4 minute read 17 Jan 2020
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Four actions leaders can take to help build a sustainable digital society

By Andy Baldwin

EY Global Managing Partner – Client Service

Passionate about innovation, FinTech, inclusive growth and geopolitics. Leading media commentator on financial services, economics and investment trends. Keen cyclist.

4 minute read 17 Jan 2020

The best way to address digital exclusion is to start now.

The digital revolution is already leaving people behind: those who don’t have the access to technology or skills they need. What’s more, these emerging ‘digital refugees’ often belong to the most vulnerable groups in society. They may be older than average, on a low income, living in a remote or deprived area, burdened with caring responsibilities, ill or disabled. And strikingly, they can be found in both high-growth economies as well as the more developed markets.

Given that the digital revolution is still only in its comparative infancy, what impact will this have in the long term? It’s not good enough to assume that everyone born today will, in time, become a de facto digital native. Almost half of the world’s population is still not using the internet.

In the future, it’s very likely that people will be expected to have more advanced technological skills than most of us have today. People may also be expected to develop those skills at a rate, and to a level, that will require opportunities and access that certain groups or communities currently lack.”. Then there’s the risk of algorithmic bias to add to the mix – this is the risk that artificial intelligence (AI) systems may be trained using data that inadvertently perpetrates biased decision-making against certain groups. The consequences of these collective issues will only serve to create further inequality and further ruptures within our societies.

Bridging the skills gap in a rapidly changing world

To live in a cohesive and sustainable world in future – a world that creates genuine opportunity for all – we must factor the potential of digital exclusion into our decision-making now. For business leaders, that presents some clear challenges. How do they continue to provide products and services to digital refugees in a cost-effective way, for example? How can they reskill or redeploy staff who have been displaced by new technologies? How do they develop tools that are free from the unconscious bias that inevitably exists among their human staff?

Today all companies are tech companies in some way or form and ultimately, companies have to answer to their stakeholders: people. I believe that how a company addresses digital exclusion will take on the same importance as other boardroom issues like climate change and long-term value creation.

But there are several actions that businesses can take today.

1. Lead from your purpose. Are you using new technologies in ways that reinforce your purpose? Or are you compromising it in favour of implementing state-of-the art tools that exclude people? By connecting deeply with its sense of purpose, an organization is more likely to stay inclusive throughout its digital transformation and achieve value for all its stakeholders, including its people, over the long term.

2. Assess the impact technology will have on all your stakeholders, including customers, people and suppliers. How will technology impact your business’ responsibilities towards these stakeholders? By undertaking thorough analysis, businesses will be able to understand where they might be inadvertently contributing to digital exclusion, and possibly harming their own competitiveness and reputation in the process.

3. Incentivize people to learn new skills. In the upcoming EY Technology Trajectory survey, to be released in late January, business leaders are saying that skills gaps are impacting all companies – irrespective of their demographic and regardless of rank or industry. These same business leaders believe that to combat this we need to develop new incentives to encourage the workforce to learn new skills. This will clearly drive short-term change, so ideally companies will also look at wider cultural and strategic measures like recruitment strategies and targeted acquisitions. As well as developing their existing staff, businesses can work with education providers and governments to establish training programmes that will nurture the development of future skills.

4. Take a broader view of what ‘talent’ looks like. Talent does not necessarily mean someone who is a certain age, or from a certain background, or who has studied a STEM subject at university. If businesses focus on an overly narrow definition of talent – for example, STEM skills – they risk sacrificing their diversity in terms of gender, background and race. This has implications for both their own competitiveness and social equality, more broadly. Often attitude matters more than skills in any case.

Technology allows us to do what we would not otherwise be able to do. In many circumstances, it allows us to do what was previously thought impossible. It is also a catalyst for changes in behaviors, as well as changes in thinking. Yet technology is not – and should never be – the end in itself. It is merely a means to an end. Any technological tool is only as good as the human enterprise it creates. So, as leaders, we have to ensure that we apply technology in ways that are socially inclusive and which underpin human innovation for the benefit of all.

When will you move long-term value from ambition to action? Join EY to discuss pressing economic and social issues as we look to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 – from 21-24 January. Join the conversation via ey.com/wef and using #WEF20 and #BetterWorkingWorld


To build a cohesive and sustainable world, business must consider the potential of digital exclusion as part of their decision-making process. Companies can start today by leading from purpose, assessing the impacts of technology and focusing on building skills and diversity.

About this article

By Andy Baldwin

EY Global Managing Partner – Client Service

Passionate about innovation, FinTech, inclusive growth and geopolitics. Leading media commentator on financial services, economics and investment trends. Keen cyclist.