Mobilizing CSR To Bridge the Digital Divide
By David James, Mon Jun 02 12:45:00 GMT 2003

Corporate Social Responsibility efforts to bridge the Digital Divide are getting a huge boost from wireless technologies.


Hi-tech hypesters claim that the Digital Age is vastly improving the lives and opportunities of people around the globe, while public-interest hand-wringers worry that it is creating a Digital Divide - an enormous and growing gap between the "technology-rich" and the "technology-poor," threatening social and economic stability and progress. Who is right? And if there is a worrisome Digital Divide, are wireless technologies and corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts helping to bridge it?

The Digital Divide depends in large part upon the availability and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The Divide is vast for people without access to an adequate telecommunications infrastructure, or who cannot afford ICT devices such as mobile phones and computers, or who lack the skills and education to use them. And the economic and social impacts of technology tend to favor people with high ICT usage. The advantages and benefits of the Digital Age seem to go to the "information-rich," with little left over for the "information-poor."

Taking Social Responsibility to Heart

Governments, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and business groups have long been concerned about the Digital Divide and how to bridge it. In business communities, the bridging efforts increasingly fall under the banner of CSR - an issue raised in a 2002 report of the European Commission that called on companies to integrate social, environmental and ethical concerns into the heart of their businesses.

David Varney, chairman of Business in the Community, the United Kingdom's largest and longest-standing organization promoting CSR, believes that CSR is especially applicable to the Digital Divide. "Our organization is involved on many levels in encouraging and assisting companies to promote ICT skills within their communities," he says.

Varney's own company - he is also the chairman of European carrier mmO2 - points to its CSR efforts in support of the King Edward VI Handsworth School, an inner-city school in Birmingham, and an asthma management project undertaken with e-San, a healthcare solutions company. The asthma management project enables asthma sufferers to transmit lung capacity readings over GPRS to a server that alerts their doctors to any discrepancies.

Hewlett-Packard's CSR program is called e-Inclusion, and one of its featured activities is the Tribal Digital Village, a project to create a distributed digital community connecting 18 American Indian reservations over several hundred miles in a rural region of southern California. According to Scott Bossinger, the HP executive in charge of the project, the Tribal Digital Village now connects 12 of the 18 tribes using a high-speed wireless network backbone and Wi-Fi technology to provide access to each other and to the Internet. "These wireless technologies are helping the tribes to recapture their cultures and languages through better communication capabilities and to connect with the global community. Tribe members are also developing their own high-tech capabilities by actively participating in the design, installation and maintenance of the networks."

Nokia's CSR centerpiece is Bridgeit, a global program to deliver digital education materials to schools via mobile products and satellite technologies. Beginning in June 2003, the service will be tested by fifth and sixth grade teachers in 80 classrooms located throughout the Philippines, using mobile phones to download full-length science videos for viewing on television sets. "This is one example of how ICTs can work for social well-being and sustainable development," says David Stoneham, director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Nokia.

Doing Well by Doing Good

But isn't CSR just another form of corporate public relations, promoting a company's public image? Charlotte Wolff, CSR manager at mmO2, acknowledges that CSR has PR benefits, but she believes that CSR helps the company continue to do good works. "Our employees love the fact that we are active in CSR, and CSR is partly responsible for mmO2's inclusion in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, helping to support the performance of the company's stock," she says. mmO2 is one of only six telecommunications companies on the Sustainability Indexes list of well-managed and future-oriented companies, the others include rivals Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom. Mobile-equipment manufacturers Ericsson, Nokia, and Siemens also make the list.

HP's Bossinger also acknowledges a degree of corporate self-interest in CSR projects. He believes that the projects help HP better understand how its products can meet the needs of society. "Technology helps improve the quality of life and economic opportunities of people at all levels of society, and we want to be a part of that," he says.

Shrinking the Digital Divide

CSR efforts aside, the most basic ICT devices - mobile phones - are having a major impact on the social and economic condition of "information-poor" people around the world. In less developed countries, the Digital Divide is actually shrinking on a relative basis because wireless networks, some with wireless local loop technologies, are now reaching remote communities, and people who could never afford to set up a subscription contract can use mobile phones with prepaid plans. Mobile phones are strengthening community ties, building social and political networks, and developing economic opportunities for the "information-poor."

Charles Kenny, an economist at The World Bank, notes that mobile communications are being used in less-developed countries in some really creative ways. "Ugandan fishermen, for example, are using mobile phones to find out prices and truck arrival times. They get more money and deliver fresher fish as a result," he says. "Mobile services bring a whole new perspective to the Digital Divide issue," adds Nick Hughes, a Vodafone CSR executive.

Mixing Metaphors

Issues involving the Digital Divide are examined in detail in "Social Responsibility in the Information Society," a March 2003 report of the European Community's Digital Europe project, a two-year investigation into the relationship between e-business and sustainable development. The report makes the point that a Digital Divide may be the wrong metaphor for social and economic discrepancies in the Digital Age, raising the image of a chasm that must be leaped in a single bound. "The better metaphor is a Digital Ladder, offering those on the lowest rungs the prospect of moving up the ladder as they gain access and knowledge," says Vidhya Alakeson, principal policy advisor of the Forum for the Future, and one of the report's authors.

CSR and wireless technologies are providing the "information-poor" with a big boost up that ladder.

It's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

David James (djames@bsicorp.net) is president of Business Strategies International, a San Francisco-based consulting and venture-development firm specializing in technology business opportunities.