In conversation with... Nicolas Merveille

Nicolas Merveille, Professor within l’Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM)’s School of Management Services and mind behind the City of Montréal’s Chartre des données numériques, dives into the growing digital divide, and three key ways to cultivate a more equitable new normal for all. 

Nicolas Merveille has seen enough to know there are two sides to every story. For every person who can’t wait to get back to the life they knew before the pandemic, there’s another who will say: forget that. 

“They couldn’t imagine they’d be happy living this way,” says Merveille. “And yet, here they are wondering if they’re truly willing to go back to the way it was before.”

Merveille—a Professor within l’Université de Québec à Montréal’s School of Management Services—says that dichotomy is poised to fuel a hybrid future that will rely on a mix of in-person and digital experiences for a long time to come. The real challenge, he adds, is moving forward while simultaneously bridging the digital divide the pandemic has so clearly exposed. 

New digital approaches reveal telling new challenges. 

Everything from the amount of paper we use, to the number of deliveries we receive, surged as people everywhere embraced digital at an accelerated pace over the last 15 months. This shift has radicalized a striking inequity between digital haves, and have nots. Overnight, our ability to work, learn and access services became almost entirely dependent on our digital connectedness. That paradigm exposed a real imbalance between socioeconomic, demographic and geographic groups. 

The resulting barriers represent significant challenges Merveille says we can—in fact, must—conquer as we define the next normal together.

“We’ve proven that we can reinvent ourselves quickly,” says Merveille. “People are in the midst of requalifying things at an individual and collective level. If we can apply that adaptability to solve for other problems that have been exposed or risen to the surface because of the pandemic, imagine what we could do. From climate change to social justice to inclusion, we could close a lot of these gaps if we responded with the same urgency that we applied to the pandemic.”

The key lies in reframing the way we approach digital. By putting humans at the centre of the design, infrastructure and adoption, the tools we create generate a net positive impact for more people, more of the time. 

Better digital tools begin with a clearly defined purpose and framework.

Using digital best means first qualifying the vision for exactly what the tools are meant to achieve.

“For any organization, company or community group, if you want to steer the vision internally you need to all get in the same boat,” says Merveille. “It brings the obligation of building consensus around the table to make sure what we’re doing aligns with our values.”

As a chief architect of The City of Montreal’s Chartre des donnés numériques, Merveille knows just how important it is to build consensus around the use of digital. Published in October 2020, the charter serves as a level set, declaring 13 guiding principles meant to guarantee the rights of citizens in the digital age, assure the overarching importance of using digital in the interest of the greater good, and emphasize an urgent need to service the future well. By enshrining regulated uses and practices in a charter like this, the city (and any other entity that embraces a similar approach) can guide digital projects consistently, even as leadership or teams change over time. 

“There were a multitude of projects that were tied to sector problems and challenges, but this charter gave them a base playing field,” Merveille says. “That means you won’t have contradictory projects working against one another.”

Doing so creates an institutional memory that ensures the digital tools designed, developed and rolled out cultivate a smarter city based on a singularly powerful guiding force. It also drives better discussions by enabling stakeholders with a roadmap to validate direction, and make sure the solutions created are inclusive of diverse citizen needs. 

Merveille says a charter like this can also go a long way toward bolstering cybersecurity defences. “If the city continues to work on something, but the elected officials have moved on, that can create a gap for a hacker to break into. If you want to pilot the future, you could be creating new levels of risk for the next generation. Institutional memory [like the Chartre] becomes important for security in that sense.”

Inclusive design supports interfaces that work across varied user groups. 

Of course, it’s the intersection of strong principles and intentional design that give digital added power. The pandemic revealed key ways in which design flaws—or a lack of inclusive thinking at the design stage—limited the ultimate reach of digital tools. 

Consider the relatively simple act of booking a COVID-19 vaccine through an online app or website. While internet access has reached near-saturation levels for those aged 15 to 64 in Canada, approximately 30% of senior citizens don’t use the internet at all. That made the very interface difficult to use for a tranche of the population that desperately needed to access this service. 

Switch gears, and think about the student tapping into online school, or the parent suddenly needing to work from home. While more than 87% of all Canadian households can access recommended broadband speeds and unlimited data, that number drops to 45% in rural communities. Those statistics are even lower among First Nations communities. That’s in addition to the need to access the right hardware to begin with. For instance, 25% of students in the United States don’t have a desktop or laptop computer at home; 17% can’t complete their homework due to a lack of computers. Read: the inability to access navigate digital tools effectively now directly impacts our ability to learn or earn a living. 

“We had imagined a lot of possible solutions for the future. The last year gave us the opportunity to test these solutions on a grand scale, and we discovered that there are some solutions that work very well—and others that create new problems,” says Merveille. “What if we took what we thought we could do in the future, and applied it right now, to actually fix the future?”

Bringing a more inclusive mindset to digital design can transform the tools we create for the better. Building in more diverse perspectives, viewpoints and dynamics can help. Fifteen percent of the world’s population live with some form of disability. At 1 billion people, they represent the world’s largest minority. Considering demographic, socio-economic and geographic factors like this earlier on in the process can help digital designers ensure what they create will work as intended for real people, in real life. 

Collaborative governance has an important role to play. 

Like most things, strong collaboration across stakeholder groups can make a real impact in closing the digital divide. That includes governments, and it’s something that Merveille says could represent a real turning point in how we solve for societal challenges going forward.

“The transformation of individual and collective behaviour showed us a lot this past year. At the same time, the government showed us they had the power to make a difference quickly, at the right time. Generationally, this was new for people. Many hadn’t seen that before.”

An EY survey of health and human services (HHS) organizations in six different countries shows that uptake of digital technologies and data solutions doubled during the pandemic (even though many had wrestled with this in the years before). Overall, 62% of HHS organizations increased their use of digital during the pandemic. Most said doing so led to better access to services, higher quality user experiences and increased rates of productivity. For Merveille, examples like these speak boldly to the fact that if rapid change is possible when circumstances demand it, there is broader applicability to governments rallying people to embrace change, and adopt new behaviours (think climate change emergency).

The sheer volume of change we achieved in one year of pandemic lockdowns shows the kind of transformation people are capable of when governments and citizens work together. Aligning that kind of energy against burning issues like closing the digital divide now, or others down the road, represents new potential we might not have seen before. 

What’s the bottom line? 

Done right, digital can be an effective lever for resilience, mobility, social challenges, and so much more. Unlocking that potential starts with:

  • Clear frameworks and principles to guide digital development
  • Infrastructure that’s technical compelling and truly inclusive
  • Collaboration and good governance across stakeholder groups

Organizations, enterprises, communities and governments can work together to close the digital divide in ways that develop a better normal for all, starting now. 

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