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How can digital transformation create the framework for reduced inequalities?

  • 22 November 2021
  • Social Responsibility Digital Transformation

Technology is undeniably built into the foundations of modern society. It enables business, it empowers people, and it inspires progress. The harsh truth we face as a digital-first world, though, is that technology also alienates and excludes millions of people. If we don’t recognize this and act now, it has the potential to exclude many more. 

That’s why we took part in a leadership summit happening alongside COP26, to discuss the roles of technology and business leaders in the pursuit of reduced inequalities for everyone. Digitization emerged as a common thread, but we think that only takes the conversation so far. The real challenge of our time is in building sustainability and accessibility into that digitization so that everyone benefits from the outcomes. Here’s how we see this taking shape:

Building a world that works better for everyone

Technology is a great enabler in many aspects of our lives, but it is not a means to an end in and of itself. If it is to be leveraged to its full potential it must be done for everyone’s sake by considering everyone’s needs. Sounds daunting, but this is the important task at hand. 

From going cloud-native for environmental efficiencies to designing with empathy for accessible digital experiences, there are many ways businesses can create more equal worlds for their customers and employees. We can collaboratively ensure that digital transformation forms a framework for meeting both the United Nations’ and our goals of reducing inequalities by taking the following into consideration:

1. Understanding underlying bias in technology
2. Bridging the digital divide
3. Putting people first
4. Becoming resilient with a sustainability strategy
5. The five pillars of sustainable digital transformation
6. Build a world that is equal for everyone

 

1. Understanding underlying bias in technology

AI and automation can revolutionize experiences for customers and employees alike, but only if they are adopted with their inherent limitations in mind. All AI is based on historic data and experiences, so systemic mistakes that have been made in the past will be made again because the technology can’t independently explore new, creative spaces.

If datasets, for instance, are compiled by teams that aren’t diverse enough, there are likely to be underlying biases that go undetected in the subsequent AI systems. Even Human-in-the-Loop (HITL) systems that attempt to thwart AI missteps by curating recommendations before implementation are limited to the mere function of filters, since they can’t generate unbiased alternatives post-launch.

Try approaching digital transformation work with a creative, product-based mindset, by baking continuous iterations into the plan from day one. Nobody’s needs stay the same forever, so it’s critical to ensure the products and experiences you create can be adapted as and when necessary to support reducing inequalities. Utilize a human-first AI that leverages feedback loops to track and optimize systems through continuous reinforced learning.

2. Bridging the digital divide

A successful digital transformation strategy requires an understanding of the barriers to entry that are encountered by millions of people around the world. From socioeconomic struggles to language and disability challenges, many individuals,, groups and communities are excluded from experiences that the majority might take for granted. The gap between these groups is known as the digital divide.

This divide can manifest in many ways. The decision to stop designing for older devices and operating systems, for example, can shut the digital door on people who simply can’t afford newfangled technologies. It’s essential that we take account of the divide to design for all kinds of personal needs and provide equal opportunities for all. 

Childline—a free counseling service for children in the UK—experienced a 37% increase in year-on-year website visitors under the age of 11 during the pandemic. If old devices were neglected in design updates, children from disadvantaged backgrounds would be neglected at times of need because they’d have no way to access such a service. 

If our design isn’t empathetic across the board, we’re effectively choosing to leave people behind.

 

 

3. Putting people first

The digital divide doesn’t end there, of course. Anything from recruitment processes that aren’t accessible to operating systems that aren’t equipped with local languages can be part of the global problem of inequality.

By not putting people first, businesses are not only failing in their ethical and legal obligations, but they are also missing out financially on an estimated $13 trillion market globally every year. The only way to be truly inclusive, legally compliant, and financially prudent is not to rely on quick-fix widgets and other short-term solutions, but to build accessibility into the core of every product from the start—only then can we reduce inequalities for all.

4. Becoming resilient with a sustainability strategy

If today’s organizations want to be resilient enough to respond to the changing needs and opportunities of tomorrow, sustainability needs to be central to their digital transformation roadmaps.

It’s not a case of placing one or the other—digital transformation or sustainability—at the top of our business agendas. It’s about treating them as inseparable growth drivers that help our businesses build a better future for everyone.

The immediate climate crisis is changing the focus of corporate strategies in that regard because short-term thinking like quarterly reporting simply doesn’t give the full picture anymore. We must instead include sustainable digital transformation as part of our survival strategies and consider the long-term impacts of every decision we make. 

We owe it to future generations, but what exactly might this look like?

5. The five pillars of sustainable digital transformation

For organizations to make technology work harder and better for them and, of course, the world around them, they must follow these five pillars of sustainable digital transformation:

1. Prioritize measurement: We can’t manage what we can’t measure;
2. Build infrastructure: If done right, digital holds the key to a sustainable future;
3. Reduce impact: Design for circularity and flexibility to mitigate obsolescence;
4. Democratize responsibility: Make sustainability everyone’s business problem; and
5. Use mindfully: Be intentional and mindful about how and when we use technology.

Embracing these pillars is about changing mindsets at every level of your organization. It means disrupting yourself to ensure that digitization creates a better business than what came before. It means leveraging technology in the right ways, at the right time, for the right people, to create a better environment than what came before. 

The crux of the challenge of reducing inequalities is in determining how we can break down barriers between organizations, industries, and entire sectors, and work together as collaborative leaders to build a more equal future for everyone.

6. Build a world that is equal for everyone

This past year forced many organizations to take a long, hard look in the mirror and make some fundamental changes to the way they worked in order to respond to changing customer and employee needs. 

Systemic change takes intention, perseverance and time. While you may not have not arrived at your final destination, you can make some very intentional and deliberate steps in its direction.

  • Take a critical look at your purpose—does it inspire inclusivity? 

  • Diversity and inclusion efforts and accountability should not be siloed—all of your employees should feel empowered and accountable. 

  • Don’t hold back—go all in with the understanding that change will take resources, investment, and time–but it is so important. 

  • Design with empathy—ensure your teams are designing products and experiences that are inclusive and as many people can use them as possible. 

  • Ruthlessly question algorithms—are they recommending what is best or what is historically expected?

Wrap up 

We don’t have all the answers—and that’s exactly the point we made at last week’s leadership summit. We wanted to start a conversation with business t leaders who are asking themselves the same questions, who want to use business as a force for good, who want to reduce inequalities through collaboration, not exacerbate them through short-sighted competition.

Digitization is a fantastic place to start when it comes to making the world work better, but it must be guided by sustainability and accessibility as outlined above if it is to make the world work better for everyone.

If you want to discover more about Vision 2045 and our part in it, you can see the highlights here. Be sure to follow on LinkedIn and Twitter for further conversation on these topics.

 

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