In 1995, in his best-selling book Being Digital, author and technologist Nicholas Negroponte proclaimed that digital technology could be “a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony”.

It was a bold statement in a bold book, but statistics on the extent and scope of digital exclusion globally continue to make gloomy reading.

Even today, fewer than a quarter of the world’s 6bn people have access to the educational, social and economic opportunities the internet can provide. Some that do, meanwhile, find local information in their own language is lacking.

But Mr Negroponte remains optimistic that many of these limitations can be overcome for a vast swathe of people in developing nations. As chairman of non-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), he is working to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power laptop.

These computers, developed by OLPC and manufactured by Taiwanese manufacturer Quanta Computer, are typically sold – in some cases, donated – to governments and distributed through ministries of education, currently for $187 per laptop. Mr Negroponte hopes this will fall to $75, in line with OLPC’s initial promise of a sub-$100 laptop.

Does he feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge? “Yes, always,” he says, bluntly. “Fifty per cent of the children in the world do not have electricity at home or at school.”

Like OLPC itself, the issue of digital inclusion is riddled with controversy: it is widely accepted that government initiatives and public philanthropy alone are not enough to tackle the problem. But when the world’s largest suppliers of IT become involved, they leave themselves open to accusations of self-interest.

At the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates called for a new system of “creative capitalism” that would match business expertise with needs in the developing world to find markets that are, as yet, untapped.

“There are billions of people who need the great inventions of the computer age and many more basic needs as well. But they have no way of expressing their needs in ways that matter to markets, so they go without. If we are going to have a serious chance of changing their lives, we will need another level of innovation.”

Microsoft aims to deliver that “level of innovation” through its Unlimited Potential (UP) programme, launched in February 2007.

This aims to bring together the company’s business strategy with its corporate citizenship goals, by partnering worldwide with influential community stakeholders – businesses, governments, educators and voluntary organisations – to create economic solutions for social ills such as illiteracy and deficient healthcare.

In Pakistan, for example, garment makers who serve global markets tapped UP’s Karachi-based Innovation Center to co-develop product lifecycle management technologies. In Nigeria, UP is helping government workers pay for new computers, using their pay cheques as collateral.

Other companies have similar initiatives that look to balance philanthropy with the creation of new markets. It is a necessary force for good, argues John Davies, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s World Ahead Programme. “Government policy can only set a direction. Industry co-operation is vital for governments, just as government co-operation is vital for us,” he says.

To date, the World Ahead Programme has worked with 160 programmes, providing 40m people with PCs. In the process, the semiconductor giant has made donations of more than $100m.

Rival chip company AMD has set itself and its partners in the 50x15 Foundation the ambitious goal of connecting half the world’s population to the internet by 2015.

“According to the average percentage growth of worldwide internet adoption, access won’t reach 50 per cent of the world’s population until 2030,” admits Dan Shine, president of the Foundation. “But we felt that if we could inspire the right people and organisations to join us, we could help create the right conditions for some massive positive changes.”

The impact of digital inclusion programmes on the lives of people should not be underestimated. Andile Ngcaba is chairman of South Africa-based systems integration company Dimension Data in the Middle East and Africa. Before that he was director general of the South African Department of Communications (DOC).

“People have spoken about Africa as an ‘unfortunate continent’ in terms of digital exclusion, but the pace of change has taken many by surprise,” he says. “Through Dimension Data’s schools programme, for example, I regularly see how interested in technology kids in Africa are and how quickly they get to grips with a keyboard and mouse.

“I also see this interest in technology as a way of delivering education that they find more engaging than simply having a teacher speaking to them. This stuff is life-changing and I see that every day,” he says.

Digital inclusion is a concern elsewhere, too. In Europe, for example, between 30 and 40 per cent of people are not able to participate in, or benefit from, the information society, according to Paul Timmers, head of unit for the European Commission’s ICT for Inclusion programme.

“Our position is clear: e-inclusion is an economic opportunity and a social necessity,” he says. “Age, disability, living in a remote or rural area, cultural background, income, skills or motivation shouldn’t present barriers to participation in a modern economy – but they do. We’re working hard with national governments and IT suppliers to break down those barriers.”

The commission has established the e-Inclusion Awards to raise awareness and to recognise excellence in areas such as encouraging digital participation among senior citizens and marginalised young people and opening e-government to EU citizens.

In the UK, a government post of Minister for Digital Inclusion was created in April, in spite of the fact that about two-thirds of the population have internet access. It is part of an effort to include the remaining third.

For example, Land Securities, the developer, has a project at Ebsfleet Valley in Kent, where consulting firm Arup is ensuring the 10,000 homes planned over the next 20 years are part of an overall “urban information architecture” that also takes into account the needs of businesses and government organisations.

“By connecting people to the information they need, modern technology has the ability to improve a city’s environment and economy, making it a more desirable place to live and work,” explains Léan Doody, a principal consultant at Arup.

“That includes fibre optic cables running up to individual houses, so residents benefit from the best internet access. Increasingly, I believe, this will be seen not as a luxury, but as a necessity of life, just like electricity and water.”

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