In this Digital Age, Americans must decide whether we want an economically inclusive society where all people have the essential assets to sustain and advance themselves, or the status quo, that allows so many to fall outside of the economic mainstream. In an information-driven society, everyone needs the capacity to engage in matters that affect their health, economic welfare, and civic participation.
We have the technological capacity to expand our horizons to live longer, better, more sustainable lives. We can transcend the traditional access barriers of time and place with 24/7 availability of services and information. The danger, however, lies in a paradox created by societal uses of this very same technology. Steady technological adoption by all sectors actually widens the already existing information divide between the haves and have nots; and, in a digital age, creates a larger chasm between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and geographies.
If we make the right choice to move beyond the status quo and its resulting disparities, we should seize this moment to go beyond the narrowcasting of the digital divide. In fact, we should abandon the term “digital divide” because it implies that the problem is simply one of access to tools. It’s not. Even if the public, private, and social sectors were to provide every American with access to connectivity and devices, we would still have an intolerable opportunity divide.
It is only through our intentional application of technology that we will address poverty and improve the lives of many. The digital imperative is to move beyond the static vision of a divide to build a movement focused on digital advancement.
America now has the best opportunity ever to mobilize the resources—the financial and human capital—to address these ends. We are seeing enormous federal investment in areas hit hardest by the pandemic. And in response to America’s recent increased focus on addressing racial disparities, the private sector is committing billions of dollars to communities they’ve long overlooked. This is a moment to not just build physical infrastructure, but also to mobilize the creativity and capacity of tens of millions of marginalized Americans who want to help build a world where everyone can thrive.
As we think about comprehensive digital advancement, there are three important principles that I want to be our guide: imagination, innovation, and investment.
Imagination is the act of reconsidering what something can be. What if we chose to put people first and to view low-income individuals as engaged consumers and producers, rather than passive clients and constituents existing only to receive pre-packaged services? What we call “broadband-adoption problems” would fade. Adoption is not a program; it is a mindset. If we want better and more meaningful utilization, we should think in terms of culture, comfort, convenience, and relevance. Imagine if the people at the center of adoption efforts were also part of the human capital that designs, delivers, and integrates new customer products and services to enhance their communities—and, better yet, receives economic benefits from that work. Imagine if we viewed affordable housing as more than just shelter or a human warehouse. When will we decide that affordable broadband and technology-enabled services are essential infrastructure in affordable housing?
Innovation is the development of new solutions. America must apply its full capacity of brainpower and technology to empower the poor and underserved. With broadband and the Internet of Things (IoT), we have great power that to date goes underutilized for social purpose. An example: our population is growing older and seniors overwhelmingly want to age in their homes. Improved quality of life and health outcomes can be obtained by bringing technologies into the home with culturally connected content and training. Medicaid ought to be a larger financing partner with financial institutions, municipalities, and state agencies as these solutions support the efficiency and effectiveness of that program.
Investment and capital expenditures are never value-neutral. Investors have pioneered new ways of seeking returns that are socially beneficial, not just financial. The potential for expanding impact investment from niche to norm is enormous. But to seize this potential, we need to repurpose existing funds, support new government policies and allocations, and create new investment models that internalize the value creation from converging various interests. Technology investment that is inclusive of human capital is a 21st century imperative.
The Urgency of Now
With all of this said, America has a choice to make. By design or by default, we will decide the contours of our society. Will we seek to expand opportunities for all of our citizens or will we tolerate significant economic and quality-of-life disparities? We have the tools. And with the right mindset, we can advance the human condition for all.
Ramsey is founder and CEO of Centri Tech.