It’s no exaggeration to say that technology has affected every aspect of our lives in some way or another — and neither national nor global corporates have been an exception to this. From streamlining business processes and enhancing consumer services to running large-scale corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, technology is a powerful tool in helping businesses to innovate and scale — fast.
However, over recent years, the focus has somewhat moved away from the benefits of technology (most of which are now regarded as standard) to the impact of technology on some of the major social issues facing our generation.
From digital disenfranchisement to cyberbullying and everything in between, technology has played a fundamental role in negatively affecting and isolating some of the most vulnerable in our society today.
Should technology companies be doing more from a CSR perspective?
While policymakers have been working hard to resolve many of these issues, it’s worth questioning whether regulation alone is enough. With the budget, expertise and influence, I’d argue that technology companies are actually in a much more powerful position to address social issues and affect positive change at a grassroots level.
By drawing on their experience and developing well-thought-out CSR strategies, technology companies of all sizes can set an example that other companies can replicate and build on to help more people in even more places.
Fortunately, the rise in internet transparency has given CSR schemes a new dimension and they have become far more meaningful than the tick-box exercise they once were.
A large part of this is also to the credit of consumers, 66% of whom “prefer to buy a product or service from companies that have implemented programs to give back to society”, according to a global report from Nielson.
The ones leading the way
Many companies are already aligning social impact with business strategies to make it part of their brand’s DNA and there are lots of great examples. Just last year Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg launched his Free Basics initiative in 42 countries, which allows mobile users to access Facebook free of data charges.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is currently running its Lagos Solar project in Nigeria, using batteries that are charged by solar panels, along with intelligent inverters connected to Microsoft Azure Internet of Things technology. The technology converts the battery power into usable electricity that can be monitored remotely to ensure secluded communities — and schools and hospitals in particular — have electricity when they need it.
On a personal level, I’ve been working with the UK’s leading tech for good funder, Nominet Trust, over the past year and have seen first hand just how powerful technology can be in addressing some of the world’s most urgent social issues.
As the charitable arm of Nominet — the official registry for .UK domain names — Nominet Trust supports budding social tech entrepreneurs to address real-life issues through technology, as well as championing a number of projects to engage those on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The annual NT100 is a particularly inspiring initiative. It celebrates a hundred of the most innovative and impactful tech for good projects from around the world. It’s been really eye-opening to see just how much can be done with little technical knowledge, minimal manpower and a small budget.
The other project I’m currently working on is Digital Reach, which aims to digitally engage 1% of the estimated 300,000 disadvantaged 16–25-year-olds in the UK and bring them away from the sidelines by working closely with third-sector organisations.
Most tech-for-good projects have been dominated by the government or CSR schemes within huge technology companies. While they’ve worked for many young people, those that have experienced disadvantage (for example, those who have been in care or out of education) have so far been left behind. Bringing youth organisations into the debate is a completely new approach. By supporting six different pilots, Nominet Trust hopes to identify the models that can be scaled and replicated to help level the playing field for all young people in the UK.
These are just a handful of examples of the CSR schemes out there, but I think they demonstrate just how broad and varied the initiatives can be in terms of their structure and target audience — yet still effective.
At a time when social responsibility is quickly becoming a deciding factor for consumers, CSR can no longer be a ‘nice to have’ addition for businesses. Not only is it in a company’s financial interests to maintain an ethical reputation and demonstrate genuine commitment to a cause, isn’t it also time we lived in a world where wealth is born out of equal opportunities?