Tech for good: What it means and how we can deliver on it

Tech for good may be a broad concept but it is not abstract.

Tech for good may be a broad concept but it is not abstract. Image: Randall Bruder on Unsplash

Ming Tan
Founding Executive Director, Tech For Good Institute
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  • Digital technologies and the digital economy can drive sustainable, equitable and inclusive development as well as economic growth.
  • Tech for good has proven nebulous as a concept, and perceptions across Southeast Asia indicate it has not delivered on its promise.
  • The Tech for Good Institute suggests a simple framework to understand the elements that make up tech for good.

“Tech for good” – a descriptor for the space where technology is deployed to take on big social and environmental problems – may be catchy but the phrase could mean many things.

The sector encompassing health tech, education tech, cleantech, femtech and enterprise environmental, social and governance (ESG) software is seeing increased investments, reaching $79 billion globally in 2021. But at the Tech for Good Institute (TFGI), we found that varying definitions across the tech for good ecosystem meant varying expectations. Without a shared understanding of tech for good, it’s no surprise that the jury’s still out on whether technology is delivering a net positive impact.

In February 2023, TFGI ran a flash poll on public perceptions of tech for good in Southeast Asia. Of the 212 respondents from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, only 46% strongly agreed or agreed that technology and the digital economy have delivered their promise for the region. Almost as many (37%) stayed neutral.

Tech for good has proven nebulous as a concept, and perceptions across Southeast Asia indicate it has not delivered on its promise.
Tech for good has proven nebulous as a concept, and perceptions across Southeast Asia indicate it has not delivered on its promise.

Like any industry, the digital economy can have positive and negative consequences on society and the environment. How then, should we assess the impact of technology and the digital economy?

Tech for good’s framework

At TFGI, we believe that digital technologies and the digital economy drive sustainable, equitable and inclusive development and economic growth.

Technology’s impact is derived from the technology itself and its business model, creating the use case for business and society. Historically, technology has been deployed for positive or negative outcomes – fission bombs falling over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 being a clear example of the latter. That said, under strict governance, nuclear technology has since been deployed across multiple commercial sectors, most notably in medicine.

Given tech for good’s expansive scope, we developed a simple visual representation of how different approaches may deliver on technology’s promise.

Elements of 'tech for good'.
Elements of 'tech for good'. Image: Tech for Good Institute

The vertical axis indicates if technology’s full social and environmental cost is considered (bottom half) and the degree to which non-economic benefit to society and the environment is realized (top half).

Nuclear technology’s example shows significant effort is needed to ensure safety in production, handling and disposal. The needs of the community, environment and future generations must be considered, as radioactive material can remain hazardous for many lifetimes. Only after the total costs and negative consequences are addressed may technology be considered to deliver a net-positive impact.

The horizontal axis highlights how the digital economy may add value to economic growth. The processing power of digital technologies’ ability to collect, store and manipulate data quickly, accurately and at scale may be deployed to prevent harm to society or the environment (left) or efficiently meet social or environmental objectives, such as increasing access, improving accuracy, reducing error or lowering cost (right).

Some digital technologies and their applications can also create whole new approaches to achieving non-financial positive impact, shown in the top layer. In the case of nuclear technology, its impact on medical imaging and diagnostics has transformed medicine.

Better tech for good

With this framework, we can better articulate how digital economy companies may realize tech for good.

1. Responsible tech seeks to do no harm

Responsible digital economy companies examine their systems, processes, products and services to identify and mitigate negative consequences in upstream development and downstream impacts of products and services.

Digital technologies can be inherently values-driven, so upstream considerations include developing systems with inclusion, security and data protection baked in, with transparency to build trust. For example, developers can proactively ensure datasets that train algorithms are unbiased or design systems for frictionless data sharing or systematic data protection.

Downstream considerations include maintaining consumer choice and protecting livelihoods and users’ health and well-being. With rapidly evolving digital technologies, operating responsibly is a moving goalpost. As regulators pay attention to players in the digital economy, the business case for mitigating negative impacts can be as straightforward as maintaining licences.

In our poll, only 14% of respondents thought responsibility alone constituted tech for good, suggesting sustainability is necessary but more is needed.

2. Supportive tech provides new ways of preventing harm

Several examples demonstrate the rise of supportive tech. For instance, automated safety systems in vehicles or manufacturing can reduce accidents or loss of life. Similarly, sensors and satellites that collect and analyze data have greatly enhanced weather monitoring, forecasting, and responses to severe weather events.

Another example is cybersecurity applications that use predictive artificial intelligence models to identify vulnerabilities and pre-empt cyber-attacks.

While technology could help or scale solutions, there must also be a change in goals, mindsets, practices and behaviours.

Ming Tan, Founding Executive Director, Tech For Good Institute

3. Facilitative tech optimizes benefits by increasing efficiency

Technology that streamlines processes, saves time, improves convenience, increases access, reduces waste or lowers cost can be a value-add.

Examples include online to offline platforms, which match supply and demand for services and enable new livelihood and income opportunities while increasing consumer convenience. Other examples include data analytics to support decision-making, automation for repetitive tasks that reduce manual labour and minimize errors and communication technology to enable cross-border collaboration.

4. Transformative tech tackles global, national or local challenges

Transformative products, services and business models radically transform lives and livelihoods while solving the world’s most complex problems. In essence, transformative tech is disruptive, creating new or reinventing sectors.

Fintech’s impact on the financial industry is a case in point. Access to financing has long been difficult for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) for physical inaccessibility and lack of formal documentation and collateral to access credit.

Today, digital financial services providers such as Grab Financial Group, SEA Money and Goto Financial can use alternative data, such as transaction data, to develop credit risk models for those with no collateral.

TFGI found that over 70% of digital lending users had previously been unable to secure financing from banks and other lenders. By reaching and serving customers digitally, these providers can offer micro-financing products and reduce customer costs.

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Not mutually exclusive

That’s not to say that supportive, facilitative and transformative tech should not also be responsible. And transformative tech is often a subset of supportive or facilitative approaches.

As TFGI’s poll suggested, tech for good was most often associated with transformative impact. However, complex problems also have strong cultural and social dimensions when it comes to optimising efficiency and preventing harm. While technology could help or scale solutions, there must also be a change in goals, mindsets, practices and behaviours.

Therefore, if the expectation is transformative impact, it is unsurprising that tech for good appears not to have delivered on its potential. Yet, optimizing efficiency and preventing harm shouldn’t be discounted as having a positive social or environmental impact.

Tech for good may be a broad concept but it is not abstract. Whether enabling systems change or achieving precise outcomes, tech for good can solve problems, optimize benefits and help tackle the pressing social and environmental challenges of our time.

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