Social Innovation

3 steps for tech to build a better world

A brighter future? Technology can be a powerful force for good Image: REUTERS/Jessica Kourkounis

Rob Acker
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Social Innovation

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

We often hear that we live in the very best of times. By many measures of human progress, this statement is right. We are better off today than we were yesterday. We will likely be even better tomorrow in areas including health, literacy rates, child mortality and extreme poverty. We are making remarkable progress towards a better world.

But does it feel that way? No. If you listen to the evening news or read the rapid-fire feed on your phone, it may seem like we live in the worst of times. The world seems overwhelmingly divided, with mounting distrust between people, nations and leaders. Trust is in a state of crisis around the world, as Edelman's Trust Barometer shows.

Studies show that people do not trust traditional institutions, including the media, government and even NGOs, to change the world. In fact, 70% of millennials, a generation larger than the baby boomers, trust themselves more than traditional institutions to fix global problems.

This is a wake-up call to every public, private and social organization. But I believe we can solve this, collectively.

To do so, we must address three forces at work:

- The anxiety we feel in this fractured world

- The groundswell of activism that has risen as we voice our concerns

- The imperative to use and build technology for good

First, a heightened sense of anxiety is felt universally across the world. This is caused by three factors. First, we are hyper-informed. We have access to a steady stream of information from all corners of the world. Often, it is polarizing and troublesome.

Second, we are using new digital technologies in ways they were never intended to be used. The same technology that makes the world more connected is being weaponized, from playground bullying to sowing seeds of hatred and intolerance more widely.

Third, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing a rapid pace of change. Organizations and individuals are facing adapting to a new paradigm brought on by disruptive advances in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. These are transforming every single sector, including the social sector.

While our anxiety may seem challenging, it has unleashed unprecedented rates of social engagement. Pent-up anxiety is driving people to the streets to march, to make their voices heard, and to influence and change policies at every level and in every organization. In 2017, we saw simultaneous and spontaneous women’s marches worldwide, joined by nearly five million women, as well as record-breaking fundraising for charities, particularly in human rights causes.

Passion for social causes has extended beyond homes and communities to workplaces. Companies are realizing that employees are not only asking for corporate values, they are driving them. In one study, millennials said their first priority in choosing a new job was making a difference in society.

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This passion is enabled and powered by technology that can generate a movement overnight. These movements are better organized and connected than ever before. They are automated, personalized and authentic. Consider Movember and the Ice Bucket Challenge in the last few years, where social media has unlocked a deeply personalized association with important causes. These movements are also better measured with technology, which allows changemakers to drive and predict the outcomes in new ways.

I believe we are witnessing the democratization of influence that is both compelling and revolutionary. From #BlackLivesMatter to #rohingya to #MeToo, we've heard voices that were previously silent becoming louder and clearer on the issues that matter to them. We are seeing a seismic shift in the balance of power. We are heading towards a truer form of direct democracy.

Today, we are inspired and building up our voices. But tomorrow will be about action that leads to change. What comes next will determine if we can heal this fractured world, or if we will be driven to greater polarization and discord.

Which brings me to my next point: we must build and use technology for good. We must stop allowing technology to be used to divide us. Instead, we can capitalize on technology's great strengths to connect and empower individuals to deliver the social outcomes we seek. When used for good, technology can build trust, level the playing field and allow us to measure against our common goals to change the state of the world. More importantly, technology can simplify social engagement.

But we need to make it as simple as Amazon and Facebook to connect the empowered individual to social change. As easy as it is to voice your opinion today through technology, it needs to be even easier to get involved in causes more deeply than through a hashtag and beyond the march.

If we create platforms that allow citizen philanthropists to become informed and connected to the causes they care about, they can become a significant part of the solution. We must connect everyday activists to significant change-making strategies and opportunities, whether through deepened knowledge, through volunteering their time and talent, or by being in the ring with key decision-makers.

It is only through active participation in the solution that we can begin to respect diversity of thought, and value collaboration between opposing forces. This shift is the key to healing our fractured world.

So how do we reach this new world? By three important steps:

- Lead by example. Build a culture in our own organizations that gives people room to pursue and dig deep on the issues they want to change.

- Make it easy. Capitalize on the scalable tools and technology that make it easy for activated individuals to go deeper on the causes they care the most about.

- Follow one north star. Orient your organization towards achieving the common goals you have identified, such as the Sustainable Development Goals. This will ensure we break down our silos and work in a more aligned, collaborative fashion.

When we embrace and harness the influence of our activated citizens, we can connect them to the outcomes our world desperately needs. We can channel constructive, rational dialogue and opportunities for action. Let’s be ready for tomorrow, and the uniting change it will bring.

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Related topics:
Social InnovationFourth Industrial Revolution
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