Whether it’s a financial tracking app, a watch that actively monitors your health, or earphones that translate languages in real time, technology has revolutionized the human experience, offering a myriad of benefits. Yet not everyone has equal access to these advantages.

For decades, efforts have been made within the tech industry and in policy circles to bridge the digital divide and extend access to digitally marginalized communities. This includes socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, racial minorities, rural populations, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Historically, companies have approached the issue through a binary approach, focusing on one clear question: Do these communities have access to technology, or not? But does this strategy truly grasp the full complexity of the matter, or might it be neglecting essential factors?

A new research study led by Isam Faik, Assistant Professor of Information Systems and Sustainability at Ivey Business School, and his collaborators Avijit Sengupta (University of Queensland Brisbane) and Yimeng Deng (National University of Singapore), finds that the key to advancing digital inclusion is a shift toward better design practices. And it starts from the ground up.   

From China's fields to Canada's urban landscapes

When considering the ideal environment to research digital transformation, rural farms aren’t often the first to come to mind. Yet, this is exactly where Faik and his team focused their study – travelling to remote farms in both China and India.

“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 – and many of them are facing difficult socio-economic conditions,” said Faik. “When you combine this with their limited ability to benefit from digital technologies, their marginalization in an increasingly digitalized economy is only exacerbated.”

While one may wonder about the application of insights from farmers in China and India on a global scale, Faik emphasizes that despite diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, marginalized communities are uniformly pressured – and challenged – to follow and fit into predetermined norms and systems, including those related to technology. This principle extends to marginalized populations in Canada, including rural communities, Indigenous groups, the elderly, newcomers, and individuals with disabilities.

Going straight to the source

With a prevailing goal to understand and improve the challenges that marginalized communities face in benefiting from digital technologies, Faik and his colleagues travelled to China and India six different times to connect directly with rural smallholder farmers. Employing a design-based interpretive approach - a user-focused method that requires holistic thinking to solve grand problems - the team conducted interviews, focus groups, and prototyping sessions. This included testing two distinctive mobile apps tailored to the farmers’ specific needs. By directly involving the voices and shared experiences of the farmers in the requirements identification process, researchers uncovered three pivotal insights that, if enacted, could enhance the impact of digital technology in the many communities that have been excluded from its benefits.

Three byte-sized steps to digital inclusion

Like tending a farmer’s field, achieving digital equality requires navigating through complex elements and fostering the necessary diversity to stimulate growth. For Faik and his colleagues, this diversity materialized in three key insights.

Moving from adoption to design

Previous research in digital inclusion often fixated on technological adoption, yet Faik's work emphasizes the need for a broader perspective of inclusion as a design challenge. He advocates for firms, governments, and policy-makers to support the design of context-specific solutions as a way of addressing digital inequality in its three distinct dimensions:

  • 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 and motivating more communities to use digital technology requires a shift in the homogeneous approach that is typical of technology design. Faik advocates for technology leaders to rethink both who is contributing information and the prompts and questions used to collect information.

For example, most digital inclusion initiatives have focused on how digitally marginalized individuals would generally use available technology, but not how they would imagine new technological solutions to their everyday challenges. By paying more attention to how people make sense of technology and relate it to their unique socioeconomic conditions, tech leaders can unlock vast potential in creating transformative technologies for previously underserved populations.

Paying attention to how technology perceptions evolve

Contrary to the assumption that users possess predefined goals when engaging with technology, Faik suggests that goals and perceptions can evolve during technology use. Rather than assuming fixed goals, it's vital for tech firms to recognize that goals can emerge and change as individuals interact with new technology. Therefore, it is crucial to pay keen attention to how people’s perceptions of what they can do with a technology, its affordances, evolve throughout the design process.

Sparked by the promise of these findings, Faik is leveraging them in 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. Combining these new learnings with the results of this study, Faik is optimistic about the future of digital inclusion.

“Like many of my colleagues, I aspire in my work to have impact on some of the grand challenges facing society today,” said Faik. “Digital inequality, and the way it reinforces existing socio-economic inequalities, is a significant challenge that requires novel solutions and new ways of thinking about how we integrate digital technologies in various contexts. I hope that this work will have an impact on how business leaders, technology developers, and policy-makers think about and approach the challenge of digital inequality.”

Discover full details of this study in the complete research article, Inclusion by Design: Requirements Elicitation with Digitally Marginalized Communities, found in MIS Quarterly.

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