In the last decade (and especially in the last year), technology has become a crucial, always-present part of our lives. How can we use it to create impact?
In the last decade (and especially in the last year), technology has become a crucial, always-present part of our lives. We spend most of our days interacting with the world through it. Even when we’re not, it’s always around — on the table or in our pockets, waiting to be used.
I believe that technology is key to the purpose-driven businesses of today and tomorrow, and that’s what I do for work. But because technology plays such a big part in our lives, it may be difficult to see it for what it is and to discover how we can actually use it to create impact. So let’s step back.
At the very core of all technology is a simple, but powerful idea: technology exists to scale whatever we want to achieve. Let’s say your intention is to connect people. You can do that in an infinite number of ways. You can individually ask people who they’d like to connect with, and then bring that person to them. It’s not a very efficient solution, as you can probably connect just a few people this way. But when you invent the telephone (technology) that allows pretty much anyone to instantly speak to anyone else (intention). The same intention is realised on a global scale using technology.
But as we’ve seen over the course of the last 100+ years, technology can create both positive and negative impacts. It can be useful, and it can be annoying. It can help us save lives, or it can cause more problems than it’s solving. Technology per se is neutral as it cannot do anything on its own. The underlying technology behind any invention is a tool. It is lifeless, without intention and it doesn’t come with instructions or purpose. Instead, it multiplies and amplifies whatever we ask of it.
Give technology to a purpose-driven leader, and they’ll deliver a world-class education for free, to anyone with internet access. Give it to a numbers-obsessed entrepreneur and they’ll try to eat up every minute of our lives, by displaying and engineering content that exploits our primal brains.
Some people today view the choice we now face in addressing present and arising global crises, as a binary one. Embrace modern technology as a part of the solution, or a return to a simpler, more primitive world. History shows us though that we can’t just turn the clock back to how things were, however romantic a return to the past may seem. Human nature always pushes us forward. Technology is merely an enabler.
Thus, if we are to address our many social and environmental crises, we need to imagine a world where business and technology play a key role in how we overcome these challenges. As we reimagine our future, can we reimagine a different role for technology going forward? And can we use technology as a force for good in shaping that future? We are learning how to build ever more impactful companies, as we learn how to measure and communicate their social and environmental impact. For every success story, many other businesses struggle within a very challenging landscape. Meanwhile, the purpose-driven sector continues to evolve and transform every year, and with every success come insights that propel us all forward.
If anything, purpose-driven leaders share an affinity with their stereotypical growth-driven Silicon Valley counterparts — for upsetting the status quo. We need to learn to better harness and exploit the innovation process just as well, or better, than the smartest and most experienced minds in Silicon Valley. There is fundamentally nothing wrong with the skills and tools Silicon Valley uses to repeatedly create the world’s biggest companies. It’s the purpose with which we use it, that makes all the difference.
This era of significant change we live in is also a change of an era. Within just over a generation, we have seen the first social enterprise take hold, and now the rise of the mission-led business. Both are powerful corrective forces. For-purpose companies are now increasingly becoming more mainstream, as evidenced by the recent success of companies like Tesla, Etsy, 7th Generation, and Crowdrise. By fully integrating purpose into the organisation, leaders take on a higher mission, providing solutions to complex challenges. Many view purpose as an additional bottom line. The challenges mission-led businesses face pushes them and their teams to be more creative, seek solutions above and beyond what exists in the marketplace, and adopt innovation as a way of operating their business, just like the most successful tech startups of the last two decades.
Yet just as the purpose has accelerated over the last few decades, so has technology — at a dizzying pace. This presents opportunities and challenges. Because of the pace of change, those who don’t play catch-up risk being left out.
As the role of technology in our society is expanding, we now ask ourselves: are these merely tools that we can more consciously use to improve our lives? Or are they now becoming more powerful enablers that influence how we see the world, changing our behaviour and affecting what it means to be human? The emerging technologies suggest we are at entering a new period in human history that builds and extends the impact of digitalisation in very unexpected ways. In addition, the democratisation and convergence of the internet, biotech, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, quantum computing and nanotech means that we are experiencing a Big Bang of Technological opportunity and possibilities — completely unprecedented in human history.
Still, tech startups and purpose-driven businesses have a lot more in common than meets the eye. By embracing technology as one of the most powerful levers available to deliver change, purpose leaders have a tremendous opportunity to maximise our collective impact. But the technology won’t do it on its own, as it doesn’t have an agency. We need entrepreneurs with a vision, encouragement from and users who will back up the companies aligned with their values.
Big thanks to Stephen Vasconcellos and Niels de Fraguier for their edits and contribution.
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