The digital divide: How brands can build back better post-pandemic

digital divide - human rights

The digital divide is just one of the many divisions in society that have been highlighted by the global pandemic.

But it’s an important one and sadly, we’re not all on-board yet, in terms of tackling it. 

However, as Kin + Carta’s European CEO, David Tuck, explains there is still an opportunity for big brands to lead and ensure no-one is left behind or wanting in future… 

Porter Novelli
David Tuck Kin + Carta 2021
David Tuck, CEO Kin + Carta Europe

This opening paragraph is often reserved for platitudes: ‘We’ve all been hit hard by the pandemic’; ‘The pandemic has changed our lives immeasurably’; ‘We need to adapt to the new normal’. 

That’s all true, but when you drill down to the minutiae impacts of coronavirus, and how it’s affected the things most of us take for granted, it goes beyond the obvious.

Digital divide

It shone a harsh light on the country’s digital divide.

One in six people struggled to pay for broadband services during the UK’s third lockdown, according to Citizens Advice UK. 

At Kin + Carta, our recent study found that nearly half of us (44%), our close friends or family have been unable to access key services – such as healthcare, education and grocery delivery – during the pandemic because of poor digital accessibility.

There’s a clear digital divide between rich and poor: those with access and those without. It’s a stark reality that shouldn’t exist, and using tech to address just two things – digital poverty and accessibility – could make inroads in erasing the divide post-pandemic, and reclaim ‘build back better’ as a practical, apolitical statement.

For starters, the divide that became apparent in lockdown has proven online services and apps need longer shelf lives.

You’ve probably seen the news about the Post Office lobbying for access to cash to be written into law – eight million UK adults would struggle in their day-to-day lives without this access.

Planned obsolescence

The same thing happens with apps and operating systems. There’s a race to the newest spec, and with that comes planned obsolescence: the phasing out of old devices, systems and so on. 

For those who can’t afford a new phone or tablet, this becomes a massive problem – if your device can’t access basic services online, during a time when you’ve been urged to stay at home, that’s a quality of life issue.

It’s an ethical issue too. By scrapping the old and forcing users to upgrade their devices, companies are not just pricing people out of the newest version of Candy Crush – they’re denying them access to things like grocery delivery and healthcare.

Phasing out apps and services is inevitable, but there must be some alternative to just cutting people off. 

digital divide
Phased out: There needs to be another way than the current race to the newest spec in tech.

Something similar to Plain Text view, or a ‘legacy’ option of the app, could make life easier for so many people. 

A ‘Right to Repair’ law is set to come to the UK this summer, covering kitchen appliances and TVs – if this spread its wings across mobile devices, it’d be hugely beneficial to those most vulnerable.

And these are people we can’t ignore – morally and financially. One in five of us in the UK identifies as having a disability. And the spending power of that demographic, known as the Purple Pound, climbs to an annual £274 billion annually. 

Cutting off a huge customer base

If firms don’t account for these people when building back post-pandemic, they’re cutting off a huge customer base and alienating not just them, but their friends and family too. 

In fact, 75% of customers with a disability, and their families, have walked away from a UK business because of poor accessibility or customer service.

Digital divide 2
Digital lifelines: People have a human right to access business and services via tech.

Fixes don’t happen overnight, but they can start. One surefire method is to co-create your digital experiences with a diverse range of people – you’re not going to know how a person with autism or dyslexia will react to your app unless you work with them through the entire process, from ideation to delivery and then updates, to factor out those pain points.

This is where taking cues from some of the giants can come in handy.

P&G, Unilever and accessible tech

Both P&G and Unilever are paving the way for accessible tech and experiences for all. The latter’s CEO, Alan Jope, has been vocal about the business’ D&I strategy for “attracting and retaining the very best talent”; while the former, whose workforce comprises over 140 nationalities, has reevaluated everything from product design to advertising in order to support blind and deaf people.

Societies don’t just change for the better overnight – change is iterative and starts with small steps. 

But it’s infectious, and once best practice becomes embedded in one company or culture, it radiates outwards. 

Change ladders up over time but even the smallest changes can make a positive difference now.

Those without proper access to the Internet, or elderly people, or people whose first language isn’t English, or people with disabilities don’t expect to be waited on hand and foot. 

They just want things to start getting better. We can make the world work better for everyone – this is our chance to take ‘build back better’ from the politicians and show them how it’s really done.