Digital inclusion: going beyond the clichés

We often hear that successful digital inclusion means playing catch up, including everyone who isn’t “in”. Those who are “in” are young millennials and intensive tech users. It’s the poorest, oldest and most vulnerable who are often furthest from digital and therefore from social empowerment in a connected world that’s in constant evolution. However, this conventional wisdom doesn’t reflect the reality observed by Renaud Francou, a futurist at the Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération (Fing). Here’s his perspective.

Renaud Francou (Fing)

What do we mean by digital inclusion?

Renaud Francou: The digital inclusion of 20 years ago was mainly about providing equipment and internet access. The notion of exclusion could be expressed in figures (in % of connected individuals for example). It was reductive at the time, and is even more so today.   

Digital technology can be seen as an accelerator of the “power to act” in our society, allowing everyone to have a positive impact and contribute to daily life as an individual and within a collective.

This is what I call digital empowerment, and a key element of the "Capacity" research project supported by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche  (2014-2017) which I’m involved in.

Who are the digitally excluded?   

RF: Recent figures mention 13 million people in France who struggle with technology. But the great diversity of uses reveals a much more contrasting reality. What’s more, to assume the rest of the population is comfortable with it annoys me.

Beyond the figures, we’re all potentially implicated because digital inclusion depends on the context in which we’re using it.  Additionally, there is no such thing as people who are “in” or “out” – or even uniform social divides. We’re far from the stereotypes around wealth or poverty.

A young millennial born in a tech world, generation Y or Z, an older person, a graduate or an everyday family can all struggle to grasp the latest technology.
Some of us are happy to be completely disconnected.
Others, even though they use digital tools intensively, might not know how to complete online admin tasks. Graduates might feel more at ease using pen and paper.

On the other hand, people living tougher lives might feel more comfortable with online statements so they don’t have to go into a branch or office.
Families on more modest incomes sometimes have state-of-the-art equipment and are fully connected to social media and communities. For example, people can get together on local online marketplaces such as Le Bon Coin.
Senior citizens can be really tech savvy, even expert. They connect to combat loneliness.

Digital inclusion (illustration)

How is digital inclusion being promoted?

RF: Digital inclusion varies according to a combination of factors. Self esteem, social connection and the ability to learn work together as a foundation.

Self esteem promotes the fulfilment of personal and professional projects. It increases confidence, not only in terms of new uses but also in completing the project at hand.  
Social connection provides support and helps solve problems.  
Learning to learn in a constantly evolving technical context becomes essential to understand the basic digital culture and make the most of what it can offer.

Without the combination of these three social and cultural factors, the promise of digital can become elusive.

We can see that digital is a manifestation. It is not the cause of digital exclusion: digital divides fit together with social divides.   

Renaud Francou (Fing)
Digital divides fit together with social divides
Renaud Francou, futurist at the Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération (Fing)

Who are the key players promoting digital inclusion?

RF: Digital public spaces or open resources appeared in the middle of the 90s and have always been real usage laboratories. Some have worked for a long time on social issues while others have built hybrid models with Fab Labs (production laboratories). There is a broad spectrum of players, but the common thread is a real interest in the way people work, and work on building a digital culture.  What’s more, the people who mediate these spaces sometimes find that they also struggle with the latest tech.

Other players such as Google or Facebook have come to the forefront more recently: unlike the former, they want to conquer the market and the mediation activity is secondary, which is a real problem.

I firmly believe that inclusion requires a paradigm shift. It’s necessary to have the power to act. The support function has to be able to resolve problems related to using digital while promoting self confidence, social connection and learning.   

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