Open Dialogue by Closing the Digital Divide

antonio neri

As a college student in Argentina 35 years ago, we had very limited access to textbooks. When it came time to study, we had to check out books from the campus library, take them across the street to make photocopies of the pages we needed, and then return the books to the library. It was an obstacle to learning that most students in the United States fortunately never have to face.

I share this story because in today’s digital-first world where everything is accessible online at our fingertips, my college experience seems unthinkable. But the sad truth is that even today, not everyone benefits from the same level of digital access—access to knowledge, to resources, and to sharing their perspectives.

Despite our progress—or perhaps because of it—there is an uneven distribution between those who have access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not. We call this inequality the digital divide.

Our world is changing rapidly, and the advancements we are making as a society with the aid of technology are profound. I believe we are nearing the end of the Information Era, which focused on generating and collecting massive amounts of data—the output of our digital world that includes everything from wearables and smart devices to health records and scientific research. As we leave that era, we enter into an Age of Insight, characterized by data analysis that will generate insights and discoveries not possible today.

But we cannot innovate only to improve the lives of a select few. We have the obligation to ensure that these insights benefit all, elevating the greater well-being of every human on this planet. Now more than ever, technology can play a critical role in enabling that access for everyone, regardless of race, geography or economic status. We have the potential to connect people with other people, content and resources like never before, sparking dialogue and helping unlock solutions to solve the world’s toughest challenges. It’s all at our fingertips.

However, as our economy becomes increasingly digital, the widening digital divide is creating a significant social divide. Without digital connectivity, certain populations are underrepresented in our national discourse. The lack of connectivity and access has literally muted certain voices. But there cannot be effective dialogue without diverse voices represented; we cannot continue to only hear privileged points of view. Only by closing the digital divide can we provide equal footing for active dialogue and understanding.

We need to use the innovation and digital transformation that the global pandemic has accelerated as a catalyst to reset how companies, societies, and governments work together to promote dialogue and drive adoption of new digital technologies, inclusively and democratically.

We need to treat connectivity as an essential service; arguably, it is as critical today as access to water and electricity. Public and private sectors must work together to establish a long-term agenda and create sustainable policies so that we can deliver these essential services to all citizens, not just in the United States, but around the globe.

Never has effective and inclusive dialogue been more critical—and possible. Twenty-five years after I photocopied content from my library textbooks, we have the potential to close the digital divide, opening access to underserved populations and opening the door to previously unheard voices. My role leading the WEF CEO Champions group on Accelerating Digital Transformation in a post COVID-19 world gives me visibility into the opportunities ahead of us. This incredible cross-industry group of CEOs is developing new toolkits and resources for organizations to foster economic recovery while minimizing digital equity gaps. I am inspired by the ingenuity and commitment to social change coming from this group and am personally committed to ensuring HPE does what it can to help.

One unique way HPE is supporting digital access during the pandemic is by providing free Wi-Fi solutions for children with limited connectivity at home to ensure they have access to online distance learning resources. An example that demonstrates the magnitude of the need within our communities is HPE’s partnership with the San Antonio Spurs and AT&T, which involved converting the entire Spurs’ stadium parking lot into a free Wi-Fi hotspot.

When the state of Arkansas shut down due to COVID-19, Bentonville Schools had one business day to move 18,000 students and 1,200 teachers to virtual learning. Days later, a photo emerged of students huddled outside of school on a cold, rainy day because their families didn’t have internet access. Our local team sprang into action and transformed the school parking lot into a Wi-Fi hotspot for students, teachers, families, and community members.

As we look ahead, our success is now a matter of whether we take the actions necessary to capitalize on the opportunities that lie ahead. Technology and access are only enablers; to solve the issues that confront us, we must undergo a fundamental shift in our dialogue—one that encourages uncomfortable conversations and listening to perspectives we didn’t ask to hear before. As a global company, HPE is ready to join others as part of the solution that can shape a better, more equitable world for all.