Can the tech industry ensure innovation benefits everyone?

| December 14, 2017 | By

Technology has been responsible for much of the rise in inequality – but could it also be a part of the solution? A question raised at Innovate UK’s flagship annual conference last month. Yoyo’s finance VP, Min Teo, who took part in the conference’s “Equality Across the World” panel, says that while there’s no doubt that tech innovation has brought about positive economic change, a “paternal nudge” is sometimes necessary to foster “tech for good”…

Last month, I took part in an insightful panel entitled “Equality Across the World” at Innovate UK’s flagship annual conference on behalf of Yoyo and Techfugees – a social enterprise that coordinates services offered by tech businesses to help refugees.

I was in very good company, sitting alongside the following experts:

  • Diego Zuluaga, head of financial services & tech policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs

  • Cécile Baird, founder of Blockchain for Good

  • Ella Goldner, co-founder of Zinc VC

  • Jack Hardinges, policy advisor at the Open Data Institute

Moderated by the charismatic Priya Guha of Rocketspace, the question posed to us was a simple one: Technology has been responsible for much of the rise in inequality – but could it also be a part of the solution?

I have always considered technology to be a tool, not a silver bullet to any problem. Similar to all tools, it can be used for good, and it can be used for bad.

The benefits of technology are clear and present in every aspect of our lives: I can now pay for items with a tap of my phone; I can instantly video conference with my mum who lives on a different continent; I have encyclopedias and libraries of information through the tap of my fingertips.

But we mustn’t forget that core to the delivery of any technological solution is human-centred design to ensure the usefulness and relevance to our everyday lives.

How can we ensure tech innovation benefits everyone?

In many ways, technology and human interaction are not mutually exclusive – they are necessary bedfellows. Mobile banking has provided financial inclusion and upward mobility to millions in Africa, who were previously denied access to traditional banking.

Even at Yoyo, I have seen first-hand how mobile-first commerce has provided consumers with unprecedented choice and authority over their purchasing decisions and consumption preferences.

However, it would be irresponsible to ignore the negative externalities of technology completely.

Considering the contrast between the the organisations on the panel, there was a positive inclination towards the tech evangelist side of the argument rather than the tech dinosaur.

While it was agreed that ability of technological innovation to bring about positive economic change is undeniable at this point, many people in the audience were sceptical about the role that technology was playing in facilitating positive social change.

In fact several voices considered tech to have had a negative impact on societal wellbeing.

Questions raised included:

“Are there any tangible examples of technology delivering real social change?”

“Isn’t Bitcoin just another bubble that will eventually burst? / Will it precipitate a financial crisis similar to that of 2008?”

“Tech companies are making a boatload of money off individual consumer data, shouldn’t we get compensated for it?”

We also had a cheeky one:

“Since humans can’t figure out how to solve the inequality problem, do you think AI will be able to?”

Technology is by virtue a deflationary force, and will displace people from traditional jobs. This is not dissimilar from how the invention of the steam engine moved people from farming work in the fields to mechanical work in the factories.

We require constant innovation so as to develop solutions to future problems that we cannot perfectly predict, and perhaps a more relevant question is how do we reskill and re-educate people to prepare them better for the digital age?

But, while I believe any effort to halt technological change as futile, similar to unleashing the floodgates and attempting to plug the surge with sticks and stones, I consider a paternal nudge, once in awhile, is necessary to foster tech for good, not tech for bad.

There are institutions such as OpenAI and the Future of Humanity Institute that are working hard to guide AI development in a socially responsible way, and the EU’s GDPR initiative is a strong step in right direction to return the ownership of personal data back to the hands of consumers.

The Tech-For-Good ecosystem is developing as funding is coming into the sector, and collaboration between organisations are pushing the envelope on progress. Nesta’s Digital Social Innovation project estimates that nearly 2,000 organisations have partnered on more than 1,000 projects in the UK, with projects in the Education and Participation being most represented sectors, and mobile/web apps, crowdsourcing and social media/networks being the most utilised technologies.

Ultimately, I strongly believe that entrepreneurs building scalable and sustainable businesses are our best bet to solving many of the world’s intractable problems, and the traditional third sector has much to gain from collaborating with them. Providing funding to Tech-For-Good projects, encouraging entrepreneurs and establishing viable frameworks for them to tackle challenges will help foster a virtuous cycle in the space.

To close off the panel, Priya Guha asked the panellists the following question:

“What new technology can we expect to see by 2050 and how will it help humanity prosper when the global population hits 10 billion?”

In the short-term, I’m interested in AgTech businesses – how can we reimagine food production and distribution to satisfy burgeoning populations in dense urban environments.

In the medium-term, I’m stoked about Blockchain technology – a distributed, immutable ledger of digital assets forming the new internet on a platform of decentralised trust. The possibilities are endless!

In the long-term, I can’t wait until Space X figures out how we colonise Mars from our pale blue dot.

But enough from me – do you think the tech industry can ensure innovation benefits everyone? Also, what tech-for-good innovations are you most excited about?

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Innovate UK’s flagship annual conference took place at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre in November and was attended by 400+ of the best and brightest innovators from the UK and internationally, who were looking to network, share ideas and get inspired.