Published date

April 2014

Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation

The RSE’s Digital Participation Inquiry has been exploring how digital technologies and the internet are used by the public, businesses, government and charities on a day to day basis. It has examined the opportunities that digital technologies can offer to people and businesses online. But it has also been exploring why many remain offline at a time when digital exclusion is likely to lead to increasing exclusion from society and the economy.

The Inquiry has taken evidence from individuals, organisations and businesses across Scotland on these issues. It has considered issues of skills and motivation, as well as technical issues of openness and accessibility. It aims to understand the different ways organisations and individuals can use the internet and digital technologies for wider social, economic and cultural benefits – including health, wealth and wellbeing.

In December 2013, the Inquiry published an Interim Report which presented its emerging findings and recommendations to government and its private and third sector partners on how barriers to digital inclusion can be overcome so that everyone in Scotland can benefit from the digital revolution. Consultation on that Report has allowed us to refine those recommendations and to consider in more depth questions on the responsibilities of a digtial soceiety.

This Inquiry was launched in February 2013 with an initial consultation period to August. The Interim Report was published in early December for feedback by 8 February 2014. The Inquiry’s final report was published on 30 April 2014.

The full inquiry can be accessed here: Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation

Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation

The interim report of the Inquiry into spreading the benefit of digital participation in Scotland was published on 4 December 2013. This report sets out the findings of evidence-gathering activities across Scotland and outlines the Inquiry’s emerging recommendations on the actions that the Scottish Government, local authorities and private and voluntary sector partners must take to avoid a growing digital divide.

The report calls on the Scottish Government to recognise an undeniable right to digital inclusion and to assume overall accountability for ensuring that it is available and accessible to everyone in Scotland. It urges the Scottish Government to set its ambition for digital inclusion high: in Iceland, Sweden and Norway broadband connectivity and use are above 90%, Scotland, where the figure is currently around 71%, should aspire to join this group.

Professor Michael Fourman, Chair of the Inquiry, said:

“At present some 1.3 million people in Scotland are either not online or lack basic digital literacy skills. Many of Scotland’s 113,000 small and micro-businesses are not online or do not make full use of digital tools. As the digital revolution continues, those who do not participate will be increasingly excluded from society and the economy. Digital exclusion is strongly linked to other forms of deprivation and risks deepening existing social divides.”

The report identifies three fundamental factors for digital inclusion and makes recommendations on how they can be addressed:

  • Affordable access, both through having the right digital infrastructure in place across Scotland and through finding new ways for people to get an affordable connection, for example through housing associations;
  • Motivating people and businesses to get online, focusing on the community level – people will be more interested in participating if their friends, family, others who share their interests or, for businesses, their customers, are online; and
  • Equipping people with the skills they need to use digital technologies safely, confidently and creatively. In a digital society this may range from digital literacy skills to wider ICT awareness to fundamental computer science.

The report also identifies that a digital society brings new responsibilities, for government and others, in broader issues such as privacy, security and trust, fit-for-purpose legislation and rights and responsibilities. Some of these issues will be returned to in the final report.

The interim inquiry can be found here: Digital Participation: Interim Report


The ways we communicate, work, consume, grow our economy, are active in our communities, deliver and access public services, community planning, education and healthcare, are evolving. Digital information and communications technologies are changing the ways we live, work, and play, and the pace of change will continue, but many individuals, businesses, and communities are not engaged.

There is much activity underway in Scotland and the UK, as well as internationally, to address the challenges of digital participation. Research has identified key groups of individuals in which levels of participation are particularly low, and many initiatives aimed at stimulating engagement have been undertaken, with limited success.

However, most work to date has focussed either on material and economic barriers to access, or on individual motivation, education and skills. The significant social, cultural and economic impacts of digital participation all depend crucially on network effects, and these have largely been ignored. For example, a community is only able to communicate online once a majority of members is already online; an individual is only motivated to go online once a critical mass of their social, economic, and cultural interactions are supported online.

Once an individual is online, they can share in the wider educational, economic, and social benefits of digital participation–and this benefits society.

