Scotland’s digital economy ‘must be inclusive’

Written by Tom Freeman on 10 October 2018 in Inside Politics

Digital infrastructure can still leave people behind, warns digital economy minister Kate Forbes

Digital economy minister Kate Forbes - Scottish Government

The rush towards the digital economy is gathering apace, but despite recognition at both a Scottish and UK government level there remains a danger that some may get left behind.

Speaking at Holyrood’s fringe event on the matter at SNP conference, digital economy minister Kate Forbes said she was very aware of the issue as an MSP representing Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch.

Access to adequate broadband has been an issue for the rural economy, one which will only get worse as more commerce moves into the digital space.

The Scottish Government has committed to 100 per cent broadband coverage, with an initial investment of £600m, but as Audit Scotland revealed last month, many areas still struggle to do business online.

“100 per cent broadband coverage must mean 100 per cent,” said Forbes.

Mobile coverage, too, is an issue, with the Scottish Government looking at 16 'notspots' where private operators won't provide masts.

One local businessman had told Forbes he’d had struggled to get guests to his B&B in Portree after failing to get his business online yet.

“That shows the huge importance that after we’ve connected the country, how do we support our small and medium sized enterprises to make the most of it?”

Digital transactions are booming, but Ben Wilson of Mastercard said it was important to retain a “range of options” to remain inclusive.

After the infrastructure is in place, making sure the support provided is tailored to the needs of different businesses will be key, suggested Forbes.

“Digital participation has two parts to it,” she said. “The first part is people being left behind because the infrastructure isn’t there, and again, I get it, and probably more than many of my colleagues…

“But the other part to digital inclusivity is participation. We forget sometimes, I think, that it still costs £25 a month to get online. And it costs whatever you mobile phone contract costs, and you’ve got to get one first, or a laptop or ipad to access it.

“There are communities in Scotland today that frankly don’t have the cash to splash on getting online in the first place.”

Systems don’t always allow for this, and even sometimes make it worse, according to Forbes.

"I can think of things from Universal Credit to bank branch closures where digitisation has been a means of excluding people rather than including people,” she said.

“The key with our plans for digital and why I love this job is that I get to try and bring people together to make sure digital is inclusive, not exclusive.”

With the country hoping to foster an international reputation, what about Scotland’s capability on a global stage to grasp the opportunities of the digital revolution?

Figures suggest current skills gaps mean the industry needs 13,000 entrants every year just to stand still.

Success breeds aspiration and confidence in Scotland’s capability, she suggested, and this was endorsed by Svea Miesch of industry body Scotland IS.

“The key point is talking about the success stories. We already have companies who do this but they might not be well known,” she said.

“There is a company in Edinburgh, Craneware, which is a leader in the US for software in hospitals. The majority of hospitals in the US use software developed in Edinburgh.”

“We need to provide an environment that is conducive to developing new businesses and outward investment,” said Wilson, especially in the uncertainty of Brexit.

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