As leaders from more than 100 countries prepare to gather at Davos, a debate continues to rage regarding the role technology will play in society going forward. Will tech innovation be a fundamental part of the solution, or part of the problem, or both? Can we control powerful new technologies like artificial intelligence, genome editing and facial recognition in order to maximize their benefit to humanity, while minimizing the risk and harm?

As I’ve shared previously, we now have at our disposal four tech superpowers, and I firmly believe that tech will be a force for good over the next decade and beyond. Technology itself is inherently neutral, neither good nor bad. It’s up to us, as a global community, to determine how we develop and govern these new tools as their impact on our world intensifies.

What’s often overlooked in this highly charged debate is a separate but related question: do we, as leaders in the tech industry, possess the patience and drive to tackle large-scale societal challenges like financial inclusion, quality education or environmental sustainability – especially over the long haul? History suggests that Silicon Valley has been strong on talk regarding saving the world, but relatively light on action.

Image: VMWare

I’ve worked in the tech industry for almost four decades now, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the psyche of truly brilliant technologists. In my experience, most great engineers are wired to seek out the “brilliant flash of genius” solution to a problem. Whether it’s fully conscious or not, we technologists want to believe that tech innovation alone can overcome almost any barrier to human progress.

Here’s where it gets complicated. If you set your sights on solving the most complex, deeply entrenched global challenges, the path to success is a long, winding road with lots of different players involved along the way. By definition, we’re talking here about big, multi-year initiatives requiring collaboration with specialists from beyond the world of tech. The individual technologist (or team of technologists) becomes just one part of a much broader effort involving a diverse group of subject matter experts. Typically, teams from across the private sector, public sector and non-governmental organizations.

Let’s be honest, this kind of long-term, multi-part collaboration is not easy. The issues you’re trying to address – education, poverty, and climate change – are so complex that they require deep understanding of the historical context, an ability to apply systems thinking, and a significant time commitment to embed yourself at the community level. Success depends on building close partnerships with people with wildly divergent backgrounds and differing expectations. More often than not, you wind up managing competing priorities. Importantly, the answers rarely come in a flash of technological insight. While tech is an essential ingredient to success, these solutions at their core are behavioral, societal and political.

Bridging the tech gap

I’ve had the opportunity to experience first-hand what’s it like to work with a variety of subject matter experts who bring valuable knowledge that transcends tech. Early in our marriage, my wife and I committed to making significant contributions to charitable causes. Rather than spread these gifts out, we decided to engage deeply with a few nonprofits. It’s been an incredibly humbling and gratifying experience, in large part because we’ve had a chance to see the incredible work that these nonprofits do day after day. For example, one of these organizations now provides education, daily meals and healthcare for 18,000 children across sub-Saharan Africa. They’re now building a girls’ boarding school in the Kibera section of Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa and one of the largest in the world. In everything they do, these teams bring tremendous passion and perseverance, and yet there’s no escaping the fact that they are under-resourced. Their technology capacity is limited, and their tech capabilities are woefully inadequate.

Unfortunately, this holds true for most nonprofits. Look behind the scenes at any successful, large-scale initiative focused on driving positive change, and chances are you’ll find a nonprofit that’s playing a pivotal role – despite having limited resources and outdated technology. While nonprofits bring the expertise and the passion that make these projects go, most of them are unable to operate at their full potential. In fact, a 2018 NetHope survey found that 70% of leading global nonprofits do not have a technology strategy. That reality is even more exasperating when you consider the sheer scale of the nonprofit world. In all, there are some 12 million nonprofits worldwide, and they make up about 10% of the global workforce. Their combined economic output represents 4.5% of the global GDP – roughly equivalent to Germany’s GDP.

Clearly, the tech industry has an opportunity to help nonprofits scale their operations and expand their impact. With that in mind, we are working at VMware to deepen our investment in programs that drive digital transformation for nonprofits, while building their capacity. Just as we do for our customers, we’re enabling nonprofits to more effectively and efficiently achieve their missions. Case in point: through a project called Transforming Technology Pro Bono, the VMware Foundation and Taproot Foundation are working to provide a practical framework for more effective and sustainable tech pro bono that actually addresses nonprofit needs.

In many ways, technology is only beginning to galvanise itself to address big, societal challenges. Over the next decade and beyond, we need to inspire talented technologists all over the world to engage with the diverse teams that are working on complex problems like economic inequality and climate change. Just as important, it’s imperative that we enable and empower the nonprofits who are the heartbeat of these efforts.