Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

About this inquiry

1.During our first inquiry—Life Beyond COVID—we invited individuals and organisations from across the UK to share their hopes and fears about what the pandemic might mean in the long-term for their daily lives. We received over 300 written evidence submissions, 500 social media posts, and over 4,000 people shared their views with us through our discussion packs. Eight broad themes emerged from our work, including that we will be living more of our lives online.

2.In October 2020, we launched an inquiry into how a rapidly increasing reliance on digital technology, accelerated by the pandemic, may have a long-term impact on our social and economic wellbeing. There are many definitions of wellbeing, with Marie Brousseau-Navarro, from the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, emphasising the importance of economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing.1 For the purpose of this inquiry, we are using the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) definition of wellbeing as “how we are doing, as individuals, communities and as a nation and how sustainable this is for the future”.2 Research has consistently found that the most important drivers of adult wellbeing are mental and physical health, relationships and employment,3 and so we decided to focus our work on the impact that digital technology is likely to have on these aspects of our lives in 2–5 years’ time, the opportunities and threats that this poses to our wellbeing, and what the Government should do in response. Given the critical role of education for the future wellbeing of children and young people, we also included consideration of this in our work. As our remit asked us to focus on social and economic wellbeing, we wanted our report to consider life online in the context of wellbeing. As Professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve reminded us: “Growth for the sake of growth no longer translates necessarily into greater well-being;”4 when looking at the benefits and drawbacks of life online we would support that.

3.During our inquiry, we received over 130 written evidence submissions, including from the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and the Department for Finance in Northern Ireland, and heard from experts in subjects as diverse as physical activity and sport, loneliness, platform working and digital inequality, in ten oral evidence sessions. As with most other things in the last year, our work has been undertaken entirely virtually. We will be undertaking further inquiries into other aspects of the long-term social and economic consequences of the pandemic in the months ahead.

4.Policies relating to many of the issues discussed in our report, including healthcare, education and skills, are largely devolved in the United Kingdom. Consequently, much of the evidence we received and the corresponding conclusions and recommendations, focus on the situation in England. While addressing our recommendations to the UK Government, we believe that the governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales may find our report useful in considering the future relationship between digital technology and wellbeing, and their role in shaping this relationship.

Digital technology and COVID-19

5.There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically accelerated many of the digital trends that existed pre-pandemic. We are more dependent on the internet and digital technology than ever before: in our personal lives, our working lives and in how we access services. For many people, it is hard to imagine what the last year would have been like without the internet: it became a lifeline that enabled us to stay in touch with friends and family, for shops to continue to trade, for many of us to continue to work, and for everything from GP appointments, to education, to debates in the House of Lords, to take place without the infection risk from meeting with others. As Yuval Noah Harari recently pointed out, pre-internet, “if you ordered the entire population of a country to stay at home for several weeks, it would have resulted in economic ruin, social breakdown and mass starvation”5: the internet made it possible for many of us to stay at home and work from home; it helped keep us safe.

6.An Ofcom report found that the proportion of adults making video calls doubled during the first lockdown, with Zoom experiencing a 2000 per cent growth in usage.6 Similarly, Deloitte’s Digital Consumer Trends survey (carried out in May 2020), found that almost 40 per cent of respondents had done more online shopping, 22 per cent had used online banking more, 14 per cent had had remote appointments with health practitioners and 34 per cent were streaming more films and TV.7

7.Workplaces and industries have also accelerated their adoption of technology as a result of the pandemic. In April 2020, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, suggested that “we’ve [already] seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”.8 Giving evidence to our inquiry, independent analyst Benedict Evans agreed, stating that “we have had one, two, three years of adoption pulled forward into a couple of quarters”.9

8.Public service delivery has been transformed: in the first two weeks of the initial COVID lockdown, the number of court cases held as video calls in England and Wales rose by 800 per cent (although this has not prevented a serious backlog in court cases),10 and some local authorities have reported a 700 per cent increase in digital library subscribers.11 Research by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) found that “at the peak of the pandemic … around 71 per cent of GP consultations were conducted remotely by telephone or video”, compared to 25 per cent for the same period last year.12

