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October 12, 2023

Close the digital divide to lower climate impacts

There's increased recognition that communities’ access to technology is key to disaster resilience.

In the news

Access to technology is one of several societal factors that affect the severity of natural disasters on a community, according to a recent US Federal Emergency Management Agency report. Which makes perfect sense; as this fascinating piece notes, without sufficient access to technology such as broadband internet and WiFi, “communities risk missing crucial warnings and other disaster-related information like evacuation recommendations and aid offerings, not to mention access to media reports and other online resources.”

Organizations like the Undivide Project are working on this very issue. Led by a Georgetown professor, the nonprofit focuses on the intersection of the climate crisis and the digital divide, drawing connections between a lack of technology access, environmental risk and historical inequity.

Neighborhoods created by discriminatory practices such as redlining (a now illegal maneuver that limited where racial and ethnic minorities and low-income residents were welcome to live) have created not only generational poverty but also a series of cascading risks. These risks include both limited access to technology and increased vulnerability to the sorts of phenomena associated with climate change: extreme heat, flooding and more.

The Undivide Project and others seek to remedy these issues by offering a portfolio of services to underserved communities.

The Cognizant take

The structural choices and under-investment highlighted by the Undivide Project point to a growing problem exemplified by the deadly wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, says M. Aya Kiy-Morrocco, Cognizant’s Head of ESG Governance. If the emergency alert system there had been activated in a timely manner—which emergency management officials have said was "nearly impossible"—she wonders, would residents have received the notifications?

The UK has been testing a new public emergency alert system that officials say could be life-saving. However, “the new system uses technology and alerts that will be broadcast by cell towers,” Kiy-Morrocco points out. “What if you don’t have a cell tower in your area?”

It goes without saying that access to life-saving technology should not be determined by Zip code. “As the private sector looks to implement projects that improve the lives of historically marginalized populations, we would be well-served in recognizing that bridging the digital divide will only strengthen our businesses and communities,” Kiy-Morrocco says.

Improved access to digital resources in such communities will bring improved access to services, including education and skilling. Says Kiy-Morrocco, “This will bring untapped talent pools to the private sector, bringing with them unique perspectives, experiences and understanding—and, in doing so, unleashing prosperity.”

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