as they emerge as part of understanding the why. This helps prevent the gap from widening. 

  • Involving all in the service design process

Kristina highlights that understanding the why is just as important as engaging with these groups of people directly and involving them in the process of designing, developing and implementing whatever service or solution. “It is crucial to engage directly because they can, better than anybody else, really map the problems or signals, define problems and set the motion for solutions,” she says. 

She notes that this is one of the reasons why digital engagement and people participation are crucial within the state. Kristi adds that when designing services, the needs of all members of society have to be considered, including people with disabilities and those in rural areas, among others. She continues that “none should be left out.”

  • Think like the private sector, engage like the public

Kristi points out that the private sector is always one step ahead because it aims to thoroughly understand the client’s needs first and then tailor their products and services accordingly. This is in addition to the need for competitiveness in order to stay ahead, which is quite different from how governments operate. 

She gives the example of how physical spaces like libraries have been one of the biggest drivers of digital literacy for the elderly in Estonia. In contrast, young people are more inclined to use digital devices so they don’t have to move an inch. She stresses the need for governments to think like private firms, understand the needs of the people like they are private clients, and only then get started with solution framing. 

  • The place of people empowerment 

Randel points out that the global digital gap seems to be gradually shrinking, at least in some way. He notes that this is due to the increasing popularity of digital tools among the younger generation, which makes it easier for more people to access the internet. Speaking again on the broader perspective, he highlights that what government can do is enable this already ongoing shrink.

digital inclusion e-estonia randel

“If there is a will to transform into a digital society, aspects such as training to provide digital skills are already a must. So, if you would like to emphasise inclusiveness, also target the marginalised and vulnerable groups. Provide the necessary resources and enable them to use digital tools,” he says. And, of course, Estonia remains active in the skilling and upskilling of its citizens through diverse initiatives.

Randel Länts, photo Jarek Jõepera

  • It starts with the public sector employees 

Kristi highlights that it is also vital to equip public servants with the necessary skills and education to create inclusive digital services. According to her, service providers in the public sector should be educated on the minority and marginalised groups and their needs so that they can design services that are more inclusive and accessible. 

kristi kivilo digital inclusion e-estonia

Kristi Kivilo

“For instance, the Web Content Accessibility Guides, which detail the criteria for digital solutions and content creators to develop websites, apps, and other digital assets to be accessible to people with various disabilities, including physical, intellectual, sensory, intellectual, and learning disabilities, has been in place for a while now. But not all government officials or public service designers may know about it. So, it is important for governments to provide learning possibilities for public servants,” she explains. 

She points out that Estonia has a Digital Academy called Digiriigi Akadeemia put in place to upskill public sector workers. She notes that since the workers and officials already have good digital literacy skills, the academy covers more advanced topics and concepts on digital transformation, which includes a course on accessibility and digital solutions. Notably, she led the project of creating the academy. 

Not a buzzword

Digital inclusion, or the lack of it, is not a buzzword. It represents real people, real lives, real limitations, and real opportunities lost, making it a critical issue which demands attention. To create a more equitable, connected, and inclusive society, we need to ensure that everyone can benefit from digital technology. We need to remove the barriers that prevent people from accessing digital services and ensure that everyone has the skills, knowledge, and tools to use them effectively. 

However, digital inclusion is not just about providing access to technology. It’s about collective empowerment and giving all a voice in this digital age. By prioritising digital inclusion, we can create a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, regardless of their ability, background, or location. At this juncture, a crucial mention is the role public-private sector partnership can play in shrinking the gap and enabling inclusion.


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