9.While these changes arose as a result of the pandemic, having now adapted our behaviour (and invested in the technology) there is no going back. While most of us may be keen to return to face-to-face socialising as soon as possible, and to visit cinemas and football stadiums in real life rather than virtually, those who have found online shopping and healthcare appointments more convenient will want to continue with those services, and businesses that have automated their processes will not turn back. A survey conducted by the British Medical Association (BMA) found that nine in ten GPs want to continue to deliver consultations remotely when the pandemic has ended,13 and 60 per cent of those who used online banking more during lockdown say they will continue to do so once restrictions have lifted.14

10.What became clear to us in the course of our inquiry is that the world is now hybrid: not a binary of online or offline, but more and more aspects of our lives incorporating a mix of both. And this means we—society, Government, individuals—can no longer think about ‘digital’ as being something separate, but must recognise that the online and offline worlds are increasingly blending together and consider the opportunities and risks to our wellbeing in that context, including the policy implications for government.

Box 1: What do we mean by hybrid?

A hybrid world is one that embraces the flexibility that remote working and virtual interaction can offer, with the recognition that we want and need public and private spaces in our communities to meet face-to-face, deepen relationships and socialise with friends and relatives, as well as to benefit from the enhanced learning, collaboration, invention and innovation that direct human interaction brings It would, for example, mean harnessing the power of technology to make education and employment more accessible to disabled people, while ensuring the efficiency that can come from digitalisation does not limit people’s opportunities to receive health and mental health services and support in-person. However a hybrid world cannot be inclusive nor offer equal opportunity to all unless everyone has the necessary broadband speeds, digital devices and skills to live and work online—a potentially transformational step for both the economy and inequality, reducing the barriers to employment and learning that many currently experience, but which will not occur without government intervention.

The need for a new strategic approach

11.The hybrid world is not new, but the COVID pandemic has pushed us over a tipping point between the digital and non-digital worlds. As such, we must now develop policies and interventions that are suitable for an increasingly hybrid (also referred to by many as blended) world to ensure that we harness the full potential of digital technology to improve wellbeing. This will require a significant shift in the UK Government’s policy and action, thinking and attitude about digital. We welcome the fact that Ministers have already acknowledged that their current Digital Strategy, published in 2017, does not reflect “the new post-COVID reality”15 and have committed to a new strategy which they “are currently working towards publishing in 2021.”16

12.We believe that the Government’s new strategy must be a hybrid strategy which recognises the impact of digital technology on all aspects of public policy. All government departments must be mindful of both the positive and potentially negative impact of digital technology in developing policies, strategies and interventions.

Box 2: What do we want to see in a hybrid strategy?

The Government must be alive to the risk that any increasing role for digital technology, particularly in developing policy interventions and providing essential services, may reinforce existing inequalities. As such, the hybrid strategy must maximise the opportunities offered by digital technology to improve wellbeing for all, for example, by improving access to jobs , healthcare and other essential services for those who find it hard to leave their homes or who live in more remote areas, and by building a cohesive relationship between offline and online services to ensure access for all.

The hybrid strategy must also acknowledge and emphasise the importance of face-to-face services and interactions. As Professor Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University, explained:

“All our research points to the fact that nothing replaces face-to-face ineractions… nothing on earth ever replaces face-to-face. If you do not meet up from time to time face-to-face, nothing in the digital world will stop that relationship eventually becoming an acquaintanceship.”17

The hybrid strategy must ensure that underpinning the relationship between offline and online services must be an acknowledgement of our minimum rights—as patients, students, workers and individuals—to have a real say in whether online or offline is most suitable.

The hybrid strategy must also be underpinned by a commitment to tackle those barriers to digital access, digital skills and digital confidence that will otherwise leave parts of our society behind.

13.Our approach to the hybrid world will be critical to the nation’s future economic and social wellbeing. While various government departments have specific responsibilities—the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was responsible for the Government’s Digital Strategy, the Department for Education was responsible for developing guidance on remote education during the pandemic, the Department for Health and Social Care was responsible for implementing digital healthcare services at pace—the new hybrid strategy must be at the very heart of Government. We believe that responsibility for the strategy, in common with other critical, cross-cutting issues, should sit with the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister, in recognition that this is about much more than ‘computers’ and ‘the internet’ but affects every aspect of our lives and every Government department. This central oversight can also ensure that the impact of digital technology and the hybrid strategy on existing inequalities is assessed and evaluated holistically across government.

