Where Next for the Digital Society?


Oct 14, 2016

Illustration of a digital world

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The rise in new digital-based technologies and systems is unprecedented. Over the last two decades, this level of digital growth has changed our society. Digital technologies are omnipresent, both in terms of where we are and what we do — in the workplace, at home, in the local community, when purchasing goods, when travelling and across different social interactions.

To explore the opportunities and challenges that digital technologies are creating within society, the Corsham Institute, in partnership with RAND Europe, over the past year designed and delivered the 2016 Thought Leadership programme looking at the “Digital Society.” The programme, which was periodically hosted at St. George's House, brought together senior figures from academia, industry, government and third-sector organisations, and examined four key topics: digital health; cyber and resilience; digital living; and trust and ethics.

When these topics are looked at, four common themes emerge.

Use of personal data: The public feels that they have no control over how data is captured and used. Data is becoming a valuable commercial resource for many organisations, but there needs to be a balance between the needs of the individual whose data is being collected and the organisations processing the data.

Potential inequalities caused by digital technologies: Despite the huge potential for significant economic and societal benefits, digital technologies can magnify gaps between sections of society that have connectivity and the means to access new services (such as being able to afford the technologies), and those that do not.

The increasing use of digital technologies: The increasing reliance on automation in digital technologies is likely to lead to significant changes to employment. A key benefit of automation in technologies is the ability to assimilate multiple data sources, thereby supporting more effective and automated decision-making. Employees are also likely to require new and different skills to remain employed as digital technologies become a stronger feature within the workplace.

A need to make the public more digitally savvy: By raising awareness of the opportunities and risks inherent in digital technologies, the public will be better prepared in how to behave online to avoid inflicting harm (intended or unintended) on themselves and others.

The Digital Society is at an important crossroads. If the UK is going to maximise the benefits from the increasing adoption of digital technologies, three potential actions may need to happen by 2020.

Creating a narrative and awareness campaign for the public and industry that articulate the benefits and challenges will be important. A Charter of Digital Rights and Responsibilities is one big-picture idea, which would aim to make everyone, from the public to industry to governments, aware of their rights and responsibilities online in order to create a more inclusive and safe digital society.

Establishing trust and transparency is also important. The public needs to trust that organisations will not misuse their personal data, which can be largely achieved by organisations being transparent about how they intend to use it. There also needs to be transparency in how technologies are used and rolled out. The increasing automation of human tasks requires quality assurance to maintain trust and confidence in digital technologies.

Addressing the potential for inequality is another area of focus, both in allowing people access to digital technologies and also in the workplace. An “Equalities Impact Assessment” of new digital technologies can ensure that everyone in society can benefit from the opportunities of the Digital Society, while education and training will be required to ensure that people have the necessary digital skills to continue working.

A digital society can bring about economic and societal gain, but dangers exist: social exclusion and further inequalities pose further risks; public trust is eroded if data is misused; jobs are lost to automated technologies; and cyber-attacks will likely increase. Ensuring that the Digital Society is fit and ready for the future will require a wide variety of societal issues to be addressed, not just the actual digital technologies.

Hans Pung is president and Catriona Manville is a research leader at RAND Europe. Both were involved in the Thought Leadership Programme 2016 with the Corsham Institute and contributed to its report.

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