How will technology shape the future? And how can companies leverage it for both the good of business and society? Grace Gollogley, Trinity Business School Winner of the 2021 CoBS CSR competition, explores.
Imagine that it’s 2071 and that you need a kidney transplant. Take a leap of faith and imagine that in fifty years’ time we will be able to 3D-print organs. Hospitals won’t use donor kidneys anymore-they will source them from an as-yet fictional company called Prorgan which bioprints or 3D-prints organic matter. As an Irish patient in 2021, the average waiting period to receive a donor kidney is three years (Beaumont Hospital, 2021a); in 2071 you’ll only have to wait as long as it takes for Prorgan to print the kidney and deliver it to the hospital. In 2021, post-operative complications like infection and organ rejection are experienced by the majority of patients (Beaumont Hospital, 2021b). These risks are now greatly reduced with 2071’s better surgical procedures, and as the Prorgan kidney is made using your own cells you will not have to take anti-rejection drugs (Weinersmith & Weinersmith 2017).
Prorgan is very different from the average medical supplier of 2021 not only in its product offering but also in the way it manages its internal operations. The firm uses augmented reality to train doctors to handle and transplant its kidneys more safely and efficiently, and like all businesses in 2071, Prorgan is connected to an Internet of Things (IoT) ‘smart-grid’. Interconnected sensors feed real-time information to a water and power systems management hub, minimising Prorgan’s environmental impact.
A realistic vision?
The way Prorgan uses IoT, augmented reality and bioprinting is how I imagine the firms of 2071 might use technology, applying it in ways that are good for the triple bottom lines of people, planet, and profit. However, this is just one vision of the future. What if Prorgan decided to use IoT differently, tracking its employees via wearable devices to ensure it had a healthy and loyal workforce outside working hours? Could Prorgan use bioprinting to engineer premium body parts for those affluent people who want superhuman capabilities? In this Kafkaesque vision of the future where privacy is invaded to an unprecedented degree and there are potentially two types of human, it’s doubtful whether technology is employed for the good of all.
We don’t know what technologies will be available in 2071, and we don’t know whether the firms of the future will use new technologies for economic, social and environmental good. What we do know is that there will be new technologies, and that the choices on whether and how we use established and emerging technology for societal good have to be made. In order to make these choices, we first need to look to the past to see why we should be using technology for good.
The case for ‘technology for good’
Technology has always polarised. People fear and revere the advent of new technology in equal measure, with the techno-optimists among us embracing emerging technologies while others are more reluctant. Writing on networks in his 2019 book ‘From Gutenberg to Google’, Tom Wheeler acknowledges how people can feel threatened by new technologies, quoting Thoreau- ‘’we do not ride on the railroad, it rides on us’’. It is a mistake, however, to think that a technology in itself can be moral or immoral and should be treated accordingly. As a practical application of knowledge to a problem (Merriam-Webster, 2021), technology itself is neither good nor bad-it is our responsibility to decide for which it is used.
When used for good, new technologies have had transformative and positive effects on society, especially over the last two hundred years. Business has played a big part, with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution leading to mass industrialisation, the opening up of consumer markets and managerial capitalism. A McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report on technology for good details the results of these events (Bughin et al., 2019), including an over 245% increase in life expectancy globally since 1800 (Riley, 2005). World GDP per capita has increased twenty-three-fold since the Industrial Revolution, showing that technology greatly boosts productivity (MGI, 2018a). This in turn causes wage growth and falling unemployment (Bessen, 2017). The positive economic effects of technology adoption are set to continue, with MGI forecasting that ‘AI adoption could raise global GDP by as much as $13 trillion by 2030’ (2018b).
Used rightly in business and in society, technology can bring about all of these benefits and more. However, even when used for good there are downsides to technology adoption. Since the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide emissions have increased in lockstep with GDP and economic growth (Ritchie & Roser, 2021). When countries use technology to become more economically productive, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, leading to greater inequality and income polarisation. The rise in automation can cause the redundancy of manual workers and wider job displacement in the labour market. New technologies such as nuclear energy and chemical weapons create ethical concerns that must be addressed. Despite these concerns, however, past technology adoption has largely had good results.
Having established the positive effects that technology can have on economies and society, we can appreciate how important it is for the firms of today and tomorrow to use it for good in their business practices. Many firms already use technology in employee training, operations, product offerings or in broader corporate social responsibility initiatives to significantly improve results for all stakeholders. By examining the efforts that companies have already made to use existing and emerging technologies for good, we can create a framework of steps for other firms to follow that will enable them to do the same with familiar and future technologies alike.
Technology for good starts at home
Before turning its attention to societal outcomes, a company should first ensure that it is using technology for good to maximise its own value and streamline operations, while considering all of the stakeholders involved. If the company’s own economic health and the health of its employees is assured, societal benefits will surely follow.
