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Power Of Example: Tech’s Role in Closing the Digital Divide

9/16/2021
— Marcus Loh, Group Executive Director, Singapore 

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that the speed and capabilities of computers and machines would exponentially increase while costs would continue to fall. This observation came to be known as Moore’s Law. Fifty-five years on, the law has accurately charted the exponential progress of technological and social change, along with productivity and global economic growth.

However, Moore failed to predict the distribution of the benefits of this growth. Instead of improving the lives of all, it created a “digital divide”: a gap between people who benefit from modern communications technology, internet service and digital literacy, and those who do not. With technology’s relentless march showing no signs of slowing, physical, financial and cognitive inequalities will continue to widen.

 

AN ECONOMY DIVIDED

In becoming one of the largest industries in the world, the tech industry has inadvertently contributed to the digital divide. Half of all businesses in the United States that generate profits of more than 25% are tech companies, but this wealth creation has not translated to equal opportunity for all. Financial Times Global Business Columnist Rana Foroohar says, “The tech titans of today… create far fewer jobs than not only the big industrial groups of the past, but also less than the previous generation of tech companies”. On the other hand, a McKinsey Global Institute study found that historically job-generating industries like retail, education and government faced further displacement of people due to digital disruption.

This created a two-tiered economy: one that is exponentially productive while generating few jobs, and the other increasingly pressured to shed workers to stay afloat.

As the key contributors to this digital divide, it’s necessary for tech companies to address its detrimental effects. In a recent WE study, 69% of business leaders listed stakeholder engagement as an essential leadership behavior for 2021, affirming the growing worldwide recognition that leaders today have a responsibility to address inherent inequalities that affect communities globally.

Companies should embrace the principle that their reputations emanate not from the example of their power, but from the power of their example. This extends not only to their investors and shareholders, but with all who can affect, or be affected by, their actions too.

To this end, communicators in tech firms have a large part to play in keeping executives on track to not lose sight of the stakeholder-centered ambitions laid down during their company’s inception.

The tech industry’s influence and resources enable it to play a leading role in addressing the digital and economic divide with stakeholders. Fortunately, some tech firms are stepping forward to bridge these gaps. 

 

THE POWER OF EXAMPLE

In recent years, we are seeing more partnerships between organizations geared at solving the divide. While tech companies are making great strides across the private sector, recent approaches to engaging the public sector and community organizations in joint initiatives have also enabled tech companies to effectively lead with purpose and create stronger outcomes for all.

Lenovo recently partnered with Microsoft on its EdVision program, assisting schools across South Asia and Southeast Asia in digital transformation and increasing digital literacy among the new generation of teachers and students. When over 300 million students in India could not attend classes during COVID-19 induced lockdowns, Lenovo launched a virtual platform enabling teacher-volunteers to create unique learning experiences for students who needed it the most. Last year, this initiative engaged over 13 million people in just two months and sparked similar campaigns across Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

In China, Alibaba is at the forefront of connecting over 1,000 rural communities, farmers and traders to broadband Internet through its Alibaba Rural Vitalization Fund, so that people in rural regions can access digital technologies and partake in the country’s booming digital economy. More recently, the tech giant’s leaders also announced a $15.5 billion investment to finance 10 “common prosperity” initiatives, supporting the nation’s push toward a more equitable society. This includes plans to ramp up technology investments that help underdeveloped regions strengthen their digital infrastructures and economies.

We are also seeing direct government partnerships: Take Skills Ignition SG, a jobs and skills training initiative by Singapore’s government agencies in partnership with Google. Targeted at equipping Singapore residents with digital skills and on-the-job training opportunities, the scheme has already supported 2,600 entry-level and mid-career job seekers and counting.

These initiatives by Lenovo, Alibaba, and Google are great examples for other tech companies aspiring to make a difference to their stakeholders by leading with purpose and the power of their example.

 

A DIGITAL FUTURE FOR ALL

As technological change continues to accelerate - and COVID-19 further entrenches -technology’s importance in our lives, tech companies are presented with a prized window of opportunity to step up and take a leading role in engaging empathetically with stakeholders and bridging society’s digital divide.  

The impact is clear: Tech brands can do more than teach marketable skills – they can help lift people who are falling behind the digital transformation journey. Tech companies are uniquely positioned to make a positive change, and they can act now. By leading with the power of example and amplifying impact with authentic narratives, we have a strong chance to collectively create a digital future where everyone can partake in the exponential progress of technological and social change.