Technology continues to advance, with innovators rolling out new solutions daily that promise to deliver the “next thing” in technology. This constant influx of new tech solutions and products hitting the market is ideal for the big tech players who are now making approx. 505 billion US dollars to consumers every year. With numbers like this, there’s no denying that emerging technologies are a market force that won’t be slowing down any time soon.
But the challenge seems to be that many of these new solutions tend to serve the agenda of the technology provider rather than advancing the interests of people and societies as a whole. And the big question remains how innovators can move from self-interest to designing solutions to improve the lives of the people they serve or the world we live in.
Christian Bason, Ph.D., CEO and co-author of Expand: Stretching the future by design, summarizes it by declaring: “Our planet is in a desperate situation. Cities are springing up like mushrooms, populations are growing, conflicts are brewing and the climate is warming. Environmental responsibility, ethical technology and social fairness are rapidly becoming key factors in global competition. If tech innovators are too selfish — i.e., focusing on the technology for its own sake or only on potential profits — it can do more harm than good. And it will not lead to sustainable and ultimately profitable business models.
So, what is a solution at the service of society? Well, some experts say that to understand this concept, we must first realize the importance of avoiding the man-made systems that are currently destroying societies and the climate, and looking for ways to be more sustainable. On the more obvious front, we have robust green technology innovations that focus on some of our biggest environmental challenges, such as battery recycling, cleaner power generation, and consumer products – especially products disposable – which create less burden on the environment. There is also a large and growing ESG movement which emphasizes people (including future generations) before profits. And although this concept may seem idealistic, it is deeply rooted in reality. After all, if all businesses are focused on short-term profits at the expense of the health of our planet, how long can that last? At some point, the damage will be too great to sustain humanity.
“In today’s world, new inventions must add value to a broader set of parameters than purely financial,” said Jens Martin Skibsted, entrepreneur and co-author of Expand: Stretching the future by design. “Environmental, social and even governance (ESG) impact is increasingly critical to doing business – and those shaping tomorrow’s technologies need to be increasingly aware of this when designing new products. and launch new technologies and services.”
With this in mind, the goal of most businesses, governments and municipalities should be to serve people and improve the planet we live on. We have many examples to demonstrate this, such as in Denmark, where wind turbines and solar cells account for 50% of all electricity consumption. We are also seeing technological innovations in water technologies, such as pumping and purification solutions. Another great example is global pump innovator Grundfos, which is on a mission to bring clean water to 300 million people by 2030.
Additionally, companies can learn to be more people-centric at the design and innovation stage by identifying early on how a new invention or product can help someone else. For example, before launching an e-commerce platform, consider whether the platform will exist solely to make more money or whether it can be created in a way to help your customers have a better and more enjoyable experience with your brand. The same goes for mobile apps; are you making the next app just to see how many downloads you can get, or could you make one for human service purposes, like an app that makes it easier to transfer money to family members living in bad countries served?
Interestingly, another very clear example of an organization that had to transform to better serve society can be seen in Jens and Christian’s book, Expand: Stretch the future by design. The book describes how the US Department of Veterans Affairs, a government entity designed to show goodwill and meet the needs of millions of military veterans and their families, experienced a major system outage. Tragically, in 2014, at least forty veterans died while waiting for appointments at a VA hospital in Phoenix. Then, in 2015, a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general found that 300,000 military veterans likely died while waiting for health care. These challenges have resulted in insurmountable political pressure that has resulted in the adoption of new laws. It also resulted in the appointment of a new designer, Sarah Brooks, as Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2014-2015. Brooks became the first-ever VA Design Officer and led a team that launched the Veterans Experience Office, which implemented new solutions and technologies to eliminate bottlenecks, improve processes and ensure that people would be served quickly and humanely with the health care services that they needed.
Although it may come as a surprise to many, tackling major societal challenges with emerging technologies is also good business. Jens and Christian see a huge opportunity for new business development in achieving 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 achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 at US$12 trillion. This equates to 10% of global GDP and nearly 400 million jobs. Along with the business opportunity come all the real benefits to people, communities, entire societies, and the planet from designing new technologies, products, services, business models, and systems.
The bottom line is that Skibsted and Bason, along with many others, believe that innovation needs – well, innovation. Unfortunately, we’ve become complacent in looking primarily to the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem for insight into our tech future and short-term profits. But innovations are happening – and have happened – all over the world. Now is the time to go beyond current paradigms and find out how relevant innovations are also emerging from Africa (such as drone drug delivery), India (frugal innovation) and the Nordic countries (energy and sustainable) – and beyond. This investment in smart technological innovation is good for business and humanity in the long run!
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