Eddie Copeland: Britain must become a digital nation

IT has become something of a cliché to say that the internet has transformed the world. But that’s only because it’s true.

Email, social media and apps are changing the way people communicate with friends, family and colleagues. New e-commerce models are creating businesses that five years ago did not (in some cases, could not) exist. Websites like Wikipedia are lowering barriers to accessing information. People can find their next job online, manage their finances with e-banking, navigate with GPS-enabled smartphones, and get discounts on their weekly shop with a few taps on a tablet or clicks of a mouse. Even government is providing more of its services via digital channels. In short, getting online is essential for accessing the best – and increasingly even the most basic – personal, educational and business opportunities. As such, the internet has a major role to play in modern social mobility.

It is therefore very troubling that 9.8m people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, such as being able to send an email or use a search engine. With technology becoming ever more pervasive in our day-to-day lives, failing to address this skills deficit risks creating a new social rift between the digital haves and have-nots.

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It is for this reason that the Policy Exchange is calling for all political parties to make a pledge to ensure that everyone has at least basic digital skills by 2020.

If the Government fails to take action, 6.2m people will remain digitally excluded at the end of the next parliament. That is simply not good enough, especially when the cost of getting those people online costs an average of just £141 per person. The total cost would be £875m – a significant outlay, yes – but also a fraction of the potential savings and economic gains that could be achieved by getting everyone online.

Where would those gains come from? The Government believes it could save up to £1.7bn a year if it could get more people to use its online services, rather than those delivered face-to-face or via the telephone. The NHS could save close to £108m if just one per cent of their face-to-face visits were converted to visits to NHS Choices – their online advice portal.

Yet this is about more than saving money. Getting online can help address some of the UK’s most pressing social challenges like loneliness amongst pensioners.

According to Age UK, 10 per cent of elderly people report often or always feeling lonely. For people facing such chronic isolation, getting online offers a chance to engage with the world far beyond their four walls. They can stay in touch with family and friends living miles away via Skype; discover community groups in their area which offer the chance to get out and meet new people; and pursue hobbies and interests online, from learning a new language to downloading almost any book ever written. Let us be clear: the internet should never be considered a cheap replacement for real human contact. But for the two in five pensioners who report that their main source of company is their television, the internet offers the chance to interact with real people.

The recommendation that the whole population should have at least basic digital skills by 2020 is just the first of over 30 that the Policy Exchange will be making in a Technology Manifesto.

It will call on politicians to think about how technology could help individuals, businesses and government during the next Parliament. Yet it is almost certainly the most important. It is the essential step for breaking down social barriers, creating the widest possible domestic market for British businesses wishing to sell online and ensuring that government can reduce its costs by providing more services digitally. Norway and Iceland have already demonstrated that it is possible, with over 98 per cent internet penetration compared with the UK’s 83 per cent. We cannot afford not to make digital skills a priority.

There are thousands of organisations around the UK ready and willing to help get everyone online. Let’s now see our political parties commit to giving the funds they need to make the UK the world’s leading digital nation.

• Eddie Copeland is the head of the technology unit at the Policy Exchange think-tank.