Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we have adapted to new ways of living and working, we have witnessed the acceleration of a number of trends in the US and around the world. From the rise of online distance learning that keeps students and teachers connected, to the surge in telemedicine that lets us seek medical advice from the safety of our homes, to the wave of digital transformation that’s sweeping across our companies and industries.
But although each of these trends ultimately presents significant opportunities in the years to come, the pandemic has also exposed and widened inequities that existed long before it began.
The digital divide is one of them. It separates those who have access to technology from those who do not, including one-third of the world’s school-age children (or 463 million students), who could not access remote learning during the pandemic. And there’s a cost to this inequity: the US alone loses more than $130 million a day in economic activity because so many are being left behind.
This is a much bigger than a technology problem. When a digital divide stands in the way of obtaining a quality education, it’s also a knowledge divide. When it stands in the way of seeing your doctor, it’s a health and wellness divide. When it stands in the way of gaining skills and competing for jobs, it’s an opportunity divide.
What we’re really taking about here is tech poverty, and it’s a pandemic of a different sort. Tech poverty exists wherever people lack access to technology, training, skills and experiences needed to thrive in the 21st century economy. It’s a problem that knows no borders and impacts people everywhere – hurting both developed and developing economies, rural and urban communities, young kids and adult professionals. We must commit ourselves to eliminating it.
How the private sector can make a difference
Many companies are already stepping up. Land O’Lakes is spearheading a coalition of businesses, associations and other organizations to bring high-speed broadband to rural areas in the US. Cisco and MuralNet launched a Sustainable Tribal Networks programme to provide consistent internet access and services to 574 Native American tribes.
At HP, we are particularly focused on closing the gap for four groups: women and girls, whom we are working to lift up through partnerships with Girl Rising and UN Women; people with disabilities; educators and practitioners; and communities of colour and marginalized populations around the world.
These are all steps in the right direction, moving us closer to a world of digital equity. But we still have a long way to go before everyone has a fair shot.
To get there, promoting digital inclusion must be a top priority for companies and governments alike. As part of our vision to become the world’s most sustainable and just technology company, our newest goal is to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030.
We have developed a comprehensive strategy to reach our goal. This starts with connectivity, a critical foundation on which to build. But it’s simply the first step in a longer march toward equity – because a broadband connection doesn’t get you far if you don’t also have access to the hardware, quality content and digital literacy needed to turn that connection into a portal of possibilities.
That’s why we have contributed $21 million in technology and grants to underserved communities as part of our blended learning strategy during the pandemic. We also launched HP Turn to Learn, providing critical learning materials curated by leading scientific, educational and children’s publications like TIME for Kids, Britannica and NASA, for students in Title I school districts in the US. We are currently scaling up the initiative globally, from India to Haiti to Canada.
As we drive access to connectivity, hardware and content, we must also foster digital literacy programmes that teach people new skills to thrive in a new economy. That’s why we’ve been expanding access to HP LIFE, a free, online training programme from the HP Foundation that helps people reskill, to global partners and communities. Last year, HP LIFE experienced a 282% growth, and in January 2021, it attracted nearly 21,000 new users. Participants range from entrepreneurs in search of more effective digital strategies, to college students in search of IT or business skills, to lifelong learners pursuing new careers.
Building on this foundation, we will launch HP PATH (Partnership and Technology for Humanity) to pave the way toward digital equity for underserved communities around the world, focusing on education, healthcare and economic opportunity. The initial phase will focus on convening conversations to engage, listen and learn from communities around the world to better understand the root causes and what resources and support are needed to create meaningful change. From there, we will use the insights to influence product innovation, partnerships and accelerate solutions that can help close the digital divide.
Achieving digital equity is one of the urgent callings of our time. The solutions are clear, and we must pursue them together – as companies as well as with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose leadership and partnership are essential.
We won’t solve this problem overnight, but there are steps forward we can take every day. My hope is that from this point, the common cause of achieving digital equity will allow us to break down barriers and ensure we always create technology in service of humanity.
By Enrique Lores
About the author: Enrique Lores is President and Chief Executive Officer, HP.