London-wide approach to digital inclusion needed for post-pandemic recovery, new study reveals

The first-ever comprehensive study of digital inclusion activity across the capital has been published by the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), highlighting the range of local support available and proposing pan-London measures to bridge the digital divide.

The report, Digital Inclusion in London, found more than 100 local and neighbourhood digital inclusion initiatives across the capital’s public, private, and voluntary sectors. It recommends renewed London-wide action to improve data and learning, to promote new low-cost internet offers known as social tariffs, and also to raise awareness of digital skills courses and the provision of devices to those most in need.

LOTI’s research found: 

  • The majority of digital inclusion initiatives involve third sector organisations (68%), as well as public sector organisations (62%), while 22% involve private sector organisations and 38% of initiatives are cross-sector partnerships.
  • The most common types of initiatives are provision of digital skills and training (84%), provision of devices (67%), identifying digitally excluded groups and their needs (58%), and provision of connectivity or data allowance (52%).
  • 25 of London’s local authorities are leading or participating in at least one digital inclusion initiative. The majority of boroughs run device gifting schemes to provide technology such as laptops and tablets to those lacking digital access and many are securing free or subsidised broadband packages from internet providers as part of contract negotiations.

According to LOTI’s study, the Covid-19 pandemic makes tackling digital exclusion in the capital more important than ever, with lockdowns and social distancing during the height of the pandemic leading to an “even more severe” digital divide. LOTI, which was set up by the London boroughs with support from the Mayor of London, highlights that Covid-19 accelerated the digitisation of many local services in the capital, thereby increasing the need for digital inclusion support.

However, the pandemic simultaneously meant it was more difficult to deliver the face-to-face contact often required for helping vulnerable residents to access online services and use digital technology.

From its review of current initiatives, LOTI identifies key factors for successfully addressing exclusion, such as:

  • Working with local voluntary groups to help identify and reach digitally excluded residents
  • Promoting digital inclusion activity through libraries, community halls, and children’s centres
  • Securing support and a strategic focus from senior managers in the boroughs. 

LOTI concludes that a “blended approach” is the most effective at a local level, while recommending new partnerships and pan-London approaches to boost digital inclusion.

To ensure that individual needs are met more consistently across the capital, the report calls for more data and knowledge sharing, a growth in the supply of upcycled digital devices from public and private sector organisations, and increased promotion of digital skills courses delivered by local colleges and social tariffs that can benefit digitally excluded Londoners.

Millions of people in the UK are digitally excluded, whether through a lack of digital skills, access to technology, or access to the internet. It has previously been estimated 18% of Londoners lack basic digital skills, with at least 9% not having any. Analysis also shows that 10% of Londoners do not own a smartphone. Digital exclusion undermines a person’s life chances, potentially leading to poorer health, increased loneliness and isolation, and reduced access to education and job opportunities.

LOTI’s report is part of the Digital Inclusion Innovation Programme supported by the Greater London Authority (GLA). This focuses on the digital access mission set by the London Recovery Board – which is jointly chaired by the Mayor of London and London Councils – with the aim of ensuring every Londoner has access to good connectivity, basic digital skills, and the device or support they need to be online by 2025.

The Digital Inclusion Innovation Programme involves a number of projects for LOTI, including using data to map the scale and nature of digital exclusion in London, exploring how public sector organisations can be encouraged to upcycle retired devices to benefit digitally excluded Londoners, and identifying digitally-enabled ways to support the carers of Londoners living with dementia.

Eddie Copeland, Director of LOTI, said:

“Promoting digital inclusion is hugely important and LOTI’s new study shows a wide range of exciting initiatives taking place across the capital.

“The pandemic was a catalyst for rapid change in terms of the digitisation of public services. This is undoubtedly positive in many ways, but it also makes it more important than ever to ensure all Londoners can access the support they need.

“Our new report sets out the challenges involved in this work, while also sharing best practice and fresh recommendations for London-wide action on this crucial issue.”

Theo Blackwell, London’s Chief Digital Officer, said:

“It is vitally important for Londoners to have the skills, technology and infrastructure to get online easily. Almost all key services are now available online and during the pandemic we saw how fast, reliable internet connectivity can transform lives by allowing people to work and learn from home and stay in contact with friends and family.

“As the UK recovers from the pandemic, we are working closely as part of the Digital Inclusion Innovation Programme, to reduce the digital divide and provide access to devices, skills training and connectivity to all Londoners.”

Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney and London Councils’ Digital Champion, said:

“We’re determined to make faster progress on reducing London’s immense inequalities – and that includes the digital divide. We can’t leave Londoners behind as more and more services are provided online and digital access, affordability and skills become increasingly essential.

“Boroughs have long been concerned by digital exclusion in our communities and the pandemic has clearly worsened the situation. Tackling this challenge is a key priority for ensuring the capital’s post-pandemic recovery works for all Londoners.”



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