Within countries and between countries, a “digital divide” has become apparent between those who have access to ICT tools and those that do not. However, there are now increasing signs that the early efforts to close the divide are starting to bear fruit.
At the height of the dot.com bubble, wildly exaggerated claims were made about the capacity of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to rewrite the economic rules, end the business cycle and bring prosperity and democracy to billions. The idea was to link hospitals, schools and libraries to the internet, grow local economies by connecting them with distant consumers, develop new technical skills and even promote democracy and participation in civil society through online ‘town squares’ and the like.
Whatever the ambition, reality hit when a real gap became apparent between those with access to ICT tools and those without, both within countries as well as between countries – the so-called “digital divide”. Over time it also became clear that the mere presence of ICT did not guarantee economic and social development, without addressing questions about how it is used for a better quality of life.
The good news is there are now increasing signs that the early efforts to close the divide are starting to bear fruit. For example, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest report goes beyond headline-catching league tables of readiness to offer more than 100 case studies of schemes that work.
While the WEF’s focus is on individual countries’ current and potential capacity to benefit mainly from the perspective of governments, Forum for the Future’s Digital Europe initiative focuses on companies and the actual applications that can help make business more sustainable. Participation by individual firms including AOL, Barclays, EMI and Vodafone helps to give it that practical edge.
Meanwhile it is charitable donations, working through community groups, that seem to be having most impact in reaching out to individuals affected. Microsoft‘s Unlimited Potential initiative focuses on lifelong learning for disadvantaged people. The company believes that providing technical skills training to individuals will “create the social and economic opportunities that change people’s lives and transform communities”. Exactly the promise of the original ICT revolution as it turns into more of a gradual evolution.
Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 74 – March, 2004