UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Findings from a UBS experiment on Digital Inclusion

22 January 2021

Evaluating the role of housing associations to design and deliver Universal Basic Services experiments for redesigning the 21st century welfare state, by Juan Manuel Moreno

Free wifi sign

Digital exclusion in the UK encompasses a series of entrenched gender, intergenerational, ethnic, socio-economic, and geographical inequalities in terms of Internet access and digital skills. The disparate experiences of the lockdown during Covid-19 have exacerbated these inequalities and prompted renewed political dialogue about the importance of universal access to critical services, such as digital infrastructures and digital training and literacy across the population.

In this context, a system of Universal Basic Services (UBS) can be critical not just in reducing the everyday costs of living, thereby helping to tackle poverty and inequalities, but also by supporting and creating the capacities and capabilities that allow people to participate fully in society.

The uncertainty and disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 have highlighted the critical importance of local public services in supporting people and communities through lockdown. Within this context, community anchor organisations, such as housing associations and social housing providers, have quickly moved to provide essential support for families and vulnerable individuals.

Working in collaboration with two Citizen Social Scientists, the IGP carried out a qualitative research evaluation of one of these initiatives, the Connected Communities Inclusive Broadband project, to examine and understand the experiences of nine participant families. The project, launched in June 2020, is a collaboration between Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (HARCA), LETTA Trust Schools, Tower Hamlets Council, East End Community Foundation, and Internet provider Community Fibre, and will run for two years, targeting 100-200 low-income households in Poplar, Tower Hamlets London borough. Each household family participating in the project is being provided with free broadband Internet connection, a Google Chromebook digital device, and basic information and communications technology (ICT) training and support. The objective is to scale the project up to 1,000 (Phase 2) and 10,000 (Phase 3) households in the medium to long term.

We recommend accelerating and scaling up the learnings and impacts of local Digital Inclusion initiatives and other UBS-type experiments is crucial for supporting people’s livelihoods security, tacking poverty and structural inequality, and building back better in a post Covid-19 world. Doing this would require identifying a target population to better quantify and understand the dimension of digital exclusion; Working in partnership across sectors and Learning from and supporting existing initiatives to develop a UBS Community of Practice for knowledge and best practice exchange.

The findings and recommendations from the research are intended for both policy, academic and wider public audiences, and will serve to build evidence for a system of Universal Basic Services (UBS) a radical, yet feasible and sustainable policy framework proposal developed by IGP’s Social Prosperity Network (SPN) to re-design a welfare system fit for the 21st century.

This study, and the SPN, are part of IGP’s Prosperity Co-Lab (ProCol) UK initiative whose work is focused on rethinking prosperity and the future of the welfare state through citizen-led research and cross-sectoral collaborations. Through its ProCol UK team, the IGP is currently working with partners in London (Camden and Tower Hamlets), Liverpool City Region, and Leeds to develop a UBS Community of Practice for knowledge and best practice exchange on best models of UBS-type experimentations.

Read the Stories of Change from the Connected Communities Inclusive Broadband Project report (pdf)

Read the Stories of Change from the Connected Communities Inclusive Broadband Project policy brief (pdf) 

Image credit: Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash