A european take on digital inclusion

In April 2024, I had the opportunity to represent London at the Eurocities Digital Inclusion Forum for the first time. In this blog, I reflect on the three days of workshops and talks, and share my insights and interesting initiatives that are taking place in Rotterdam.

A photograph of lots of people standing in front of a large screen that says Digital Forum

The “family” photo from the first day

What is Eurocities?

Eurocities is a network of 200 European cities in 38 countries representing over 150 million people. London is still part of this network despite the UK’s departure from the European Union. The Eurocities role is twofold. Firstly, it brings together like minded professionals to share and learn from each other – a bit like LOTI (London Office of Technology and Innovation). Secondly, it plays a key advocacy role to European policy makers, ensuring that policies are informed by citizen insights and funding is available to tackle key issues.

Whilst Eurocities has a much broader scope, the Digital Forum seeks to support and advocate for digital policies. Each Digital Forum annual conference focuses on a different topic and it was pleasing to see that this year the spotlight was on Digital Inclusion – an old, but ongoing issue for our society.

Get Online London vs European approaches

As part of the Forum, I had the pleasure of hearing from some of Rotterdam’s voluntary and community sector organisations, working on the frontline supporting digitally excluded people. I also heard about other cities’ approaches and how interventions were local, place-based and maximising use of existing infrastructure, such as schools, and community groups.

My sense is that, similar to London, the voluntary and community sector in other countries across Europe are highly active in this space in providing targeted support for people with different needs.

However, from the cities represented, there doesn’t appear to be other initiatives operating to the scale and depth of collaboration of Get Online London. The existence and success of our cities’ award winning programme is owed to the GLA (Greater London Authority) team for securing £1.2m of funding, to the Good Things Foundation team for delivering this great service and finally but definitely not leastly, the thousands of volunteers and frontline workers in boroughs and our VCS (Voluntary and Community Sector) who work tirelessly to support digitally excluded Londoners.

Interesting initiatives

The following two initiatives from the city of Rotterdam, I thought were very interesting and something we can learn from.

  1. Bringing digital inclusion support to people – where they are
    The first initiative was called Tea Time. It was set up to support Turkish women with low or no Dutch speaking abilities, to learn how to effectively use a phone and other digital devices. The special thing about this service was the fact that this learning happened as part of informal gatherings in these women’s own homes. This had the unintended positive consequence of women not only learning from each other but also creating the sense of community, and pride when they successfully grasped a concept.
  2. Portable / mobile CV
    The other initiative I found interesting was that of digital learning badges. Rotterdam has developed a digital CV / wallet for certifications and accreditations. This made it easy for learners to keep their qualifications in one place as well as enable prospective employers to easily confirm qualifications and accreditations of candidates.

Common needs and solutions

It was obvious from speaking with other European colleagues and from presentations, that the nature of digital exclusion and associated peoples’ needs are common amongst all the cities represented at the conference. These included things like language barriers, lack of digital skills, low reading and writing capabilities, poverty, etc. These are also issues surfaced by the LOTI secondary research and personas developed from extensive user research in five London boroughs.

Similar to what we’re doing here in London, a more collaborative approach has proved more fruitful in Rotterdam, where the city’s central library collaborates with around 50 private and public sector patterns to form their Digital Inclusion Network that works together to address this issue.

This is encouraging and promising because as we know, the hard truth is that the public sector can’t do everything all the time. By taking a strength-based approach, collaborating with and enabling partners such as VCSs, and libraries who have the expertise, we can reach many more people.

Being online isn’t risk free

Now more than ever, we’re able to conduct huge parts of our lives online such as when applying for jobs, training, paying for bills, partaking into events etc. all things that we wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to access or experience.

However, the digital world isn’t risk free.

Some presenters shone a light on emerging societal issues and risks such as social media addiction, misinformation, scams, phishing attacks etc. In fact, LOTI’s own research on identifying the barriers to inclusion showed that some groups, particularly the elderly, are reluctant to engage with online services because of safety and security fears.

The key takeaway here is that ongoing education and training for all age groups should be part and parcel of any digital inclusion service. This would enable our residents to enjoy the benefits of being online whilst being knowledgeable about protecting themselves and managing their time online.

Emerging technologies and digital inclusion

Part of the conference focused on digital twins (a.k.a. the digital model of a city) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Initially, this took me by surprise, but my key takeaway from this was that digital inclusion is something that governments need to consider at all levels.

At the basic level it’s about equipping staff and residents with digital devices, connectivity and skills, whilst at the more advanced end, it’s about enabling everyone to be confident about taking up and even using assistive technologies, AI platforms, or Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

This is not something that can happen naturally and certainly not without some support or intervention from governments, suppliers of these technologies and other partners involved. Given the fast pace of technology development, consideration should also be given to the fact that this needs to be a gradual, ongoing process, involving clear communications and real engagement not just consultation, about the use of these advanced methods and their role in our lives.

In summary, as governments, our use of advanced technology is inevitable, given the huge financial pressures in the system. Therefore, it’s essential that we bring the public along so they understand the specific impact these technologies have on them. The unintended consequence of this all is increased trust, better engagement and understanding of the benefits of specific use cases such as the use of IoTs to monitor damp and mould, or use of AI and Robotic Process Automation to automate and increased the efficiency of frontline services in adult social care and housing etc.

Another interesting idea that I observed was that of ‘smart cities’ needing ‘smart citizens’ – again the focus being on the education and upskilling of our residents so they are able to understand the implications and benefits of data and insights derived from internet of things devices useful for informing public service innovation.

The ultimate risk here is that if we don’t upskill, inform and involve residents they risk becoming disengaged which makes them more susceptible to fake news and scaremongering, and ultimately loss of trust in the public sector.

Get Online London

Genta Hajri
20 May 2024 ·
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