i3 | April 05, 2021

Doing Well by Doing Good

Gary Arlen

Source: Mr. Cole Photographer/Getty Images

Now that every business is a technology business, it’s easy to rattle off the ways that tech has changed productivity, transportation, business operations and entertainment. But technology is also playing important roles in the social imperatives of this era: health, education, environment, security and justice, material living standards, economic empowerment and crisis response.

In its seminal white paper Tech for Good, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) identifies a handful of technology factors and matches them with societal objectives — assessing which technologies will have the greatest impact in each sector. “Data and artificial intelligence” along with “connectivity and platforms” consistently affect the potential to improve well-being, MGI concluded.

In addition to data/artificial intelligence (AI) and connectivity, MGI envisions the major tech factors needed “for the good” include robotics, the Internet of Things, augmented reality (AR), digital fabrication, new materials/biotech and clean tech.

For example, in the health and longevity sector, MGI foresees a growing role for AI-powered drug research and for personal lifestyle wearables that monitor health and track individuals’ improvements. “AI already shows results in applications ranging from the diagnosis of pneumonia, malaria, or Alzheimer’s to prediction of strokes and heart attacks, or of autism in infants,” the report explains.

In the “work equality” category, MGI cites a Hoobox Robotics wheelchair that can be controlled by facial expressions, facilitating mobility by using AI technology. It also singles out a start-up Textio, which uses machine learning to debias job advertisements that could appeal more to men than women. Rephrasing employment ads to attract more female candidates were effective using the technology, Vodafone saw a 7% increase in female recruits.

On a broader scale, mobile payment technology has provided access to financial services to millions of “unbanked” residents in the U.S. and worldwide.

Environmental Commitments

The largest global technology companies have sustainability in their business plans.

Panasonic plunged more deeply into the “green battery” sector in late 2020 via a partnership with two Norwegian firms to develop an eco-friendly portable power product for a range of uses, including for electric cars. Panasonic will work with energy firm Equinor and the Hydro industrial group, developing lithium-ion (Li) batteries for European customers. Panasonic already produces Li batteries, including at a major factory in Nevada in collaboration with electric carmaker Tesla.

Samsung Electronics, which established an Eco-Management roadmap in 2014, now operates greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction throughout its manufacturing processes. Its eco-design plan seeks to evaluate environmental impacts at each stage of a product life cycle including end-of-life processing and disposal. Like other global behemoths, Samsung says it “strives to meet or exceed higher standards than global energy regulations.”

“We systematically and comprehensively evaluate the sustainability performance of our products through our eco-rating system,” according to Samsung. The company’s chemical management policies ensure that raw materials are safe for consumers and that it uses sustainable materials.

Sony’s “Green Management 2025,” an environmental plan which began in 2010, aims for “the ultimate goal of a zero environmental footprint by 2050.” In addition to policies such as a 100% reduction in the use of plastic packaging of newly-designed small products, Sony is expanding its collaborations with supply chain partners to reduce the environmental impact from its materials and parts suppliers. For example, it has requested its raw material suppliers, parts suppliers and outsourced manufacturers to set water consumption reduction targets and evaluate the water depletion risk in the area where each site is located.

AMD, the large chip maker says its environmental, health and safety (EHS) business practices extend to its office buildings and data centers as well as its products. The company vows that its policies include voluntary conservation of energy, water, and materials and minimized environmental impacts from waste, greenhouse gases, and other emissions.

Hastening the Effort

The global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated public-private alliances to identify “tech for good” projects. For example, CTA and the Connected Health Initiative (CHI) launched a new effort to address health disparities in the U.S. The Health Equity and Access Leadership (HEAL) Coalition — formed in late 2020 — is a multi-sector initiative to create recommendations on the greater use of technology to mitigate health disparities, particularly coordination of resources. Among the members are Best Buy Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, Google, Microsoft and Validic.

“The rise of digital health technology gives us a unique opportunity to help advance health equity, improve access to care, increase health care quality and lower costs,” says Rene Quashie, vice president, digital health at CTA. “With greater use of technology, we can help reduce inefficiencies and provide more personalized care for marginalized patients and consumers.”

CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said during CES 2021, “Technology is solving our toughest global challenges.”

Focus on Seniors and Special-Needs Citizens

At the consumer-facing level, the consumer technology industry is also focusing on enabling seniors and people with disabilities with technology to enhance their lives.

“These are two growing demographics, yet often overlooked areas of philanthropy,” explains Stephen Ewell, executive director of the CTA Foundation, which supports 20 active grants in a variety of categories to support these communities. “Technology can have an incredible impact on people as they live, work and play,” Ewell says, citing the prominent role of health tech. And he emphasizes that technologies are assisting people in their daily lives across all of the consumer tech market areas. The Foundation’s projects reflect the range of tech applications “for the good,” for example:

Oak Hill Assistive Technologies in Connecticut, is developing a “smart home on wheels” to bring advanced vehicle services to seniors and individuals with disabilities who lack transportation.

The Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School in New York, offers “accessible music technology” to aid students, educators, professional musicians and recreational learners in instruction and performance.

The American Printing House for the Blind, is creating resources to help people new to vision loss.

Cyber-Seniors, a nationwide program to promote inter-generational mentoring, connects middle school, high school and college students with seniors to train them to use smartphones, tablets and computers.

The Arc of the United States, is developing an “environment navigator” pilot program to help adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to help them orient themselves with new jobs and roles.

Byte Back, a 24-year-old Washington, DC, organization, received a CTA Foundation grant to enable people with disabilities and seniors to buy tablets, screen magnifiers and other assistive technologies. Ewell points out that support comes from CTA plus an array of companies and individuals, ranging from AARP and IBM to Verizon and VOXX.

“The past year has driven home the challenges of physical distancing and social isolation for people across the world, but these are especially challenging for older adults and people with disabilities,” Ewell adds. “Technology is a key tool in creating connections that can help people build and maintain their networks.”

The French Prototype

French President Emanuel Macron established “The Tech for Good Summit” in 2018, seeking to take a stand for “responsible and inclusive technological progress, with an eye toward collaboration of big and small businesses, start-ups and non-profit organizations." Among the 80 global executives supporting the public/private initiative are IBM Executive Chairman Ginni Rometty, McKinsey Global Managing Partner Kevin Sneader, SAP CEO Christian Klein and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and other top officials from corporate and non-government organizations.

The group is focused on “for good” initiatives in five categories: education, gender equality, environmental protection, economic/social inclusiveness and the future of work. Among the goals is combatting malicious use of technology.

In its December 2020 update, the Tech for Good signatories vowed to push for products and services that respect principles such as “security by design” and “privacy by design,” sustainability, and the protection of consumers’ freedom of choice. Their manifesto singled out support for “taking advantage of the technological revolution to tackle health and environmental challenges” and to ensure technologies “promote social, professional and economic inclusiveness,” such as support of people with disabilities.” The group also wants to “broaden tech literacy and educate as many people as possible” on the responsible use of data and technologies.

Atop the group’s agenda is the need to “create the conditions for future deployment and equal access to technology through collective, multilateral and multi-stakeholder initiatives. These need to be based on ethics, transparency, open dialogue and the use of collective intelligence.”

“We call for the international community to come together to preserve an accessible, free, open, secure, resilient, interoperable and un-splintered cyberspace as a contributive and common good of humanity,” the group said in a December 2020 update. “Technology has been for decades a powerful force for human progress,” according to the new Tech for Good manifesto. The document also points to the recent vaccines against COVID-19 as “the latest sign of how technological innovation is critical for our wellbeing.”

Businesses can prioritize technology solutions, says McKinsey, “that simultaneously improve their bottom line and the outcomes for society.”

Three Winners of the First CES/World Bank ‘Global Tech Challenge’

A digital health project in East Africa, a resilience program focused on sustainable innovation in India and a global gender equality venture are the recipients of the first Global Tech Challenge, a partnership of CTA and the World Bank Group. The awards, each accompanied by financial support for the service projects, were selected from more than 1000 applications.

The recipients, announced at CES 2021, are all focused on using technology to achieve economic and social values.

  • Seventeen technology companies from 11 countries will work on projects that include point-of-care diagnostics, imaging and clinical decision support tools for East African healthcare providers. The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, will coordinate the venture as part of its “TechEmerge Health Challenge” that matches health tech innovators with health care providers in East Africa to conduct pilot projects and build commercial partnerships. More than 20 private healthcare providers in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda have signed on to the program and plan to work with health tech companies.
  • The “TechEmerge Resilience India Challenge” is aimed at developing solutions for a country that suffers from severe natural disasters, particularly cyclones and monsoonal flooding. COVID-19 has added another strain on the country’s ability to respond to life-threatening events. The projects will focus on technologies such as AI, IoT, drones, 3D printing and digital platforms plus other new approaches to handle disaster management. The National Disaster Management Authority of India is collaborating on this project with the World Bank and CES. IBM will provide cloud credits and technical assistance.
  • The “Solutions for Women” award recognized three projects that seek to eliminate barriers to digital equality, linked to the availability of infrastructure, financial constraints, interest and perceived relevance of digital technologies. The three projects are “Bridge for Billions” (a digital entrepreneurship ecosystem and mentoring platform for early-stage entrepreneurs); “MicroMentor (a free mentoring platform that connects entrepreneurs and volunteer business mentors and has supported more than 700 female entrepreneurs from more than 70 countries); and “Soochnapreneur” (a Digital Empowerment Foundation program that connects India’s rural citizens to information, rights, government entitlements and other necessary digital services).

i3 magazine March/April 2021 cover

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