Petrosea is an Indonesian mining firm which has used several emerging technologies to improve every aspect of its business (McKinsey Digital, 2020). Smart sensors installed on Petrosea’s fleet of trucks enable the predictive maintenance of the vehicles. The company can now predict and address breakdowns before they occur, using fewer vehicles and extending the trucks’ lifetime. Artificial intelligence is used to more quickly find the gold, copper and nickel used in electronic devices-speeding the process of electrification and the transition away from coal. Finally, by training employees with a mobile app with the latest gamification technology, Petrosea’s staff are more engaged and more likely to complete the training – reducing mistakes and on-the-job danger.
Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson also implements technology for good across its operations. In its Tallinn manufacturing facility, Ericsson installed a dedicated cellular network for the IoT technology it employs to increase sustainability, worker safety and efficiency. Augmented reality, autonomous vehicles and sensors ‘’allow massive real-time data collection and analytics and intelligent automation on the factory floor’’ (Ericsson 2019).
Petrosea and Ericsson’s applications of technology to improve core business activities are undeniably good for profits. However, the companies’ employees, customers and the public gain a lot too, with safer workplaces and more fulfilling jobs, better quality products and a move away from carbon-intensive industry. Technology for good should start at home-the benefits for society will follow naturally.
Involve multiple stakeholders
Part of Milton Friedman’s famous argument (1970) that firms don’t have any responsibility to society bar profit-making is that executives don’t know how to spend the shareholders’ money for social good. This is why cooperating with multiple stakeholders is so crucial. Most companies are not created with a specific social mission, and their expertise lies elsewhere. MGI (2019) finds that technology companies need to communicate with employees, customers, suppliers, partner organisations and government to discover how they can best use their capabilities. Equally, it is incumbent on entities who are not expert in technology to liaise with those who are.
A 2020 Technology Ireland Tech4Good Award finalist, Liberty Information Technology, is one company which has partnered with another organisation to use technology for good. The firm developed an app with the Dublin-based charity organisation Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH). The app performs functions such as recording the location of the homeless people volunteers encounter and digitising stocktaking on a real-time basis, allowing the charity to better direct its services and manage its resources more efficiently. Another company which has partnered with a charity to use technology for good is Vodafone Ireland, helping the child protection charity ISPCC Childline to build a new digital platform (Vodafone Ireland Foundation, 2021).
Partnership isn’t just important in CSR initiatives. Global telecommunications company Ericsson (2019) has collaborated with stakeholders such as the Brazilian government, Venezuelan refugees, the Italian port of Livorno, and companies such as TELE-POST in Greenland and Telia in Sweden to optimise its own operations and also carry out commercial projects for good. The expertise of companies like Vodafone and Ericsson lies in technology-but alone they don’t know where and how to use it to achieve the maximum benefit. For charities like ICHH, the only way that they can implement technology for good in their work is through the expertise of larger, commercial entities like Liberty IT. Technology for good requires symbiotic relationships.
The need for digital ethics
Consulting firm Accenture (2018) makes the case that firms should use digital ethics when adopting new technologies for good, particularly in the case of emerging and unproven technologies such as artificial intelligence. Models like PwC’s responsible AI framework (2021) should serve as aids to implementing AI and other emerging technologies for good in business. Equally, MGI (2019) describes six areas in which technology could have positive impacts-job security, material living standards, health, education, environmental sustainability and equal opportunities. Companies should assess what effects their proposed use of technology will have on these areas and on internal business functions-seeking to achieve the maximum good while minimising negative impacts on privacy, the environment and labour market disruption.
Companies can also refer to the aims of intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations to ensure their efforts are ethically sound. Each of Ericsson’s ‘Technology for good’ projects is underpinned by at least one UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). In the Middle East and Africa, Ericsson’s Mobile Financial Services platform allows previously unbanked citizens to access financial services like savings and loans, supporting the SDGs of no poverty and decent work and economic growth. Prompted by the Brazilian government as a response to the needs of Venezuelan refugees, Ericsson launched the Technology for Good @ Roraima project in 2017. Better connectivity enables the refugees to keep in touch with those left behind, while a digital inclusion lab provides training, addressing the goals of reduced inequality and better education.
Preparing for the future
It’s impossible to predict exactly what technological developments will be made in the next fifty years, and it’s impossible to know what business and society will look like in the future. Ideally, firms like Prorgan would use technology that today we can only dream of to deliver good for their customers, employees, business partners, wider society and the planet. But in order to achieve this, firms need to start thinking about how they can best use and take advantage of whatever technology they have at their disposal, be it established or emerging. By using technology to improve their core business activities, collaborating with different stakeholders and by adhering to digital ethical standards, companies will not only be well placed to achieve technology for good in business and society today; they will also be prepared to achieve it in the future with whatever technologies they encounter.
For a full list of references and sources used for this article, please refer to page 131 of Global Voice magazine #18 on download here.
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