14.In the chapters that follow, we make a number of recommendations for what the Government should include in a hybrid strategy, and also highlight other areas of policy and legislation that we have found will need to be updated to reflect the post-pandemic, hybrid reality.

15.While we welcome the UK Government’s commitment to developing a new Digital Strategy, we believe that it must go far beyond the traditional silo of ‘digital’ and recognise that all aspects of our lives are, and will increasingly be, a hybrid blend of online and offline interactions. In common with other critical issues that affect all Government departments, and that are embedded into all aspects of government policy, responsibility for a new hybrid strategy, and developing a wider hybrid approach, should sit with the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister. This central oversight of the hybrid approach should ensure the consideration of its impact on inequality and the evaluation of what services should be delivered remotely or face-to-face.


1 Oral evidence taken before the COVID-19 Committee, inquiry on Measuring Wellbeing, 23 March 2021 (Session 2019–21), Q 8 (Marie Brousseau-Navarro)

2 Office of National Statistics, ‘Measures of National Well-being Dashboard’ (October 2019): https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/measuresofnationalwellbeingdashboard/2018–04-25 [accessed 11 February 2021]

3 Office for National Statistics, ‘Personal and Economic Well-being: What Matters Most to Our Life Satisfaction?’ (May 2019): https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/personalandeconomicwellbeingintheuk/whatmattersmosttoourlifesatisfaction [accessed 11 February 2021]

4 Oral evidence taken before the COVID-19 Committee, inquiry on Measuring Wellbeing, 23 March 2021 (Session 2019–21), Q 7 (Professor Jan Emmanuel De Neve)

5 ‘Lessons from a year of COVID’, Financial Times (26 February 2021): available at https://www.ft.com/content/f1b30f2c-84aa-4595–84f2-7816796d6841 [accessed 13 April 2021]

6 Ofcom, ‘UK’s internet use surges to record levels’ (24 June 2020): https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2020/uk-internet-use-surges [accessed 3 March 2021]

7 Deloitte, ‘Lasting lockdown habits: a new digital consumer?’ (August 2020): https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/digital-consumer-trends-lockdown-behaviour.html [accessed 11 February 2021]

8 Microsoft, ‘2 years of digital transformation in 2 months’ (30 April 2020): http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/blog/2020/04/30/2-years-digital-transformation-2-months/ [accessed 13 April 2021]

9 Q 36 (Benedict Evans)

10 Deloitte, ‘An emerging legacy: How COVID-19 could change the public sector’: https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/public-sector/articles/an-emerging-legacy-how-corona-virus-could-change-the-public-sector.html [accessed 11 February 2021]

11 ‘Digital library subscriptions increase as government lockdown continues’, The Independent (3 April 2020): https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/library-digital-subscriptions-uk-online-coronavirus-lockdown-a9446276.html [accessed 11 February 2021]

12 Royal College of General Practitioners, RCGP survey provides snapshot of how GP care is accessed in latest stages of pandemic (30 July 2020): https://www.rcgp.org.uk/about-us/news/2020/july/rcgp-survey-provides-snapshot-of-how-gp-care-is-accessed-in-latest-stages-of-pandemic.aspx [accessed 11 February 2021]

13 Pulse, ‘Nine in 10 GPs want to continue with remote consultations after coronavirus’ (9 June 2020): https://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/news/uncategorised/nine-in-10-gps-want-to-continue-with-remote-consultations-after-coronavirus/ [accessed 11 February 2021]

14 Deloitte, ‘Lasting lockdown habits: a new digital consumer?’ (25 August 2020): https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/digital-consumer-trends-lockdown-behaviour.html [accessed 11 February 2021]

15 Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden, Speech to the UK Tech Cluster Group, 23 June 2020: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/digital-secretarys-closing-speech-to-the-uk-tech-cluster-group [accessed 23 February 2021]

16 Written Answer, 129989, Session 2019–21

17 Q 72 (Professor Robin Dunbar)




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