The unique disruptive solutions offered by digital innovation offer immensely valuable tools that can help us take on the huge environmental, health and social challenges of our time. The “tech for good” movement, which aims to harness the incredible power of new technologies for the benefit of all, has gone from strong to strength in recent years. We unpick this important trend, looking at the key players, challenges and financing questions.
A sense that everyone should benefit from progress has been deeply embedded in tech innovation since the earliest days of the digital revolution. While the link between tech and the common good has undoubtedly evolved from the vision embraced by Silicon Valley’s pioneers in the 1970s, it has never been broken. The United Nations spelled this out in 2015, stating in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that innovation and technology are key to protecting the planet, ending poverty and promoting gender equality. Three years later, in 2018, France’s government staged an international summit under the heading Tech for Good. More than 70 senior executives from global technology firms, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Huawei, as well as major non-tech groups, such as BNP Paribas, and startup firms including Uber and Doctolib, signed a Tech For Good pledge setting out commitments to fight hateful content, contribute a fair share of tax and cut carbon emissions.
GAFAM and startups face totally different sets of challenges
The wide array of initiatives and organisations under the tech for good umbrella can be somewhat bewildering. In fact, the movement can be divided into two categories of organisations facing entirely different sets of environmental and societal challenges. On the one side are the giant corporations, led by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (GAFAM), while on the other are smaller outfits, including specialised startups.
“The euphoria that marked digital’s early days gave way to a growing awareness in the 2010s that tech operated not in a virtual universe but in the real world and that it had significant negative externalities”, says Sylvain Lambert, Partner and co-head of the sustainability team at PwC France. Computer hardware, for example, is a heavy consumer of energy and rare earths, and manufacturing conditions also need to be closely monitored. In recent years, the question of the digital industry’s emissions has taken on increasing importance, with some research suggesting that the sector could eventually become one of the world’s biggest polluters. By 2040, digital data storage alone is expected to produce 14% of the planet’s total emissions1.
A shift occurred when the sector’s major players realised that they stood to gain from being part of tech for good. Lambert recalls: “We were all struck by an Apple keynote in 2018. In what seemed like an unthinkable move, Sustainability Director Lisa Jackson praised the benefits of longer device lifespans.” In a similar vein, Google boss Sundar Pichai announced in 2020 that his group would be the first to go fully carbon neutral and would operate without emitting CO2 by the end of the decade. In the same year, Microsoft laid out plans to achieve a negative carbon footprint before 2030.
Tech players whose core business is directly aimed at furthering the common good, however, wrestle with quite different challenges. From greentech solutions for the climate, to handitech that promotes labour market access or inclusive mobility, and civictech projects geared to enhance citizen involvement in the democratic process, the plethora of names hints at the wide variety of initiatives. Sylvain Lambert cites the example of solutions aimed at optimising water consumption to improve land management.“Technology can offer farmers a precise estimate not just of the weather, but also of how much water they need to pump. This generates economic benefits for the businesses involved and for society as a whole, as the risk of water scarcity is mitigated.” The OpenStreetMap project2, meanwhile, is an example of a social initiative. The principle is that individuals provide contributions to map different areas of the world in order to, say, indicate access for people with reduced mobility or facilitate movement in the aftermath of a natural disaster such as a tsunami or earthquake. However, the most promising area of all is probably healthtech. The sector has been fuelled by decisive advances in recent years, driven by progress in artificial intelligence, access to massive quantities of health data and the rise of predictive models. In France alone, the sector had over 2,000 companies in 2020 generating revenues of €800 million. And the potential for growth is enormous, with the government reckoning that this figure could climb to €40 billion in less than a decade3.
The critical relationship between industry and startups
But do the standard-bearers of good tech have what it takes to live up to the (high) expectations placed on them? As with any innovation, one of the keys will be their capacity to command the resources needed to grow and roll out their products on an industrial scale. “COP 26 made it abundantly clear that, to meet the challenges before us, the public purse will not be enough”, points out Lambert. “To innovate, whether in medicine, science, food or tech, you also have to go out and find new investment solutions.”
One solution that is really taking off is corporate venturing. The idea is that a large group can source a portion of its innovation externally, working with small, nimble and innovative outfits instead of running an R&D centre. Imagine that a real estate asset management group needs to measure the heating behaviour of its assets in real time so that it can curb energy consumption and reduce its carbon footprint. “The group could hire specialists and develop the necessary tech over time, but it would be simpler to identify three startups that have launched effective tracking systems”, explains Lambert. Investing in one of these startups, before potentially acquiring it, would enable the company to save valuable time and gain access to innovative solutions that are exactly tailored to its business needs. The startup, meanwhile, would benefit from a decisive growth driver.
As industry players look for sources of innovation, opportunities are opening up for tech for good to tap into new financing resources whose rationale differs from that of conventional investors. Rather than generating profits, the aim is to invest in order to pursue a strategic development vision by acquiring additional skills and innovation sources. The end result is twofold: the company gains a competitive edge, but society as a whole also benefits.