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Digital inclusion: Connectivity is only the beginning

Highlights
  • Digital inclusion (or exclusion) is the extent to which a person or a community can participate in online activities
  • Connectivity isn’t just about online shopping – it also opens up education, health, social and financial benefits
  • Infrastructure alone isn’t the solution, a focus on building digital skills is important too

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a part of the digital world says Tony Warren, group executive for Corporate Affairs at Telstra.

While digital connectivity once consisted of purchasing a book or a CD online, today it’s more and more central to living a modern life – and opting out is less and less viable.

This is not to say everyone in Australia is connected to the digital world. In fact, almost 3 million Australians are not online, says Tony Warren, Group Executive for Corporate Affairs at Telstra.

These people aren’t just missing out on the convenience of online shopping, they also risk being socially isolated from the rest of the community, Warren says.

IN:SIGHT sat down with Tony to discuss the benefits of digital connectivity for society, and why bridging the digital divide should be a critical and urgent priority.

Young lady on her phone in a city

IN:SIGHT: You feel very strongly about the role and benefits of digital inclusion. Why is a digitally connected citizenry so important? 

Tony Warren: Digital inclusion has been recognised as one of the key social justice challenges policymakers face at least in the developed world. Digital inclusion – or digital exclusion – is the extent to which a person or a community can participate in online activities, both socially and economically. 

Three million Australians not being online means we have 3 million Australians who are missing out on the education, health, social and financial benefits that come with being connected. 

With an increasing number of essential services and communications going digital, the so-called divide is only going to get deeper unless action is taken. 

IN:SIGHT: You see bridging the digital divide as an urgent priority, but why should that sense of urgency be shared by Australians who have yet to get online? 

Tony Warren: Digital disruption is happening and no one can stand in its way. The benefits and need for businesses and governments to digitise are overwhelming. And that in turn means digital inclusion has become fundamental to participation in economic and social activities at a community, national and global level. 

Soon, offline options will no longer sit alongside digitisation. Being digitally excluded will mean more than saving on a taxi fare through an Uber app, it will mean being excluded from services, communications and from work. 

In tomorrow’s Australia, which isn’t 20 years away, digital will be a prerequisite not a choice. And those who are excluded will become significantly more marginalised. 

IN:SIGHT: How much do we know about why these 3 million Australians aren’t online?

Tony Warren: Last year, Telstra, in partnership with the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and Roy Morgan Research, released the first Australian Digital Inclusion Index, which provided the first detailed picture of online participation across the country. 

The Swinburne research team created the index by examining digital inclusion across three areas: access, affordability and digital ability.  

Unsurprisingly, the people who are the most digitally excluded are also those who are already experiencing social exclusion. People with lower levels of income, education and employment have lower levels of digital inclusion, as do older Australians, Indigenous peoples, those living in regional and remote areas and people with disabilities. 

IN:SIGHT: Across those three areas – access, affordability and digital ability – where does the problem lie?  

Tony Warren: Australia generally does well on access, although some remote communities and households clearly encounter difficulties.

The findings around affordability showed that while the value of online services is improving, people are spending an increasing proportion of household income on digital products. We know that for many Australians this isn’t a problem, but for those on a low income and with financial pressures, this will have an impact and needs to be monitored. 

The most important finding however was that the key link to our most digitally excluded groups was low digital ability. This includes basic digital skills and confidence. 

It tells us that infrastructure alone doesn’t necessarily equal inclusion. A focus on boosting digital skills and abilities is vital for addressing digital inclusion.

Woman standing in front of presentation

“Three million Australians not being online means we have 3 million Australians who are missing out on the education, health, social and financial benefits that come with being connected.”

Tony Warren, Group Executive, Corporate Affairs, Telstra

IN:SIGHT: People aged over 65 are Australia’s most digitally excluded group. How would digital skills enable older Australians to become active participants in the digital economy and the wider digital community?

 Tony Warren: We know that digital inclusion increases social inclusion. A Victorian Government study found that older Victorians who are online are 42 per cent more likely to participate in their community, have 40 per cent higher volunteering rates and are 33 per cent less likely to feel unsafe in their home.

This means that programs like Tech Savvy Seniors, which is a digital literacy program we run in partnership with the NSW, Victorian and Queensland governments, are vital. Through in-person training sessions across the three states, 85,000 seniors have already taken part since 2014, learning everything from how to use an iPad to how to Facebook-friend a grandchild.

What’s really exciting about this program is that it’s creating employment for seniors. In Brisbane, we hosted a class of more than 50 seniors who were there for one reason: they all wanted to become Uber drivers. They were retired and had the time, they were quality drivers, but they couldn’t use a smartphone. Now they can and they are earning income as Uber drivers. 

IN:SIGHT: What does the future of digital connectivity hold for Australia?

The future is bright and connected. We know that governments, often in partnership with business, have a vital role to play in bringing newer, more efficient services to our communities through digitisation. 

We know that targeted programs that focus on digital inclusion and building digital abilities are driving benefits. It’s incumbent on all of us to ensure that all Australians are part of and benefit from this future.

For government agencies and departments, the digital age is a catalyst for change, opening new pathways for delivering the services and citizen experiences of tomorrow, while building a more open and collaborative government for all.

Find out more

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