Digitization and the Digital Divide: COVID-19 and Beyond
The COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis have upended the way we live, socialize, work and do business, with much activity moving from physical to digital spaces. Digitization in business and education – including online commerce, working from home, and learning – has allowed important activities to continue in the crisis, but also exposes disparities in access to technologies and digital skills. If digitization were merely a temporary phenomenon we might discount the challenges. But online life will be the norm for a while, whether in whole or part. The digital age has arrived and it has exposed long-standing skills gaps and inequities.
The Public Policy Forum, in partnership with the Diversity Institute and the Future Skills Centre, has asked Anjum Sultana and me to prepare a scoping report that examines fundamental changes in the social, economic, cultural and political landscape generated by the pandemic and economic crisis and identifies pressing issues on which additional research is needed.
Our research and thinking are guided by a commitment to understanding post-pandemic skills issues that will affect prospects for innovation, growth and prosperity, and have implications for our ability to achieve a more equitable and inclusive economy and society.
Digitization in business, education, and social life is one of the key areas we are exploring. Even prior to the pandemic, many activities were taking on digital form, generating new skills needs – such as technical skills to create, implement and use technologies – and revealing many disparities in digital literacy, opportunities to develop digital skills, and participation in technology work. These needs and disparities have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic as businesses and educators have sought scarce technical expertise to develop an online presence and activities, and students, consumers, and people generally have attempted to use digital technologies to learn, shop and socialize.
Public and private sector actors have already signalled that some of the changes could be permanent. The Governments of Canada and Ontario recently announced a $57.6 million “Digital Main Street” program to help thousands of small businesses “create and enhance their online presence.” Additionally, the Digital Technology Supercluster – already expected to receive $153 million to support digital innovation – has allocated over $30 million for COVID-related digital infrastructure projects. These investments will surely have long-term implications for digitization more broadly.
Similarly, the balance of in-person and online instruction in schools may be experiencing a longer-term shift. Although many of the online learning initiatives introduced as crisis response measures will eventually be scaled back, some are likely to continue. For example, high school students in Ontario will be expected to complete two of their courses online – a change that was announced prior to the pandemic.
Skills Needs and Disparities
Canada has long struggled to ensure that there is sufficient technical talent to help organizations develop, implement and maintain digital technologies. As digitization trends in the economy and society accelerate, existing gaps will likely worsen which could affect not only innovation – the creation and commercialization of new technologies and digital processes – but business operations more broadly. We need to know just what technical skills are needed and whether our existing education, training and immigration systems are able to help people acquire and offer them.
Skills to use digital technologies effectively and safely – in work, education and life generally – will also be needed. But digital skills, and opportunities to develop them, are unevenly distributed in Canada. A survey of Canadian youth conducted by Abacus Data for Actua, for example, found that while more than 9 in 10 young people across all income levels believe digital skills will be important to their future education and careers, students in lower-income households were much less likely than those from higher-income households to say that they have access to digital technologies and opportunities to develop digital skills. With education online – whether in part or whole – for the foreseeable future, these students will be at high risk of being left behind.
Skills for Digitization Research and Action
These issues are only the tip of the iceberg. We know that digitization will have deep and long-lasting effects in the post-pandemic economy and society, but we have a limited understanding of just how deep and what the implications will be for the specific kinds and amount of digital skills needed. To ensure that a post-pandemic skills agenda can contribute to addressing digitization, we will need to fill substantial gaps in our knowledge:
- Exactly how much of our social and economic lives will be permanently, as opposed to temporarily, affected by digitization? How much digitization in business, education and social life is here to stay, and how much will it retreat once the pandemic is over?
- What specific skills will be needed to develop, implement, and maintain digital technologies? What is the state of those skills in the Canadian labour market?
- What specific skills will be needed to use and benefit from digital technologies? What is the state of those skills in the Canadian population?
- What skills will be needed among all people – especially children and older adults – to ensure that they can remain meaningfully and safely connected digitally to family, friends and their communities during the months and years of uncertainty ahead? What is the state of those skills in society?
- What disparities exist and/or could emerge in the development and use of digital skills?
Our current social and economic climate is characterized by profound uncertainty, but we expect that digitization – and its implications for innovation and inclusion – is largely here to stay.
To succeed and thrive in this new digital age, and to ensure that all people have opportunities to participate in and benefit from a digital economy and society, Canada will need a more digitally focused skills agenda.
Anjum Sultana and Dan Munro are lead authors for the first phase of the Public Policy Forum’s project on Skills for the Post-Pandemic World, in partnership with the Diversity Institute, the Future Skills Centre, and with support from Microsoft. Over the summer, 2020, they will be researching and convening stakeholders to produce a scoping paper that will help guide future research on this topic.