Technology companies have power. They must assume responsibility

People expect businesses to help the world succeed by active contribution to social and environmental issues.

People expect businesses to help the world succeed by active contribution to social and environmental issues. Image: Noah Buscher/Unsplash

Rishad Premji
Executive Chairman, Wipro Limited
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This article is part of: India Economic Summit

Public expectations of business leaders have changed in the past few years. "How are you helping your business succeed?" is no longer the pertinent question. Today, people expect businesses to help the world succeed — through their products and services, through responsible and ethical behavior and by active contribution to social and environmental issues.

According to a study by research firm Clutch, 75% of people want large businesses to take a stand on social and environmental issues. Businesses also face this expectation internally, from their employees.

This is not surprising. People across the globe realize that the private sector has a significant portion of the stock of global influence and resources. Therefore, the social and environmental changes they want can only come about when businesses truly contribute. As a result, people are more positive about businesses that help implement real change.

Too many companies fall short of these expectations. This is certainly true of tech firms, many of which have established close relationships with younger generations, who are perhaps the fiercest proponents of corporate social responsibility.

Pew Research Center suggests that only half of Americans believe tech companies make a positive impact on society. Technology leaders must ask themselves what roles can (and should) tech companies play in a world suffused with technology?

The corporation as a social actor

Business leaders are increasingly required to embrace the role of the corporation as a social actor, as evidenced by a new humanistic vision of corporate responsibility, laid out by the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies.

Its corporate purpose statement reflects the broadened obligation of a company not just to its shareholders, but also to its employees, customers, suppliers and communities.

Wipro's CEO and Managing Director, Abidali Z. Neemuchwala, signed on to that vision alongside 180 other CEOs. We have been committed to this philosophy of broad social responsibility for decades ­– in 2006 we stated this publicly with our 'Good Citizen Manifesto'.

Tech companies, including Wipro, are uniquely positioned to make a positive impact.

Technology can be part of the solution

Government agencies and non-profits, for instance, certainly know the nuances of challenges facing specific communities; they have the insights to improve matters and are often making a real difference.

Technology can help many of these efforts when used thoughtfully. Tech firms must have the humility to recognize that the complexity of social-human matters don’t have ‘technology solutions’, but technology can be an important and sometimes unique piece in the tapestry of solutions.

An example is the challenge that government agencies have faced in adapting to the digital age, partly from the lack of adequate public tech infrastructure. Tech companies, meanwhile, bring this infrastructure and agility to clients every day. So partnerships between the two seem like a natural solution.

The recent launch of CivStart — a tech incubator helping mid to late-stage startups connect with potential partners in government — signals a move in the right direction.

Germany's Integreat application, winner of the 2018 Techfugees Global Challenge Competition to support refugee communities via technology, is another great example. This platform helps bridge language barriers and connect immigrants to vital information from city services and other local organizations.

Platforms and systems developed by tech companies can nurture digital ecosystems supporting the work of non-profits. The need for this is felt – only 11% of non-profits view their digital initiatives as "highly effective", and though 90% say they collect data, it can be used more effectively with tech.

Another fascinating example is how tech platforms have impacted philanthropic activities of individuals. Take crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, for example, which transformed charitable giving by making social spending more accessible and personal to people across the globe.

If humility can help tech to play a role in finding real solutions for social issues; expanding empathy can enable tech’s contribution beyond their business products and services.

The 'license to operate'

The success of tech firms has created wealth beyond measure in the companies and with their owners. Part of these resources can back action on social and environmental issues that a company takes a stand on.

This must come from within the company and the individual and cannot be forced from outside. However, each of us do need to be aware that the changing expectations of the people of the world, over time will have an implication on the basic norms that shape the ‘license to operate’ for all businesses.

Lastly, the tech sector has to be deeply aware of the full-range of its own impact. On one hand, tech has improved human wellbeing, and on the other it has psycho-socio-political consequences that are far from benign.

A self-critical and self-aware disposition will stand tech in good stead in the long term, instead of tech triumphalism.

We have to remember that human values have to lead technology and not vice versa.That simple truth may be the greatest enabler of technology for human and planetary good.

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