An understanding of such network effects is required to guide policy. This, in turn, requires a holistic overview of the changing role of digital technologies that, the RSE is well-placed to contribute. An understanding of existing social, cultural and economic communities–particularly those communities that are not (yet) digitally engaged–is lacking from the policy landscape. How might these communities benefit from the use of digital information and communications technologies, and what actions are required to realise these potential benefits?

Our inquiry will focus on communities–including social, economic, and cultural communities–and ask three key questions:

How can digital technologies benefit our communities?

What do communities, businesses and organisations need to be able to fully participate in this changing society?

How can we ensure that digital technologies help to narrow the social divide, rather than widen it, and that the economic opportunities they provide are best realised to support sustainable, flourishing communities across Scotland?

The benefits of digital participation for individuals, communities, public bodies, businesses and voluntary organisations, are well-documented. Our inquiry will start by taking stock of social, economic and cultural communities across Scotland that are not yet enjoying these benefits to the full. We will engage with these communities to understand the barriers to engagement, and develop strategies to overcome them and ensure that the increasingly central role digital technology plays in society contributes to a narrowing of social divides.

Strands of the Inquiry

In order to be able to make appropriate recommendations on how to engage with and support people and organisations in such a way as to maximise the benefits of the digital society for all, our inquiry will:

Study available data and build on it to drill deeper into the communities that include key groups (elderly, DE socio-economic group, disabled/long-term ill); assess the potential benefits to be gained through improved use of digital technologies by these communities; and identify the barriers to participation.

Assess the role of digital technologies across the business landscape in Scotland, particularly in light of the high proportion of SMEs and the growing creative industries sector, to get a clear picture of barriers to use and of the impacts these have on Scotland’s economy.

Evaluate the opportunities for accessing public services, community planning, education and healthcare through digital technologies, and the risks and challenges we face in exploiting these.

Consider the use of digital technologies by the third sector, including the benefits they can bring in supporting the delivery of voluntary services, and how they are currently being used.

Examine and evaluate motivators and levers that influence behaviour at individual, community and organisational level, including communities of interest and hard-to-reach groups.

Consider how to mitigate the risks and communicate the opportunities to different individuals, communities, businesses and other organisations to encourage engagement, and how to support people and organisations to use digital technologies safely and effectively.

Our inquiry will also comment on the future strategic development of Scotland’s information infrastructure, and how policy can support and encourage creative, innovative use of digital technologies to bring maximum cultural, social and economic benefits to Scotland.


In fulfilling the above remit, the RSE will significantly contribute to addressing the challenge of low levels of digital participation in Scotland and enable more effective policy development by:

Providing a clear picture of current use of digital technologies in Scotland: how they are shaping society and daily lives, the opportunities and potential benefits they present for individuals, public, private and third sectors, and areas where there is scope for improvement.

Providing insight into fundamental reasons why some communities and organisations, including SMEs, public sector and third sector bodies, do not currently use digital technologies to their full potential.

Highlighting existing initiatives within Scotland and internationally that can act as examples of best practice in supporting increased digital engagement.

Making integrated recommendations about the ways in which communities and organisations can be encouraged and supported to use digital technologies appropriate for them, taking account of levers held by central and local government, private sector, third sector and society (communities, families etc).

Making recommendations on how to ensure that the increasing use of digital technology in society does not widen social divides, including recommendations on necessary safety nets and on engaging with the groups most at risk of falling behind.

Illustrating the need to design policies in such a way that they encourage creative, innovative use of technologies in order to place Scotland at the cutting edge of the digital era and in a position to reap maximum cultural, social and economic benefits from advances.


Prof Michael Fourman FRSE (Committee Chair)

Prof Alan Alexander OBE FRSE (Committee Co-Chair)

Prof Frank Bechhofer FRSE

Dr Janet Brown FRSE

Norman Macaskill

Dr Darryl Mead (to December 2013)

Prof Johanna Moore FRSE

Nicola Osborne

Dr Sarah Skerratt

Martyn Wade

Chris Yiu (from December 2013)