COVID-19 has been described as the great accelerant — forcing dramatic changes in travel, entertainment, education, retail and just about every other segment of our economy and society. Some of the changes will be temporary — i.e., the NBA bubble season — but others will be permanent — the dramatic reduction in retail space/shopping, etc. — simply because they were “on their way out” anyway. And most will be modified to a lesser or larger extent depending on people’s ability to access and become comfortable with advances in technology.
That brings us to another of COVID-19’s unforeseen consequences — the magnification of the disparities in our society — health care, housing, education, financial and, of course, access and affordability of technology. Digital economy technologies are touted to be the “great democratizers,” designed to level the playing fields, reduce middlemen and offer opportunity for all to compete more openly in an expanding global marketplace.
Unfortunately, that vision has been blurred by the economic and societal realities glaringly exposed in the attempt to deal with COVID-19. We suddenly realized our systems and people were not actually prepared for the technological revolution of working remotely, telehealth, tele-education, and telemaking, buying, selling, servicing, delivering and everything else our economy depends on to keep moving.
The answer to these shortcomings and challenges is not strictly technological. We have the technology. What we need is the collective commitment to make it happen. And by commitment, I don’t mean the passive: “Yes, that’s a real problem — they should definitely do something about that.” I mean the active: “I am going to do something about that.”
When it comes to technology, the divide in this country in terms of access to affordable and reliable internet connectivity is a national tragedy. In many instances, rural and urban areas alike are devoid of affordable access to the technology that allows kids to go to school online, or the elderly/infirmed to participate in life- and cost-saving telehealth, or prevents millions of people from being able to work remotely or compete for higher-paying jobs, simply because of their address.
Beyond a revolution, it’s time for a technology re-volition. Volition is defined as the cognitive process of deciding on and committing to a particular action; a purposeful striving.
We must start to see inequality in a different light and address it accordingly. Inequality is weakness in our system. Like the weak link in an otherwise formidable chain — when exploited or broken — it negatively impacts even the strongest among us. Our digital divide is the proverbial Achilles’ heel of our democratic society and market economy. And the opportunity of a lifetime for businesses, health care providers, educators and governments to expand their services and improve their own bottom lines.
Access to affordable 21st-century technology for ALL is the “moonshot” of the next decade. Without it, our society, in terms of health, education and the economy, will splinter even further as the digital divide widens.
So the questions must not be if and when, but rather how and who. Is it wireless or satellite broadband, 5G or some to-be discovered innovation or systemic approach? Will we leave it to the private sector and market incentives? Or will we hold public sector leaders accountable for real results? Can regional broadband cooperatives/nonprofits help fill the void? What about the Innovate Ohio/ODOT/Ohio Turnpike initiatives? Was Ohio’s House Bill 13 Broadband Access measure enough, or do we need more?
Instead of pointing a finger or passing the buck, who is going to stand up and say, “This is my (our) responsibility,” and take action to get it done? Then be willing to be held accountable if they don’t, or share credit when they do. That is the “next economy” leadership that we need.
When President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to reach the moon in less than a decade, most did not believe it could be done. It was his volition that set the stage for a decadeslong accomplishment. And now it is our turn.
That is the challenge before us — before me. We have some strong leaders actively engaged at the state and local levels, but we need more. So I am going to commit to do something about it. Who else will join me?
York is the current president of the Ohio IT Association and a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis. Contact him at [email protected]