Chris Gray, Chief of Public Sector at AND DIGITAL, discusses how the tech community must seize this once in a lifetime opportunity to drive greater social value and play its part in building back stronger and better
However challenging the last 18 months have been, technology has proved that it can make a huge impact for society when it matters the most: educating our children, booking vaccine appointments, and keeping us in touch with those we love. In an unprecedented crisis, technology has provided us with the sophisticated tools and capabilities we’ve needed to truly harness human ingenuity in order to reduce the impacts of a so-called ‘Black Swan’ moment.
And yet as we emerge from the pandemic, technology’s influence will continue to grow exponentially. The last 18 months have forced many industries and sectors over a ‘tech tipping point’, one they may have been slow to acknowledge in less turbulent times.
The pandemic has certainly proved to be a catalyst for change. Data from a recent McKinsey research report shows that at least 80% of business interactions with customers are of a digital nature – something that is three times likelier among businesses now than it was pre-pandemic.
The so-called ‘new normal’ is here and there’s no going back for organisations in vastly altered, competitive, and digitised markets. Having robust digital infrastructure is no longer a ‘nice to have’ for organisations of any sector or size.
However, will more be expected of the tech sector in this new age? Will society look for it to take more responsibility when it comes to providing even greater social impacts which benefit all strata of our communities?
Tech and ‘The Great Reset’
Not only has the pandemic changed our relationship with tech, but it’s also seen societies across the globe reassess their core values and motivations – something some commentators have called ‘The Great Reset’.
To my mind there are three core areas where the tech industry can make some of the biggest contributions when it comes to positive societal impact, these are:
- Equipping society with the digital skills and talent needed for future growth and prosperity
- The development of user-focused solutions
- Providing equity of access to digital tools for all members of society
By focusing on these key areas, the tech community can realign itself with the needs and expectations of society and forge a more positive role in our communities.
Skills and talent: Futureproofing for growth and prosperity
Technology is now a ubiquitous part of daily life – and this ubiquity will only continue to grow. As a result, it’s incumbent on the tech community to play its part in supporting society – at all levels – in improving digital skills and knowledge. For instance, the tech community needs to ensure that it supports not only the present cohort of employees in upskilling but that it does everything it can to nurture the grassroots talent coming up through schools and educational institutions, as well as helping re-train those who have had their work disrupted by digital.
In fact, a recent study by The Learning and Work Institute highlighted just how much needs to be done when it comes to nurturing talent. It found that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. In addition, a staggering 70% of young people expect employers to invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, but only half of the employers surveyed in the same study are able to provide that type of training.
Juxtaposing the current trajectory of our global tech needs and the present shortage of tech skills, it’s vital that the tech community expedites skills and training initiatives and looks to secure a greater number of strategic partnerships with public and third sector educational organisations. Although many already exist, more clearly needs to be done.
In playing its own part, AND Digital has set itself a very clear mission: to support in closing the world’s digital skills gap by aiming to provide 200,000 people with digital skills and knowledge by 2025. We’re currently doing this via a number of targeted initiatives.
These initiatives include training the next generation of tech talent through our AND She Can programme which focuses on bringing more females into the industry. Not only does this ensure we’re doing our bit to close a widening skills gap, but it also ensures we’re supporting diversity in our industry – females often not pursuing technology careers as a result of becoming disengaged in the early years of their education.
In addition, we’ve recently started to work with Code Your Future to provide skills to those who are looking to access their first job in the UK. We offer roles to refugees and provide the training and support they need to succeed as developers. Again, this ensures we’re taking our commitment to amplify positive social impact seriously whilst supporting diversity and the closure of a widening skills gap.
Put simply, future tech needs to benefit the whole of society. In fact, technology has to some degree already proved that it can do this – particularly when it comes to the tools it has engineered to support people in taking up medical assistance during the pandemic. Talented digital developers, designers and engineers have all played their part in helping people of all ages to access Covid passes or to book doctor’s appointments with minimum friction and hassle. However, this approach now needs to become the norm, not the exception.
As someone working with Public Sector clients on a daily basis, the use of GDS standards and methods provides a useful set of guardrails – the use of which needs to expand beyond the borders of the public sector.
By building on the foundations we’ve already put in place, as a tech community, we need to make sure we’re building solutions that help those in most need in our societies and building inaccessibility from the outset for everyone’s needs.
In addition to driving our work to the UK Government’s Service standard, our teams are finding ways to understand first-hand and support users with varying needs. For example, AND’s Club Spark, which is based in Halifax partnered with Accessible Calderdale, creating digital products and services which address accessibility in the local community. Formed by passionate people in the heart of Yorkshire – Accessible Calderdale aims to enhance the quality of life for pan-disabled people as well as people working, living, studying, and visiting the borough of Calderdale and beyond.
Building tech with inclusivity at its core is a vital consideration for the tech community moving forward and will support it in driving more positive societal outcomes. This is also important if the community is to shake off those negative perceptions that claim it’s an industry driven by commercial outputs alone.
Make no assumptions: Promoting access to tech
Whilst talk of the digital divide started almost a generation ago, the last 18 months have shown it has not gone away though and perhaps exists in new ways. While almost 90% of the UK population have a smartphone in their pocket its capabilities are meaningless to those whose data plan is insufficient to educate their children or to attend a video interview.
There has always existed an assumption among the tech community that all individuals have access to a computer or digital device, that increasingly data-heavy services can be accessed instantaneously. However, this often excludes many in the population and unless we continue to focus on its risks further exacerbating differences in life chances.
For instance, the digitisation of currency has long been debated given that it has the potential to exclude large swathes of less tech-savvy pensioners from accessing their money and savings at the most basic levels.
As a tech community, we need to assume nothing; develop tech that is accessible to all; and support society in making digital tools more readily available for the most vulnerable in society. This is more than ensuring we work with charities and others to recycle technology, it involves actively checking in as we develop products and services to ensure we’re not putting further distance between those in society.
Creating a brave new world
In the last 18 months, public opinion on technology has undergone a huge perception change – and rightly so. It’s helped to stabilise our society in times of great uncertainty; supported medical research to find a viable vaccine for the COVID-19 virus; and ensured that socio-economic life has kept functioning even under lockdown restrictions.
Now is the time for the tech community to really build on the foundations it’s laid. By nurturing and investing in the right skills for the future; putting the user at the centre of our thinking as a tech community; and by helping to provide solutions to the problems of tech access for everyone, we will create a society in which each and every person will feel empowered.
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