Amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic and increased working and learning from home, recent months have most definitely widened the gap for those who lack access to technology and digital skills.

Sunderland City Council has joined forces with a consortium of Local Authorities, a leading educational charity and an expert management consultancy to deliver a CCIN Policy Lab: Understanding the Digital Divide.

Tackling social inequality and maximising digital inclusion are key drivers for Sunderland City Council’s strategy to tackle the digital divide and avoid individuals in our most affected communities across the city from being left even further behind.

By building a more robust data picture of who is experiencing digital exclusion, including insights into where they are, the barriers they face in accessing services and social contact online, and the interventions that would most effectively support them to become more digitally engaged, Sunderland City Council and a consortium of partners are paving the way to better understanding the digital divide and tackling digital poverty.

Collaborating to tackle social inequality

A forward-thinking group of Local Authorities from across the UK, have united to drive forward a shared agenda to understanding the digital divide via a CCIN Policy Lab. Enabled by the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network (CCIN), members undertake projects where they can work collaboratively to find co-operative policy solutions to the challenges facing local government.

The consortium comprises 17 members, namely:

  • Barking and Dagenham Council
  • Cardiff Council
  • Cheshire West and Chester Council
  • Greater Manchester Combined Authority
  • Kirklees Council
  • Knowsley Council
  • Newcastle City Council
  • North Hertfordshire District Council
  • Oxford City Council
  • Plymouth City Council
  • Red Quadrant Management Consultants
  • Rochdale Borough Council
  • Southampton City Council
  • South Tyneside Council
  • Sunderland City Council
  • Tameside Council
  • The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA)

Collectively, these partners are analysing data, collating lessons learnt and developing solutions to deliver specific outcomes for individuals and communities.

Understanding the digital divide

The way we interact has evolved to take a much more digitised direction, and as we continue to communicate increasingly online via video calls, on-screen meetings, digital classrooms and online learning; on both a personal and professional level, many are gaining digital skills and competencies to help them to communicate and compete in this new normal, whilst others who lack the necessary digital skills or are unable to access this technology, are left increasingly isolated, extending the gap between them and the digital world.

2019’s UK Consumer Digital Index, exposed that 22% of people in the UK (around 11.9 million) do not have the digital skills for everyday life, such as the ability to manage money online, access shopping online, engage in government services or find a job online.

The realities of the above statistic mean that a fifth of the population are at risk of missing the positive opportunities the internet can bring. From facilitating access to better services, cheaper goods and extended lines of communication to learning opportunities, job opportunities and specialist support services; the digital world represents opportunities to reduce inequalities of access, rather than widening existing digital gaps and scope for further economic and social disadvantage.

Let’s Talk Digital

The CCIN Policy Lab: Understanding the Digital Divide, has established a set of key outcomes which take a consultative approach to deepening the understanding of the current problem surrounding digital skills and the uptake of digital technology. They include:

  1. A resident consultation, entitled ‘Let’s Talk Digital’, with questions available to be reproduced, informing future delivery and strategic planning
  2. Improved understanding of available data on digital exclusion and exploration of further data gathering exercises
  3. Learning and intelligence to inform adult learning within future digital inclusion programmes
  4. Learning and intelligence used to inform targeting of access to digital learning within community venues
  5. The creation of a lessons learnt report to enable sustainable, cost-effective and long-term solutions, including a case study of the use of data to locate one cohort (e.g. the unemployed) and the application of learned remedies to their digital exclusion in a given borough
  6. Creating solutions to enable residents to access ICT equipment, working with businesses to maximise social value contributions

Sunderland’s leading role in driving digital change

We know that strategies are needed to make sure we don’t leave the digitally excluded behind as we continue on our road to digital transformation. Prioritisation of those people and places who have, for many years, been left behind by the rapid acceleration of societal and digital progress, aims to create solutions to enable individuals and businesses to connect and succeed in an everchanging culture.

A key outcome managed by Sunderland City Council is a grant being developed with local business, Protech, to set up a Reuse ICT Scheme. This will involve the use of existing associates of the city’s digital network, such as charities, who will act as ‘donation points’ for the Council, businesses and individuals to drop off kit (laptops and desktop computers).

The donation point or charity digital hub will assume responsibility for storing the kit in a secure location until collected by Protech, who will wipe the system clean and prepare it to be upcycled.

A system will be in place to allocate kit to appropriately to aid fair and swift distribution. These digital devices have the capacity to support multiple communities and digital hubs, as well as loan schemes to vulnerable houses to further support individuals looking for work to access online opportunities or to support families with home schooling across Sunderland.

Maximising digital inclusion

Technological change drives progress, but in the process, many people are at risk of being left behind. By tackling digital and social exclusion together, there is an opportunity to reduce inequality and create greater support networks and sustainably close important gaps in society.

By raising digital awareness for people who are not motivated, confident or physically well enough to develop these skills themselves, we can support them to engage and to better understand the benefits of the digital world.

Aligned to the Council’s ambition for ubiquitous connectivity for all, projects such as the CCIN Policy Lab partnership – underpinned by the provision of full fibre by CityFibre later this year – are critical to provide communities with access to faster, more reliable connectivity and to aid the success of upskilling individuals with the digital skills they need to reap the benefits of the modern world.

By placing a focus on improving digital skills right at the heart of post-COVID recovery plans and our own City Plan, we have the opportunity to not only boost productivity, but to improve the lives of many of our residents at risk of being left behind in a digital world.

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