During our Tech4Good Competition, where a company can be nominated to win a host of prizes to help propel their business in 2020, we look at what “Tech for Good” actually means.
A report published by Technation found that ‘tech for social good’ companies were worth £2.3 billion in 2018, with a turnover of £732 million. Compare that to the £634 million turnover of the manufacturing of consumer electrics in the UK, and there is no doubt that ‘tech for social good’ companies are not only doing ‘good’ but also impacting the British economy.
As the culture secretary stated in the Telegraph’s Tech for Good conference :
“The dial is shifting in favour of socially-minded technology – and the wider tech sector is playing a role in this shift too. Because driving innovation and responsible technology are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are mutually reinforcing.” (2019)
But what does ‘good’ actually mean? Browse the news headlines, and you can start to get a ‘good’ idea:
- Police to use AI recognition drones to help find the missing, BBC
- Can Alexa help detect a heart attack? Researchers explore life-saving potential of smart speakers, Geekwire
- How Technology Is Bringing Quality, Low-Cost Education To Everyone, Entrepreneur
- Toucan & Kalgera: The Fintech Firms Combating Elder Financial Abuse, Forbes
- Want to Plant More Trees? Just Use a Different Search Engine, WIRED
- Garmin developing wearable technology to help save lives, Fox Business
Beyond the vague description of ‘good’ companies tackling challenges in healthcare, education, finance and sustainability, we can also observe a stream of headlines that show how tech can also be an enabler for bad, such as alienation, sexism, sexual harassment, fraud and bullying.
Take Facebook, a company whose key mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Investor relations, Facebook) but has been battling wave after wave of lawsuits such as accusations of age and gender bias in financial services ads.
“Technology for centuries has both excited the human imagination and prompted fears about its effects. Philosophers and political economists from Plato to Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger have given technology a central role in worldviews that veer between benign optimism and despondent pessimism.”
McKinsey’s report on ‘Tech for Good: Smoothing disruption, improving well-being’ (2019)
As much as technology has the power to improve societies, there is very often a different side to the same coin where it can also be used for bad. For example, electrical power can be used to light a classroom in a third world country, but can also be used to execute a convict on death row. Strains of viruses can be used to vaccinate the population against deadly viruses, but can also be used in germ warfare. Social platforms such as Twitter can be used to connect humans across the globe, promote freedom of speech and create spaces for like-minded people to connect, but can also be used as a vehicle to spread hate and extremism, such as recruiting young people into extremist groups.
As McKinsey’s report on Tech for Good suggests, we can safely presume that today’s emerging tech such as AI, Internet of Things and robotics will follow a similar pattern.
It is therefore perhaps wise to think that tech is neither good nor bad, and when defining ‘tech for good’, to look closer at the businesses who are developing the technologies and establish whether they set ‘good’ business practices.
It’s not just the problem we are solving, it’s how we solve it.
The term ‘tech for good’ is commonly credited to Paul Miller, now CEO of Bethnal Green Ventures (an early-stage investor in tech for good ventures and accelerator programme). He started to host small get-togethers in London where individuals were invited to harness the power of technology for a better purpose and address social, economic and environmental challenges.
Imagine a company who has developed a robotic machine that can clean a hospital and eliminate up to 99% of harmful bacteria and viruses in the air, on floors, handles and tools in hospitals. It is also 50% cheaper than hiring cleaning staff, therefore saving the NHS millions a year. This seems like a tech for good company, right?
But what about the resulting loss of jobs? Does the company have the ethical obligation to help support the retraining and relocation of cleaning staff in hospitals? What if the company producing this machine has a task force of 100% white, male team members and has a company culture that excludes diversity in the workplace? What if the app that allows you to use this machine is not designed with accessibility in mind?
All of a sudden, we can see that ‘tech for good’ is not just about the problem the product solves, nor the industry it is in. In fact, tech for good involves all stakeholders of the companies, from management and design, to CSR and culture.
“It’s not only tech for a good social purpose. It should in my opinion be tech that is implemented with ethical consideration, with a conscience. I think that Tech for Good should also imply an egalitarian approach to its development; collaboration between those who develop and those who use. Rather than only those who develop.”
Harry Harrold, Web developer and co-founder Neontribe
Inclusion is at the heart of tech for good
As the Technation report rightfully points out, tech for good can be coined by investors, governments and civil society as a way to apply tech to innovate social problems and have a positive economic impact, but an even better solution is something that is inclusive and a good thing for humanity.
For example, looking at the tech sector as a whole, only 14.5% of tech for social good firms were founded by women, with 19% of the digital tech workforce being female compared to 49% across all UK jobs. This, and 15% of the digital tech workers are Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). (Technation report) This flags the need for diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. When we talk about diversity, this should not just refer to people’s characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, but also age, neuro-diversity, geography and socio-economic background.
Thankfully, there are companies out there who support businesses to introduce good practices when it comes to hiring, such as Bristol-based company Babbasa who we interviewed earlier this year. They convince profitable businesses that taking on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds would add value to their business. Read more about our interview with their CEO here.
With 1 out of 5 individuals in the UK with a disability, we try at CookiesHQ to make sure that all of our products are built with accessibility in mind. We even hosted a meetup event around the subject this October.
Bristol-based GapSquare has also developed software that helps companies measure and end pay gaps.
Cassie Robinson from Doteveryone points out:
“The field is growing rapidly so it’s important to continually ask ‘What is Tech for Good’? That way we can keep it inclusive and keep connecting it’s people and projects.”
The future of tech for good
“At a time of uncertainty and flux, the UK is poised to lead the world in applying technology for strategic social ends.”
Sarah Wood, co-founder and chair of Unruly
With the UK leading the way for tech for good companies, it is important for management to look beyond the problem their products are solving. They should also focus on developing appropriate company structures such as removing gender bias in recruitment processes and supporting other companies and communities.
Just as Sheryl Sandberg stated in her book Lean in, “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” We can only hope this can be applied to the term ‘tech for good’. As time passes, ‘tech for good’ will no longer be discussed, and will be a natural framework for all tech companies to abide to, therefore making the term outmoded.