Technology continues to march forward, with innovators rolling out new solutions daily that promise to deliver the “next big thing” in technology. This constant influx of new tech solutions and products hitting the market is great for big tech players who are now realizing approximately $505 billion US dollars from consumers annually. With numbers like this, there’s no denying that emerging technologies are a market force that won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
But the challenge seems to be that many of these new solutions tend to serve the agenda of the tech provider versus promoting the interests of people and societies at large. And the big question remains of how innovators can shift the focus from being self-serving to designing solutions that are aimed at improving the lives of the people they serve or the world in which we live.
Christian Bason, Ph.D., CEO and co-author of Expand: Stretching the Future by Design, sums it up by stating, “Our planet is in dire straits. Cities are mushrooming, populations are increasing, conflict is brewing – and the climate is warming. Environmental responsibility, ethical technology, and social equity are fast becoming key factors for competition on a global scale. If technology innovators are overly self-serving – meaning focusing on tech for its own sake or solely on potential profits – it may do more harm than good. And it will not lead to sustainable, and ultimately also profitable, business models.”
So, what is a society-serving solution? Well, some experts say in order to understand this concept we must first realize the importance of avoiding manmade systems that currently destroy societies and the climate, and look for ways to be more sustainable. On the most obvious front, we have robust green tech innovations that focus on some of our biggest environmental challenges, such as battery recycling, cleaner energy production, and consumer products – especially disposable products – that create less of a burden on the environment. There is also a large and growing ESG movement that focuses on putting people (including future generations) over profits. And while this concept may sound idealistic, it is deeply rooted in reality. After all, if all companies focus on short-term profits at the expense of our planet’s health, how long can it last? At some point, the damage will be too great to support humanity.
“In today’s world, new inventions must add value to a broader set of parameters than purely financial,” shared Jens Martin Skibsted, Entrepreneur and co-author of Expand: Stretching the Future by Design. “Environmental, social and even governance impact (ESG) are increasingly essential for the conduct of business – and those shaping tomorrow’s technologies must become more and more aware of that as they design new products and launch new technologies and services.”
With this in mind, the goal of most companies, governments and municipalities should be to serve people and enhance the planet on which we live. We have plenty of examples to demonstrate this, such as in Denmark, where wind turbines and solar cells account for 50% of all electricity consumption. We also see tech innovations in water technologies, such as pump and purification solutions. Another great example includes the global pump innovator Grundfos, which has the mission of bringing clean drinking water to 300 million people by 2030.
Furthermore, companies can learn to be more people-focused at the design and innovation stage by identifying upfront how a new invention or product can help someone else. For example, before launching an ecommerce platform, identify whether the platform will exist solely to make more money or whether it can be created in a way that helps your customers have a better and more enjoyable experience with your brand. The same goes for mobile apps; are you creating the next app just to see how many downloads you can get, or could you create one with a human-serving purpose, such as an app that makes it easier to transfer money to family members living in underserved countries?
Interestingly, another very clear example of an organization that had to transform into being better at serving society can be seen in Jens’ and Christian’s book, Expand: Stretching the Future by Design. The book describes how the US Department of Veterans Affairs, a government entity designed to do goodwill and serve the needs of millions of military veterans and their families, experienced a major breakdown in their system. Tragically, in 2014, at least forty veterans died waiting for appointments at a VA hospital in Phoenix. Then, in 2015, a Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general report revealed that three hundred thousand military veterans likely died while waiting for health care. These challenges drove an insurmountable amount of political pressure that resulted in new laws being passed. It also resulted in the appointment of a new designer, Sarah Brooks, a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2014–15. Brooks became the VA’s first-ever design officer and led a team that launched the Veterans Experience Office, which put new solutions and technologies in place to remove bottlenecks, improve processes and ensure that people would be served quickly and humanely with the health care services that they needed.
While it may be surprising to many, addressing major societal challenges through emerging technologies is also good business. Jens’ and Christian see an immense opportunity for new business development in addressing societal goals through emerging technologies. For example, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC) – a collection of 36 leaders from business, finance, civil society, labor, and international organizations – estimates the annual business potential of addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 at US $12 trillion. That equals 10 percent of the World’s GDP – and nearly 400 million jobs. In addition to the business opportunity comes all the real benefits to people, communities, entire societies, and the planet from designing new technology, products, services, business models, and systems.
The bottomline is that Skibsted and Bason, along with many others, feel that innovation needs – well, innovation. Unfortunately, we have become complacent by mainly looking to the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem for a vision of our technological future and short-term profits. But innovations happen – and have happened – everywhere across the Globe. The time has come to go beyond current paradigms and discover how relevant innovations also emerge from Africa (such as drone delivery of medicine), India (frugal innovation), and the Nordics (energy and sustainable innovations) – and beyond. This investment in smart tech innovation is good for business and humanity over the long-haul!