The need for digital skills has brought the United Kingdom to a “tipping point,” according to a new report by a House of Lords committee in London. According to the report, entitled “Make or Break: the UK’s Digital Future,” the UK’s status as a global economic leader depends on the incoming government, to be elected in May, prioritizing digital literacy as a national imperative. Their ultimate suggestion was to regard Internet access as a public utility: to close the “digital divide” in order to increase digital literacy.
Technology is changing the world, reports the commission, and the UK must adapt. They predict a world “transformed by a… ‘second machine age’” and they exhort the new government to ensure that the population will be able to transform with it. “The impact of new digital technology is all encompassing—from public transport to agriculture and from household goods to financial services,” says the report. “Digital skills…are now necessary life skills.
“We must aspire for the vast majority of the population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in society.”
Currently, the country does not appear to have that preparation. “Without action, the UK may fall behind in the new digital era,” reports the BBC. “In particular, a ‘paucity’ of women in digital careers and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics generally risks holding back UK competitiveness.” Though certain sectors have already made headway in executing this shift, the challenge as presented by the report is less about cultivating a British tech sector—which is already a vibrant one—than about extending digital literacy to everyone.
At stake is the country’s ability to compete in the global economy. As is the case around the world, the rush to modernize is a race against time. “In the short time that we have conducted this inquiry there have been frequent reminders of the pace, scale and breadth of technological change in our daily lives. There have been numerous job losses in traditional industries,” says the report. “Change is accelerating and the entire population is affected by the digital revolution.”
As a developed state, the UK is in a better position to improve its technological fortunes than many. The report’s top-line recommendation to the new government is to recognize digital literacy as an imperative worthy of a concerted effort on the part of government.
“The current Government and its predecessor were not idle, but their efforts have lacked sufficient coordination,” says the commission. “We need a proactive Government, able to coordinate and join-up initiatives across sectors, places and organisations, with enough ambition to address head-on the national culture change required to meet the new digital age. We need a Government that will put the change required at the top of its priority list.”
One major recommendation they make is for the government to “view the Internet as a fundamental part of a nation’s infrastructure.” In other words, to turn it into a public utility. Technology is as essential to a functioning modern society as roads, water, and electricity, they argue, and so it should be made just as widely available.
The report also makes other suggestions that could help the UK spread digital literacy. They define the “hard infrastructure” (broadband connectivity) and “soft infrastructure” (digital literacy) that are both “core pre-conditions” needed to prepare the population for the digital economy. The
former refers to the need for affordable and reliable Internet access in all areas of the country; the latter refers to the soft skills of generally knowing how to use digital technology. Following those two pre-conditions, they propose the need for digital skills training, which is the ability to stay current with the use of digital tools and have the ability to increase their knowledge when needed. This includes not only “hard” digital skills, but things like creativity and integrating digital skills into primary and secondary schools. Finally, they advise that we empower business to make the most out of this digitally skilled workforce and thereby retain an important competitive advantage.
The UK today is not optimally prepared for the enormous digital change awaiting it, but it stands in a better position to become prepared than many countries. Merely by appointing a Digital Skills Committee in the first place, the UK government has announced their intention to keep their nation from falling behind in the tech arms race. The thing is, no one’s really “ahead” in this sprint. No country is ideally poised to grab the potential of a digital future now. But with advocacy from inside their government, don’t be surprised if the UK becomes a leader in national digital literacy in the coming decades.