How fixing the digital divide will help the country level up

30 March 2022


The digital divide came into sharp focus for many more people than ever before during the lockdown periods of the COVID-19 pandemic.

No one was immune to some degree of disruption, across work, education, health or relationships. Our daily lives began to look very different with shielding, home schooling, digital first services and remote working setting new patterns of behaviour. Whilst this was challenging if you had the necessary digital skills, personal device access, data and connectivity, it created crisis situations if you lacked these essential resources. In 2021, 10m people across the UK lacked the most basic digital skills, 1.5m UK households had no internet access and 2m UK households struggle to afford internet access.

The collective response across sectors to raised awareness of the impact of digital exclusion was noticeable and highly effective. Schools, businesses, charities and the public sector came together around the provision of devices and data to those help those most need. However, as we move from reacting to crisis to accepting to live with change and uncertainty, there is a need to ensure everyone, everywhere is adaptable and resilient living in a digital world.

In this talk Helen Milner and Dr Al Mathers will look at the importance of digital inclusion through the lens of levelling up. At a time where geographic disparities across and within areas have become more pronounced, we are on the threshold of either acting effectively together or pulling further apart. Critical questions we will be covering include: Who and which areas stand to fall further behind? What do you need to cross the divide as an individual? How can research, policy, community and business work together to ensure we thrive in a changing world? And what would a digitally included nation really deliver us?


Helen Milner OBE is the Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation, an international social change charity whose mission is a world where everyone can benefit from digital. Good Things Foundation Group operates in the UK and Australia, working with thousands of hyper-local community partners so that people can benefit from everything the internet and digital technologies have to offer. Founded as a staff-led mutual charity in the UK in 2011, Helen led the establishment of a subsidiary charity, opening an office in Sydney in August 2017, and running the Be Connected Network for the Australian Government. Since 2010 her organisation and its local partners have helped over 3.2 million people to  improve their lives through digital. Helen was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June 2015. In 2017 she won the coveted title of Digital Leader of the Year (UK). Helen has worked in the UK House of Commons as a member of The Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy and was the Specialist Advisor on Digital Engagement to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee. She is a Member of the Digital Skills Partnership Board chaired by the UK’s Digital Minister.

Dr Al Mathers (BA Hons, Dip LA, PhD) is the Director of Research at the royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce (The RSA). She is responsible for the strategic development of the One RSA approach to research, social impact measurement and outcomes across the RSA’s programmes and partnerships.

Having worked across the academic and practice sectors for over 15 years, Al is passionate about evidence driven social change, building and leading high impact research and data teams, and participatory research with diverse communities.

She was previously Head of Research at Good Things Foundation, a leading national and international digital inclusion charity, publishing the organisation’s COVID-19 Response Report in 2020 – charting the rise of data poverty, exacerbated digital inequalities, and evolution of community sector response during the pandemic. Before moving to the third sector, she was a researcher and lecturer at the University of Sheffield, completing her PhD in 2008, Hidden Voices: the participation of people with learning disabilities in the experience of public open space, alongside production of peer reviewed papers on inclusive design practice and co-authoring Socially Restorative Urbanism.

Keen to ensure the social impact of cross sector partnerships, Al continues to work in an advisory capacity with Government departments and academic institutions, and is an External Advisory Board member of Age Better in Sheffield and Prosper and Developing a minimum digital living standard for households with children.

Related reading

Ruth Hannan & Hannah Webster (November 2021) Offline, no one can hear you scream: Achieving digital equity in the 21st century, The RSA

Anthony Painter & Al Mathers (October 2021) The levelling up conundrum, The RSA

Digital Inclusion: A Roadmap for Combined Authorities (September 2021) Good Things Foundation

Digital Nation Infographic (2021) Good Things Foundation

Al Mathers, James Richardson, Stephanie Vincent, Joseph Chambers and Emma Stone (June 2020) COVID-19 Response Report, Good Things Foundation