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Digital Leaders Conference: An Opportunity for Inclusion

Written by Nina Mohanty, LSE

Last week, I attended the 12th National Digital Conference at the beautiful St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London.  The event was a day full of digital counseling, a crash course for some and a breath of fresh air for others.

I’ll preface this post by saying that I was not invited to attend this conference. In fact, I stumbled upon it and registered out of pure curiosity. The conference, unlike so many I have tried in vain to attend, had a subsidised registration fee for students so I able to sate my curiosity without breaking the bank.

The speakers at this conference were wonderful—many speaking as representatives of government, but some representing the private sector. Speakers touched on topics covering everything from how digital solutions are being used to enhance public sector offerings, to pleas for digital inclusion and greater diversity within the tech industry.

This last point stuck out in particular to me. Digital Leaders prides itself on working towards greater digital inclusion and in fact, there were an impressive number of women present at the conference but also speaking on stage. What impressed me the most, however, was the panel of young tech-preneurs who had been invited to speak. Having been around the conference circuit, I was almost dumbfounded by the fact that there were three speakers, wholly competent and informed, who were young enough to be my own friends.

The issue of diversity has been on our minds for some time now. But diversity exists. For the most part, it is there—reflected in a rainbow of races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations. The fact that it is there is not the problem. Inclusion is the problem because inclusion requires committed action. Inclusion requires an organisation or person to reach out a hand and allow an otherwise marginalised person into the fold. This action of welcoming and accepting into our own circles is what sets diversity apart from inclusion.

For some time now, we have been making baby steps in tech towards racial and gender inclusion. But one diversity mark we so often fail to consider is age.

The conference opened with Mark Thompson giving a quick introduction to the conference at hand. On one of his slides was a picture of a cassette tape and a pencil. He asked the crowd, raise your hand if you know the relationship between these two objects. A majority of the audience raised their hands. He joked, “Well then, I suppose we are post-millennial here today.”

The fact of the matter was that even though there was access to this conference for young people (by way of a student ticket, for example), the lack of representation was shocking. Full disclosure, I only just turned 24, smack dab in the middle of the “millennial demographic” and I knew the relationship—I cherished my cassette tapes and yes, I also remember using floppy discs back in the day.

The panel of three young people was a breath of fresh air. It was slightly odd though, admittedly, to think that these speakers were younger than me; and they were presenting to an audience who, for the most part, was old enough to be the speakers’ parents.  The speakers offered valuable insights into their work and even offered up tips to engaging young people in the digital realm, even comparing digital offerings to a candy shop. That is, young people know exactly what sweets they want and they know where to get them, so outreach must be targeted and precise! But I couldn’t help but chuckle thinking it reminded me of trying to teach my grandmother how to use an iPad or some other new technology, a situation we all too often find ourselves in.

Later at lunch, there was a chance to network with other conference delegates. There was a clear divide almost immediately between the seasoned, older delegates and those few younger delegates wandering about. It seemed a shame, as I truly believe that young people have so much to offer when it comes to digital inclusion. Conferences across all sectors can benefit from inclusion, particularly that of young voices who will —must—have the capacity to shape the future for their own generation. Opportunities to learn are aplenty and should obviously be taken advantage of, from both sides of the cassette tape!

As Digital Leaders continues to build on its mission of digital inclusion in all sectors, my hope is that it will look to bring in younger perspectives. Having already surprised me with their young panel, Digital Leaders is poised to grow this presence and take advantage of the plethora of young minds eager to contribute but unsure of how to do so. Digital inclusion is not just about collaborations within sectors and industries; it must also be about the very people that are spearheading these efforts. The more perspectives we can add to the conversation, the richer and more rewarding they will be!

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