Digital is here, but are we ready?

26 March 2021

Has your internet provider left you hanging recently? This might have been a painful event lasting a few hours, making it very clear that your daily activities depend on your connectivity. Work, entertainment, e-government, online purchases, a digital world from which some are still cut off. A reality the European Commission has recently committed to changing by ensuring that all EU households have gigabit connectivity by 2030.

Who’s covered?

European cities and towns don’t have it as bad in terms of pure internet coverage. Eurostat numbers from 2019 found that 92% of households in cities in the EU-27 Member States have internet access, with the number decreasing slightly for towns and suburbs where 89% of households have internet access. “Local authorities have limited power in terms of providing internet coverage, as it is outside their scope and in the hands of communication providers,” explains Kasper van Hout, digital officer at Murcia, co-chair of the Digital Citizenship Working Group. “So, cities can have more impact by creating the conditions for better accessibility. For example, by ensuring their residents have access to appropriate hardware.”

Do you have the right device?

After broadband, access to appropriate devices is another barrier that feeds the digital divide. Eurostat data from 2019 shows that 6% of households in the EU-27 do not access the internet because of costs related to equipment. Anecdotally, a survey run by the city of Barcelona noted that lower-income households only own smart phones and maybe one laptop to share between four people. With more activities going online, such as classes and teleworking, families in this situation have struggled to make it work.

In response, some cities have taken emergency measures during lockdown to reduce inequalities. “Cities have supported students, lower-income households and those at risk of exclusion with access to internet and devices,” says van Hout. Cardiff, for example, distributed over 7,500 devices to support children in following their online education. Fuenlabrada and the Hague have taken similar measures to ensure their students do not drop out of their studies.

And what about skills?

“The digital divide is about engagement and inclusion, not all people have the same access to not only technology, but also the knowledge and skills on how to use the technology,” remarks van Hout. In fact, one could say that the biggest barrier feeding into the digital divide is the lack of digital skills. In 2019, Eurostat recorded that 30% of individuals in the EU-27 have no or low digital skills, compared to 25% with basic digital skills and 31% with above basic digital skills.

And don’t think your grandpa is the only one having issues figuring out the World Wide Web. “People tend to assume that the youth is tech-savvy,” says van Hout. “They are usually comfortable using social media, but that doesn’t mean they have enough digital knowledge or that they are particularly aware of the risks, for example, related to privacy.”

Digital skills in any job

The lack of digital skills does not only hinder people’s access to services, but it also reduces their chances of getting a job. In February 2020, in its communication ‘Shaping Europe’s digital future’, the European Commission highlighted that over 90% of jobs already require at least basic digital skills. These skills are not limited to office jobs, but extend to many sectors, including unexpected ones like skilled agricultural workers.

The European Commission has set the objective of increasing the percentage of citizens with basic digital skills to 70% by 2025, and cities have already started doing their part. Munich, for example, has promoted several programmes to improve the digital skills of its population to boost their chances at employment.

Munich’s push to teach digital skills

In 2017, the city’s ‘Munich Employment and Qualification Program – MBQ’ started to fund the ReDI School of Digital Integration programme. Born from a collaboration with Berlin, the school first proposed classes directed at refugees to integrate them in the IT market or in related jobs. “Amongst the newcomers there are incredible IT-talents eager to learn, who want to contribute to Germany’s society and who could help fill the 124,000 open IT-jobs in Germany,” recites the welcome page of the programme.

“Women are more often excluded from digital careers,” explains Dr. Horan Lee, from the Department of Labour and Economy in the City of Munich. The city therefore took some steps and in 2019, added a programme at the ReDI school teaching digital literacy specifically to women.

Most recently the school added a programme for teenagers. Even if they are considered digital natives, teenagers still need to learn how to use social media safely. The course will also challenge students to use and develop their critical, creative, and problem-solving skills, which will help them in the professional world.

“The school benefits from the good relationship between the municipality and IT businesses in Munich,” says Dr. Horan Lee. In fact, volunteer teachers and mentors for the programmes come from the IT sector directly, adding their personal experiences to the lessons. And the experience has some numbers to show for its success: with 171 alumni in 2020, 88 got a job in IT, 16 an internship and 17 decided to take their digital education further.

The pandemic has both increased the need for such programmes and made it more difficult for training and classes to take place. Munich has adapted its programme for women by giving online classes via WhatsApp and on mobile phones. “The participants all had access to a mobile phone and knew how to use WhatsApp, that’s why ReDI School Munich decided to go with this format,” explains Dr. Horan Lee.

Even businesses need a hand with IT

The sudden increase in online dependency also hit small businesses hard. “Big businesses, like Amazon, already had online services and shops,” says Dr. Horan Lee, “but small businesses didn’t, and did not have the knowledge on how to create one.” So on April 1 2020, Munich, together with ReDI and UnternehmerTUM, organised a 24-hour marathon to address this challenge and give as much support as possible to its small businesses and guide them online. The initiative was welcomed, and the city is now planning to introduce a permanent programme to teach digital skills to small business owners.

The European Commission wants to ride the digitalisation wave. As part of the objectives of the ‘EU Digital Compass’ the Commission wants to digitalise all key public services by 2030, wants all citizens to have access to their e-medical records; and 80% of citizens to use an eID solution. The increase in digital services can improve people’s interactions with local authorities and provide faster services available 24/7. But we have to make sure that everyone can benefit from the digital world, and that means putting resources on programmes that break down the barriers of the digital divide.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer