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Supporting Scotland's vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

The five challenges

The right device

What's the problem?


Purchasing a device can have a significant cost implication, especially for individuals and families on a low income or living in poverty. The investment in a device cannot be seen as a one-off cost.

Devices can be easily broken, lost, or even sold to cover other financial burdens. We must not forget that devices have a shelf-life and become obsolete when they no longer support the newest operating system (OS), impacting app updates and security patches. In addition to ending OS support, some older devices that are not 4G or 5G enabled will be impacted by the 3G switch-off (as set out in the Affordable Connectivity challenge).


Different devices lend themselves to different tasks, and this is based on individual need. One in five people access the internet only using a smartphone3, which are not particularly suitable for some tasks (e.g. creating a CV, completing a job application form or Universal Credit journal). Therefore, access to another type of device – commonly with a physical keyboard – is critical to enable people to fully engage in the digital world. 

Through Connecting Scotland research, evidence emerged highlighting the challenges of smartphone-only households, the difficulty to complete many tasks online, and families with one laptop or PC struggling to share between multiple children, making it difficult for them to complete schoolwork. 

Barriers to access 

Local public access internet points, such as libraries and community centres, play an important role in addressing these issues. However, local facilities are not always available within walking distance in some of our most deprived or rural communities. Travel may be beyond the budget of many people on low incomes.  

Additionally, limits on computer time per user, restricted opening hours, lack of privacy and lack of appropriate support in local access points have all been shown to act as barriers to people being able to fully benefit from being online. Flexibility on how such hubs function would enable greater engagement with digital. 


People with disabilities have traditionally had lower levels of internet use when compared to those who don’t, although the gap has narrowed over the past few years. Improvements in accessibility features, assistive technology and reduced costs have enabled more people with disabilities to go online. However, people with disabilities are more likely to face other forms of social exclusion, and therefore encounter similar barriers to others on low incomes. 


Our use of technology comes at a cost to the environment. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, and this will reach 74 million Mt by 2030. E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream.  This is driven by increasing demand for electric and electronic equipment, short device life cycles, and few options for repair. Only 17.4 per cent of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled.  

What does good look like?

Investment in the organisations and places that can provide access to the right device at the right time, depending on people’s needs and circumstances. There should also be consideration of the environmental cost in promoting digital inclusion.

Our digital inclusion infrastructure needs to provide options for people to access suitable devices to meet their needs. This must include temporary measures to help motivate someone to be online or to provide a safety net at a time of crisis, affordable options for those that can make some form of financial contribution, and longer term solutions for people living in poverty who are unable to afford their own devices.

To be fully digitally included, people need access to the right device for different tasks. While many digital services are designed to work well on smartphones, some important activities, such as applying for jobs or participating in formal education, require a laptop or device with a physical keyboard.

We know from the experience of delivering Connecting Scotland that gifting devices to individuals and families on low incomes during the pandemic was an essential lifeline. We also know that this was a unique situation. Resourcing available during the pandemic would never be sustainable and gifting devices at scale is not a long-term approach for the public purse.

Some people will need private access to a device for prolonged periods of time and as such a gifting model may be the most appropriate option. The type of device would be based on individual need. For example, the Digital Lifelines Scotland programme has supported people who are at risk of harm from using drugs with access to devices, connectivity and skills support. The organisations delivering in this programme support people in three priority settings: transition from prison, discharge from hospital or residential care, and in a homelessness setting. The gifting model here is indispensable as the device (usually a smartphone) is an essential lifeline that may be need at any point of the day.

Lending libraries offer an opportunity to help someone with their motivation to be digitally included alongside providing short term support for those who need it. A loan of a device, usually for up to 6 months, can support someone who needs daily access to their own device but has encountered a short-term problem e.g. loss of employment or a broken device. Lending libraries are not without challenges as there are factors to consider around data privacy and device cleansing after every loan. As such there needs to be a universal standard to support organisations and offer reassurance to people accessing this support.

Public access points can provide essential access for those who don’t need regular access but still wish to benefit from the digital world. This could be particularly for someone who could reduce travel time and expenses by attending health consultations via NearMe in community hubs.

Across Scotland there are countless voluntary sector organisations doing amazing work to tackle digital exclusion, including distributing devices to those who need them. However, this is not without challenge. Device procurement can be a complex process, and there can be difficulties around supply issues and distribution processes. A streamlined process to support these organisations, with preferential pricing, would help improve the efficacy of device distribution.

The shelf-life of devices also raises questions around the environmental impact of digital inclusion and the level of e-waste being generated. There are numerous organisations operating across Scotland promoting device refurbishment and repair. These organisations can provide high-quality devices at significantly reduced prices and are often gifted to those in most need. However, these organisations are typically under-resourced. This presents an opportunity to invest in building the capacity of a network of device refurbishment organisations to build a supply chain of refurbished devices and reduce the level of e-waste.

The public and private sector can also play an important role in supporting device refurbishment, through the donation of old devices.

What needs to happen?

Actions 2-5

  • Libraries and other relevant organisations, including housing associations, in local communities should continue to provide public access to computers as a safety net for those without suitable devices. 
  • Organisations should consider establishing technology lending libraries for short-term use, where they would be beneficial for the people they support. 
  • Organisations should donate devices to technology reuse projects which should be supported to provide quality refurbished devices, reducing costs for individuals and minimising electronic waste. 
  • Programmes to provide free devices to the most vulnerable should be established where there is a clear case to be made for significant improvement to people’s lives and outcomes related to health, education and employment.  
Last modified on 8 May 2024
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