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Fontana S., Bisogni F., Cavallini S., Soldi R. (2022) “Territorial foresight study in addressing the digital divide and promoting digital cohesion”

Committente: European Committee of the Regions. 
Periodo: 2022
Url: Territorial foresight study in addressing the digital divide and promoting digital cohesion

In acknowledging the importance of the digital domain for an equal growth in Europe, since 2019 the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) has been advocating for including digital cohesion as part of the traditional concept of cohesion, which currently encompasses the economic, social and territorial dimensions. Digital cohesion can be described as the state achieved through the closing of the digital divide and the attainment of even participation of all European citizens in the benefits of digital transformation. Against this backdrop, the present study aims to investigate the potential evolution of digital cohesion in the future with a combination of approaches used in the foresight studies: horizon scanning, megatrends analysis, scenarios building, visioning and backcasting. The study is structured in four parts preceded by an introduction. In the introduction the definitions of digital cohesion and digital divide are provided, illustrating how to measure digital cohesion at the regional level. Also, the main EU policy developments against the digital divide are presented. In Part 1, the approach includes horizon scanning for weak signals and wild cards, which are, respectively, early signs of change and unlikely events with severe impact. This is done in order to better understand the potential convergence of the relevant future context towards digital cohesion. The approach consists of exploring, filtering and assessing weak signals and wild cards, employing both desk research and stakeholders’ consultation. After the initial scanning conducted by the study team, two stakeholders’ consultations were held. These consultations involved experts in the digital fields and CoR members, and were conducted in order to detect relevant weak signals and wild cards and also to deepen their linkage to the digital divide in Europe. Starting from 51 weak signals retrieved through desk research and literature review, 19 are identified (among them metaverse workforce, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and digital constitutionalism). With the same approach, from 20 wild cards, eight are identified (among them disruptive digital pandemic, out of control Artificial Intelligence and a massive immigration within Europe). Part 2 follows and broadens the scope of the investigation conducted in the previous part through megatrends analysis and scenarios building. Concerning the megatrends analysis, the 14 global megatrends identified by the Competence Centre on Foresight of the European Commission are reviewed based on the exploration of each megatrend’s linkages with digital skills, digital infrastructures, digital transformation of businesses and digital public services (i.e., the four cardinal points of the Digital Compass). Then their impact on digital cohesion as long-term driving forces is analysed. In the proposed approach, the occurrence of weak signals is associated with each megatrend, thus exploring the positive implications of weak signals in reducing the digital divide in Europe. This assessment is derived from the insights gathered through the CoR members’ consultation. Four scenarios are then built in order to provide different perspectives on how digital cohesion can be achieved and to learn possible implications for the present by evaluating each scenario according to the dimensions described in the Digital Compass: digital skills, digital infrastructures, digital transformation of businesses and digital public services. The results of the experts’ consultation concerning the relevance of weak signals and wild cards drives the creation of the scenarios with a quantitative method. These scenarios vary in terms of achievement of digital cohesion and the level of security of the environment generated by the weak signals. For example, in one scenario each weak signal has the maximum impact on digital cohesion, resulting in an even uptake of the technologies by the private sector, by the public administration and by the citizens, with digital skills and digital infrastructures as the main enablers for the transformation of the private sector and of the public administration. In another scenario, some technologies are less relevant than others, due to barriers for the general public’s uptake such as the lack of the appropriate digital skills or digital infrastructures. Malicious online threats are better managed by public governance. In Part 3, the forecasting model developed previously is complemented by a visioning and backcasting approach. The visioning, through the implementation of the megatrends considered, describes a future ideal vision for digital cohesion in Europe by highlighting how megatrends can accelerate or decelerate the Digital Compass dimensions. The vision is composed of eight sub-visions, each of them focusing on the reduction or the disappearance of a specific digital divide, e.g., between European regions, between genders or between vulnerable and nonvulnerable groups. These sub-visions create the image of an ideal future where digital cohesion in Europe approaches becoming a reality. Visioning builds upon the targets of the Digital Compass set for 2030 and looks further to 2050. Since it considers more specific divides than those addressed in the Digital Compass, the vision also widens the scope of the targets, providing evidence of the existing digital divides, proposing indicators to measure and monitor the progress towards the divides’ closing and highlighting data gaps and opportunities driven by new types of data and indicators. Afterwards, a backcasting exercise is applied as a strategic approach to retrospectively identify the steps needed towards the desirable futures described in the visioning. Based on existing backcasting models, three phases are applied to each of the eight sub-visions. First, components and enabling factors for achieving each sub-vision are outlined. Then a mapping of the current state and the identification of the gap towards each sub-vision are performed. Finally, the path towards each sub-vision is identified by working backwards. This last phase identifies barriers and possible policy and strategy actions whose implementation would result in the attainment of digital cohesion. Finally, in Part 4 the conclusions elaborated to expand the concept of digital cohesion are complemented by action-oriented recommendations to European institutions, Member States and local and regional authorities (LRAs). The recommendations address the horizontal and vertical aspects which emerged and are divided into three groups. The first one focuses on the weak signals and megatrends analysis that has the objective of foreseeing where the future is directed based on the existing context. Therefore, the recommendations are formulated to address foreseeable risks and shortfalls of the current policies and to provide strategies. The second group of recommendations aims at providing more topic-specific directions to prepare for the unforeseeable future and for correcting the course towards achieving digital cohesion. In fact, those recommendations take into consideration the impact of the identified wild cards and the backcasting exercise towards the vision illustrated in Part 3. Finally, in the third group, specific recommendations for improving the monitoring and the measuring of the progress towards digital cohesion are proposed.