Europe’s digital divide is far from gone (and what Italians are doing about it)

A recent survey on ICT usage by households and individuals, conducted by Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and Eurostat and published in May 2022, was supposed to highlight how good the Dutch are in digital skills. In fact, 80 percent of the Dutch population aged 16 to 74 years had basic or above basic overall digital skills, versus an average 54 percent in the European Union. Good indeed!

But, besides the fairly low 54 percent EU average, a new study by “De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB) (the Dutch Central Bank) highlights how the Dutch 80% number camouflages the real difficulties many Dutch have with financial services in an increasingly digital society.

Some 2.6 million Dutch people aged 18 and above struggle with their digital payments and other banking affairs. […] While most people can manage their everyday payments in shops independently, they are less autonomous when it comes to infrequent actions such as opening a bank account or blocking a debit card.

At the same time, digitalisation of payment systems is increasing. In the Netherlands, more and more payment matters can be arranged digitally. Cash use in shops is declining as more people use their debit cards and smartphones. This trend was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more people are also using online banking, for example to check their bank balance, instead of using paper bank statements. They can also open new payment accounts or apply for debit cards digitally, whereas they used to have to visit a bank branch to do so. In line with this development, Dutch banks are closing more and more branches. This means customers must travel further if they wish to get face-to-face assistance from a bank employee. This makes it harder for certain groups in society to do all their banking unaided, thus increasing the risk of division in society. […]

One in six Dutch adults do not do all their banking on their own. While most of them do perform everyday actions such as checking their bank balance and making payments in shops, many have difficulty operating devices such as ATMs, POS terminals and smartphones. They do not understand texts and instructions because of overly complicated language, have difficulty remembering codes or experience stress when performing actions under time pressure. Among them are people who have difficulty reading, people with physical or intellectual disabilities and people from non-Western migration backgrounds who have difficulties with the Dutch language. There are also those who simply do not have access to the internet.


Interestingly for a study conducted by a Central Bank, it reports on the emotional impact this has on those left behind:

Roughly 400,000 Dutch people aged 18 and above rely exclusively on others for things like paying their bills and arranging their other banking affairs. These people, most of whom are elderly or have a low level of education, are entirely dependent on their partner or another family member for their banking business as a result of digitalisation. They report feelings such as shame, helplessness, inferiority or sadness. Some have difficulty accepting they are forced to rely on others. This includes people who can no longer do some of their banking independently.


In yesterday’s report on the DNB study in Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant, journalist Daan Ballegeer also highlights studies by the Rathenau Instituut (Dutch only) and by Kantar Public (for the Dutch Ministry of the Interior, also in Dutch only) that show that 1 to 2 in 10 Dutch people aged 16 or older do not have enough basic digital skills to keep up in our society.

In this context, the Italian Polis project (in Italian only) – set up by the Italian Postal Service (Poste Italiane, which also offers banking services), financed by the Next Generation EU, the European Union’s economic recovery package, and launched yesterday – is quite extraordinary in how the digital divide can be addressed.

The Polis Project has two main lines of intervention: ‘One-Stop Service Desk’ and ‘Spaces for Italy’.

The aim of the One Stop Service Desk activity of the Polis Project is to enable Italians, resident in the 6933 municipalities with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants, equipped with at least one post office, to easily use all public services. The use of public services is enabled through a single access point to Poste Italiane’s multi-channel service platform, whose operators, specially trained for this, will actively contribute to accompanying the population affected by digital divide towards enabling and using services in digital mode. Many of these renovated post offices will also feature electric vehicle recharging stations and photovoltaic panels.

The second line of action, Spaces for Italy, envisages the creation of a national network of co-working and training spaces in 250 prestigious buildings located in central and attractive areas of Italian cities (80 of which in municipalities with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants). The aim is to create the most widespread, digitised, accessible and immediately available co-working network in Italy: workstations, meeting spaces, shared services, and areas dedicated to events and training, the use of which will be open to private individuals, companies and the public administration, universities, and research centres, with which service agreements can be defined to best meet the needs and vocations of each territory/stakeholder.

UPDATE – 6 February 2023: Poste Italiane: Polis turns 7,000 post offices into digital service hubs