What is the role of digital technology in solving poverty in the UK?

What is the role of digital technology in solving poverty in the UK?

Written by Campbell Robb on Thu 16 Nov 2017

We are living in a period of political stalemate. Therefore, it is exciting to see that this year’s Together We’re Better conference was focussed on the need for collaboration to achieve systemic change in our society.

During a period of uncertainty it is essential that people with direct experience of poverty have their voices heard. That is why advances in digital technology, such as instant messaging and social media, are so important. These new forms of communication empower the poorest in our society to be heard in a way that was previously not possible.  This energy and passion shown by people and places experiencing poverty must be used as a driving force for change in our society.

Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) launched our strategy setting out how a prosperous and poverty-free UK could be achieved in a generation. As part of this work, we identified that there are over 12.5 million people in the UK who lack basic digital skills. For many families, this can be a serious barrier to escaping poverty.
Our five point plan to solve poverty illustrates how businesses, communities, individuals and regional and national governments can work together to play an active role in a new, national mission to boost the prospects of people and places who have been left behind by the current system.

In addition to leading research and developing policy at a national level, JRF is taking practical steps to tackle digital exclusion and working to influence the language we use to talk about poverty in a rapidly changing communications landscape.

Firstly, JRF is working hard to bring to the attention of the public and politicians that poverty exists, causes harm and can be solved. Achieving this is a crucial first step to successfully tackling poverty. We are currently undertaking a piece of work with the FrameWorks Institute looking at how we can make best use of digital channels when campaigning on issues relating to poverty. Similarly, this project is building on the best practice of a wide range of international organisations to understand the most effective ways of framing poverty and telling stories as a means of achieving social change.

However, JRF believes that more must be done to help low income families reap the benefits created by advances in technology. So we have partnered with the Good Things Foundation to train our staff to become Digital Champions. These skills are then used to provide training to the residents of Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust communities in a programme to promote digital inclusion.

We also live in an economy that often feels as though it is weighted against people living in poverty. An example of this is the poverty premium, which sees people in poverty spending on average £490 a year more for their essential goods and services than those who are better-off. To respond, JRF, Big Society Capital and others are working together to launch the new Fair by Design Fund, an acceleration programme to support digital start-ups who have innovative ideas to tackle the premium. The aim of this Fund is to provide companies with the resources and support they need to pursue their ideas in a way which will help make markets work better for people living in poverty.
Ultimately, things need to change, they can change and we can all work together to make a society and economy that works for everyone. It is only through collaboration and embracing digital technology that we will be able to build the necessary movement and collective will to solve poverty in the UK.

Campbell Robb is Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation