Despite the proliferation of technology that was once only dreamed of in science-fiction movies, our world still faces age-old problems – from poverty and hunger, to pollution and diseases. In fact, 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity, and more than 3 billion people live in poverty on less than $2.50 a day. On top of that, one in nine people on Earth do not have enough food to support a healthy lifestyle.
I often speak about how emerging, interconnected technologies – the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence/machine learning, blockchain, fog computing and others – can help companies create new business models, markets and value propositions. However, a recent trip to Africa reminded me that we should be using technological breakthroughs not only to compete in the new digital economy, but more importantly, to better our society. Why aren’t we doing more with these revolutionary technologies to combat poverty, hunger, diseases, pollution, waste, natural disasters and other enduring socio-economic issues?
There is no reason that someone shouldn’t have safe water to drink. There is no reason a family shouldn’t be able to feed their children. And frankly, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to eradicate poverty in the next 20 years. In fact, the World Bank estimates that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty is declining – down to 8.6% in 2018, from 10% in 2015. While much of this decline is attributable to Asia’s economic growth and expanded welfare programs, weak economies, war zones and high birth rates have kept poverty levels high in sub-Saharan and north Africa, as well as the Middle East, slowing down the global poverty rate decrease. Statistics also show that still one in eight Europeans experience some form of poverty, while 13.4% of Americans live below the poverty line.
While political and economic issues are always in play, new technology innovations can help us overcome these challenges. Fortunately, we are starting to see glimmers of hope spring up all around us. Here are a few examples:
• Residents of sub-Saharan Africa are beginning to use innovative, pay-as-you-go solar-powered systems to light up homes in underserved, rural regions where traditional power grids are not feasible.
• Urban areas in South Korea and the UK are exploring the use of IoT-enabled air quality sensors to reduce pollution.
• Shrimp farmers in Colombia are using IoT sensors to collect data to improve yield.
• In the US, Seattle startup Samaritan offers an app that allows anyone to easily donate to the homeless through the use of Bluetooth technology. These technological approaches help people and countries better utilize precious resources and contribute to the fight to end poverty and hunger.
What is most interesting about these use cases is that they focus on solving problems on the local level, but can be equally successful when applied to other regions. When working to solve worldwide problems, we must first act locally, achieving small but significant successes and then scale those solutions globally. For instance, Oxford University first piloted Smart Handpumps in Kenya; using sensors and cellular transmitters to remotely monitor groundwater levels, they help ensure that people have sufficient clean water. Today, these IoT-enabled water pumps are used by rural communities across Africa and Asia. But how can other organizations emulate successful, scalable projects that drive social and economic value?
When it comes to scaling a solution globally, no single company, nonprofit, NGO or entrepreneur can go it alone. This is where the “co-economy” comes into the picture. As I’ve written before, the co-economy is a new approach to business that involves partner ecosystems including horizontal, vertical and hyper-local or regional specialists. These comprise startups, large companies, customers, academia, researchers, standards bodies, government agencies and others who work closely together to co-develop and deliver disruptive solutions.
In the abovementioned Smart Handpumps example, Oxford University is working with a host of partners, including UNICEF and national and local government agencies, to deliver their solution across continents. Another example of a thriving co-economy involves an IoT-powered disaster management solution in Glasgow, Scotland. A dynamic partner ecosystem of horizontal technology specialists, local governments and vertical experts (including those in the aerospace and defense industry) co-innovated a solution called CONSERVE. The solution collects and visualizes data from emergency responders and volunteer networks to coordinate action during disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, to save lives. While we can’t prevent natural disasters, we can certainly mitigate their impact to make the world a safer place.
As co-economies come together to conceptualize and deliver technology to better our world, we’ll see new tech hubs arise. These are cities or regions with vibrant technology ecosystems, or even individual physical spaces (often called innovation centers), and they are increasingly proving to be effective drivers of economic growth. A study of 320 metro areas around the globe by University of California Berkeley Professor Enrico Moretti showed that “success breeds success” – an average of five jobs are created in a city for every tech job. However, these tech hubs aren’t reserved for wealthy areas or the world’s leading international cities.
Take Guadalajara, for example. The city has been quietly transforming itself into a research and development hotspot over the past few decades. It is now full of small- and medium-sized startups emulating what Silicon Valley innovators once did to build an ecosystem of successful companies and venture capitalists. Today, Guadalajara has the third largest GDP in Mexico. Similarly, Africa has established more than 400 tech hubs across the continent in recent years, according to a 2018 GSMA study. The study revealed that African tech startups increased funding by 53% in 2017. This is a positive sign for the economic and social good of African nations, if Moretti’s theory on success is correct.
When partner ecosystems expand and establish more interconnected tech hubs around the world, it also creates a network multiplier effect. This allows homegrown ideas or solutions to be scaled globally, expanding positive impacts as the network grows. For instance, a proven IoT-enabled platform, CityVerve, originated through a diverse consortium of more than 20 organizations to improve livability in Manchester, England. Now, the solution serves as a blueprint for other tech hubs to create safer and cleaner cities worldwide.
With thriving co-economies and vibrant tech hubs, it will become easier to capitalize on one of the simplest, yet most effective, ways to make our world a better place: education. And, we already have the tool to support this notion. During my trips around the world, I noticed that just about everyone had a mobile phone, from farmers to Buddhist monks. By 2019, the number of mobile phones in use is expected to pass the 5 billion mark, while more than 4 billion people today are connected to the internet.
Co-economy and tech hub leaders must look for ways to use mobile technologies to make tangible impacts on their communities. For example, IntraHealth International is working with UNICEF, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the ministry of health and sanitation and others, to deliver a mobile platform, mHero, that provides real-time, critical information to health workers throughout a country via text messages. The solution is currently used in Sierra Leone, Mali, Liberia and Guinea, where it is helping educate users and combat the deadly Ebola disease.
In addition, the ubiquity of mobile phones is enabling new business models. Taking advantage of the mobile revolution, Twiga Foods developed a solution that is disrupting the supply chain in Kenya and beyond. Although grown locally, bananas cost more in Kenya than in Europe or North America. As Twiga Foods discovered, this was because nine steps and intermediaries separated banana growers from the retail stalls where citizens bought their produce. During this extended transport and storage time, a large portion of the bananas would rot. To address this inefficient and wasteful process, Twiga Foods began offering a micro-credit to stall owners and built a network of vehicles that delivered the bananas directly from their producers. As a result, consumers paid significantly lower prices, and producers were paid more for their goods.
A social conscience in the boardroom
Over the past 40 years or so, businesses have been hyper-focused on profit maximization. Today, we starting to realize that we also need to focus to furthering our society. Instead of pursuing GDP, revenue and efficiencies as the only measures of success and progress, we need to invest in our society to prepare it for the next wave of innovation and growth. As Kate Raworth points out in her book Doughnut Economics, now is the time for the next paradigm – a new framework that makes our world thrive and takes into account our long-term goals: economic, social and environmental, with a balanced approach.
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We now have the technological breakthroughs to solve the world’s most pressing social problems; we just need the collective will to expand them, exponentially. Every technology company must have a plan to do their part, and clearly understand how their own expertise and solutions can contribute to the greater good. For example, Microsoft recently announced its AI for Humanitarian Action program, which will use artificial intelligence to address disaster recovery, refugee protection and other global human rights issues.
When exploring how technologies – whether IoT, solar panels or a simple mobile app – can help drive positive impacts, senior leaders should include the business’s social goals as one of their key performance indicators (KPIs). They must also apply best practices from the business world, including successful co-economy models, and implement them in a social context. If more business and technology leaders take these steps, we’ll be closer to making our planet safer, healthier, happier and more sustainable for all.