Ivey prof develops strategy to bridge the digital divide

A new research study led by Ivey Business School  Isam Faik suggests the key to
A new research study led by Ivey Business School Isam Faik suggests the key to advancing digital inclusion is a shift toward better design practices. (Ivey Communications)
New research shows need for ’design mindset’ to include marginalized communities in the digital economy

Whether it’s a financial tracking app, a watch that monitors your health, or earphones that translate languages instantly, technology has revolutionized the human experience. Yet not everyone has equal access to these advantages.

For decades, efforts have been made in the tech industry and by governments to bridge the digital divide and extend access to digitally marginalized communities, including socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, racial minorities, rural populations, people with disabilities and seniors.

Historically, the issue has been approached through one question: Do these communities have access to technology, or not’

Isam Faik

But does this strategy truly grasp the full complexity of the issue’

A new research study led by Ivey Business School professor Isam Faik, published in MIS Quarterly, suggests the key to advancing digital inclusion is a shift toward better design practices. And it starts from the ground up.

-Like many of my colleagues, I aspire in my work to have impact on some of the grand challenges facing society today. Digital inequality, and the way it reinforces existing socioeconomic inequalities, is a significant challenge that requires novel solutions and new ways of thinking,- Faik said.

-I hope that this work will have an impact on how business leaders, technology developers and policymakers think about and approach the challenge of digital inequality.-

From China’s fields to Canada’s urban landscapes

Faik and his collaborators - Avijit Sengupta from University of Queensland Brisbane and Yimeng Deng from National University of Singapore - travelled to remote farms in China and India for their study.

-China and India are the most populous countries in the world and they both have significant rural populations that are composed in large proportions of smallholder farmers. Many of them are facing difficult socioeconomic conditions,- Faik said.

-When you combine this with their limited ability to benefit from digital technologies, their marginalization in an increasingly digitalized economy is only exacerbated.-

The team conducted interviews, focus groups and tested two mobile apps tailored to farmersneeds. By incorporating their voices and learning directly from the farmersexperiences, researchers uncovered strategies they say could enhance the impact of digital technology in many communities excluded from its benefits.

The same principles apply to marginalized groups in Canada, including rural communities, Indigenous groups, newcomers and individuals with disabilities.

Sparked by the promise of the findings, Faik is launching a new research initiative through Ivey’s Centre for Building Sustainable Value. This project aims to enhance sustainable agriculture in Ontario and Quebec by fostering communities of practice among farmers.

Moving from adoption to design

Previous research in digital inclusion often fixated on technological adoption, but Faik emphasizes the need for a broader perspective: Thinking of inclusion as a design challenge.

He advocates for firms, governments and policymakers to support the design of context-specific solutions to address three elements of digital inequality:
  • Access inequality: Does everyone have access to technology’
  • Capability inequality: Can individuals effectively use available technology’
  • Relevance inequality: Is the technology meaningful and applicable to users’

Rethinking the process

Empowering communities to use digital technology requires a shift in the typical design approach.

Goals and perceptions can change during technology use, Faik said. It is crucial for tech firms to pay keen attention to how people’s perceptions of what they can do with a technology evolve throughout the design process.

Most digital inclusion initiatives focus on how digitally marginalized individuals would use available technology, not their ideas for new technological solutions to everyday challenges. By paying more attention to how people make sense of technology and use it in their unique environments, tech leaders can unlock vast potential: transformative technologies could be created for previously underserved populations.