From village wells to artificial intelligence, “eroding the social fabric” and creating unwanted social change have always been among the criticisms levelled against various forms of technology – and our time is no exception. As technology evolves, we redefine the roles of the governments, institutions, companies and individuals, establishing new social contracts of acceptable behaviour. Negotiating these new norms takes more time and effort today than ever before as technology transforms every aspect of our lives, forcing us out of our comfort zones.
Who is in charge of ensuring that we use technology responsibly as a force for social good, and not as a tool to increase the fragmentation of the society? Society expects inventors and technology companies to play a greater role in controlling how their products are used. The corporate world is very much used to talking about product life-cycles for marketing purposes. Now we should also think about the social life-cycle of our products and services – on how societies adopt, use and transform, or even “hack”, what we do.
Telecommunications companies come from a more advantageous position: our traditional core business has an intrinsic element of social good, and we work in a heavily regulated environment, often requiring public-private partnerships. However, as we shift to a digital world and experiment with new technologies – including artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and robotics – we also need to redefine how we do business responsibly.
Here are some key takeaways from our experience in socially responsible business at Turkcell:
Learning from the experience of others
Over the past year, we have increased our presence in the connectivity, education, health, energy, entertainment/lifestyle and transport industries. Initially, not all moves were popular with our stakeholders but there is a logic behind it: digitization affects all, and the tools with which we deliver services are fundamentally similar. Furthermore, the digital lives of the people that we serve are not divided into neat boxes: education becomes a part of lifestyle, transport relates to health. When we invest in businesses that are more oriented towards social good – such as education and health – we often find ourselves in areas that are traditionally thought of as more commercial; and that is not a bad thing.
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A case in point is our mobile app for Syrian refugees in Turkey. We started off by prioritizing connectivity, but soon realized that they need a lifeline: support while communicating with doctors and aid workers; easy and reliable access to information when searching for schools, pharmacies and banks; and help overcoming the language barrier. We created Hello Hope, which is both a navigation tool, a translation support and a language education medium – and is soon to become a source of reliable news. To enrich the content, we are using the resources of our own education platform, Tukcell Academy, but we also cooperate with Turkish Red Crescent and various news outlets.
“Technology steals our jobs”: prioritizing reskilling
Perhaps the biggest source of social anxiety is the loss of jobs as technology evolves. In my opinion, the current debate does not adequately represent the potential that technology creates for people of all skills, talents and professional backgrounds.
Upskilling of the existing talent pool stands out an expecially fertile area where companies can benefit from technology, driving business value but also allaying the fears that come with change. The world of education is changing from traditional, admissions-based, limited systems to lifelong learning; and businesses now demand skills that are industry-specific. Online and mobile learning are at the intersection of the two worlds, helping to retrain those who come from more traditional educational backgrounds for jobs that require constantly evolving new skills. By using online and mobile education tools to retrain their employees, companies can make resources available to hundreds of busy people irrespective of time and space, customize content in ways that allow each user to learn at their personal pace, and measure and benchmark outcomes in a reliable way.
We benefit extensively from this approach: Turkcell’s has more than 5,000 employees and more than 200 international and regional partners, and over the course of the last year they have received 2.1 million hours of training through Turkcell Academy – 72% of which was on online/mobile platforms. We have invested in upskilling our talent pool to manage even the most technologically challenging transitions, including convergence of mobile and fixed networks, and the country-wide launch of LTE-Advanced. A similar approach to creating the talent pool for digitization is well underway, and 5G is the next project in the pipeline.
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We also offer our knowhow and infrastructure to other companies, as many of our partners do not necessarily have the resources to efficiently create similar systems. My advice to companies in other industries would be to look for partners in the communication industry who could have the capabilities you require.
Investing to make a difference
Turkcell supports entrepreneurs through its crowdfunding platform Beehive, and with a number of projects including Women Who Code the Future, a training program for women to acquire digital skills such as developing mobile apps.
Our experience shows that the projects that we receive on these platforms are usually quite socially progressive. Through Beehive, we helped fund a 3D printer that a father developed so that his toddler can make her own toys. WeWalk, a smart stick for the visually impaired, broke the funding target records. More than 1,000 women from all over Turkey were educated to gain Android app development skills. The project that was recognized as the winner of this initiative was Otizmo; developed by Gökçe Demir and Hilal Şener, the software uses signals detected by wearables to help diagnose autism.
We believe this is a virtuous circle. We prioritize providing services and support to groups with special needs: disabled people, refugees, children that are either disabled or exceptionally gifted, women and entrepreneurs. In return, they turn technology into solutions to social issues and problems.
Returning to the question that I posed earlier: who is in charge of making sure that we use technology as a force to unite and to improve lives rather than to create further fragmentation? My answer is that technology companies like ours can certainly do more, and have been doing a lot. A shorter – but more complicated – answer is that the responsibility rests with all of us, every day and in every decision that we make.