Monday, 3 December 2012

ILC-UK report on digital exclusion: to nudge or not?

Last Thursday, 29/11, International Longevity Centre - UK (ILC-UK) in conjunction with their social investor/think tank sponsor Nominet Trust, held a report launch. Hosted by the Communications Consumer Panel at the Ofcom HDQ, their new research into tackling the systemic, digital exclusion of older people was unveiled. This timely primer in behavioural economics investigated whether the predominance of isolation for marginalized groups from the digital world might be improved by nudging or compelling them towards digital participation.  It was also interesting timing, given that their findings were released on the same afternoon as the contentious report on the Leveson inquiry (into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal) was released. On every level, communication in the 21st C, is a fraught enterprise.

The establishment of a consumer framework for digital participation is advocated by the Communications Consumer Panel.  Recognizing that older people are a vulnerable population, bridging their distinctive path on the digital divide will require incentives, opportunities for skill development,  better understanding of potential risks and the acknowledgment of the potentially transformative power of digitization. At present however, inhibitors and obstacles abound while the digital divide widens for the estimated 15% of the UK population who have never used the net. In a separate study, it is also estimated that in the EU, 50% of over 50 year old's don't carry smart phones.

People who are not online need to be able to clearly see the benefits of technological adaptation. Social interaction is also key to making participation in the online world relevant. This, however,  can only be achieved when technology is positively perceived to add value to those things people already do on a daily basis. Producing this outcome for consumers while simultaneously sustaining high quality human contact has become the holy grail.  Therefore, inducing information seeking behaviour requires a tricky combination of high accessibility and manageability that can be seen as simultaneously complementary to existing behaviours. In a 2010 study, 39% of those without the internet maintain that they don't need it.  Even in a perfect world, connectivity represents a very tall order when anecdotal policy making by well meaning MP's appears to dominate the debate. The sense that this is no one's problem at the same time it is everyone's problem is palpable.  Successive actions of putting governmental services online presumes a digital by default stance. This also demonstrates an impressive lack of concern about tomorrow's problems in the ongoing struggle to get ageing policy, of which digital participation is an increasingly important feature, on the agenda.

Attention was also drawn to the failures on the part of technology designers and service providers to deliver. Products and online options must not only work but must also be perceived as superior to the status quo. We are nowhere near either outcome yet and the invisibility of older people in marketing efforts does limit acceptance of anything new. Meanwhile, the suggestion that older people can somehow be converted into digital champions seems a stretch and will require a tremendous societal, normative shift. Every technology user is already overwhelmed by choice overload but in the case of techno-neophytes, without broader peer group acceptance it will  be difficult to influence the choices they eventually do make. All evidence points to a growing need for simplification across the board and this is true with respect to any disability and not just age.

The inflexibility of human nature is well documented. Convincing this population to alter existing biases, hardwired into them and then somehow get them interested in learning new skills and changing the habits of a lifetime seems unlikely. Without serious attention to the development and promotion of sustainable, on-tap, intergenerational relationships, mass acceptance of connectivity is improbable.  The attitudes, interests and circumstances of people as they age and across the life course continuum must be recognized and supported and this is a failure of the market from innovation to product delivery. Optimally,  linking technology use to addressing and correcting social challenges is becoming increasingly necessary given longevity expectations and the momentous, demographic shift.

In conclusion, while nudging may be a soft option, compelling appears to be working with the recently announced automatic enrolment default for pensions. Behavioural choice has not been studied well but in the absence of research, compulsion could trump nudging. Martha Lane Fox, entrepreneur and digital champion supports radical transformation and shutting down of services to induce change. This is in harsh contrast to the drip feed approach taken when the decimalization decision was made in this country forty years ago and in 2012,  it is still incomplete.

This is a tremendous amount to consider and this blog does not cover all points, but any thoughts? Join the discussion!

Deborah Gale