Leveraging Technology for Social Impact: The Winds of Change Are Here

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

June 18, 2019

Technology is a change driver and has made numerous mundane tasks much easier to accomplish. Across segments, technology has reshaped everyday life. However, the benefits brought about by technology must also deliver benefits for the greater good and must serve a purpose that is beyond profit alone. The offerings of most technology companies benefit only a certain section of the society and their impact is minimal for the population at large. While most tech companies are driven by the top line, there are a growing number of organizations prioritizing on achieving lasting social impact – ones that will perhaps benefit the less privileged sections of society or address global issues such as climate change and deforestation.

What is a Social Business?

Technology startups are in abundance across the globe and many have gone on to become what are called unicorns – meaning their valuations have exceeded US$1 billion. Innovative ideas and aggregation models have delivered astronomical gains for founders and stakeholders. Meanwhile, for social technology companies, their impact or success is not quantified by financial performance; rather the social impact that has been achieved.

Therefore, unlike a traditional business model with its focus on shareholder returns, the purpose of a social business is to generate revenue to ensure the organization’s sustainability and create the widest social impact. Besides operating on the same lines as a traditional business, a social business adds new value to both market and society.

Extending Solar Kits in India

One shining example is a solar energy company called Boond, based in India. It began its journey in 2010 with the mission to provide solar kits for homes without electricity. They commenced operations in western India and have since steadily expanded their footprint to other parts of the country. Their primary goal was to “provide scientifically aligned and meticulously crafted high quality, frugal and customer centric energy solutions backed by efficient service offering.” While most developed nations consider basic electricity as a given, several parts of rural India are yet to enjoy uninterrupted electricity access. Companies such as Boond have been able to fill a gap where even government agencies have been unable to deliver.

Eliminating Homelessness in the US

Social businesses are not limited to emerging economies alone. Even developed countries such as the US have witnessed the growth of several innovative startups that have been founded with the aim to deliver services to sections of society who would otherwise have been marginalized or overlooked. Case in point is a startup that is addressing homelessness and poverty in San Francisco called HandUp. This tech firm acts as a facilitator where donors make contributions towards nonprofit human services organizations that need funding for special programs, client needs and operational expenses. Donors can also assist individuals in need directly and partner organizations are responsible in making sure donations are allocated towards the purchase of basics such as food and clothing.

Averting Social Menaces in Southeast Asia

In the Southeast Asia region, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia, one tech startup is quietly making a difference in the lives of micro and small business owners. They are mostly sole proprietors who do not have access to a formal banking system and are therefore unable to secure credit for purposes such as business expansion or even to tide over a cash flow crunch. Oriente specializes as a nano-credit organization, established with the goal to serve the most vulnerable sections of society who often fall prey to loan sharks and find themselves mired in a vicious cycle of debt. In extending nano-credit, the ripple effect across rural economies will be significant and will perhaps even contribute towards averting social menaces such as crime and illiteracy.

Governments Must Initiate Socio-tech Ventures

Technology when leveraged for social impact will deliver lasting results. Much as there has been development in economic terms with rising per capita incomes globally, there are still vast sections of society who are faced with difficulties that a privileged individual would otherwise take for granted. Socio-tech (social technology) initiatives must also be spearheaded by governments and developed as part of public policy. Technology allows for better reach and inclusivity and these attributes must be leveraged on to deliver the greatest impact.

We are already seeing instances of how technological advancements in various fields are helping elevate the larger society. Advancements in fintech are giving banking access to the world’s unbanked population. Advancements in education are opening access to world class education right from your home. Mobile healthcare apps are making it easier to book our next appointment with a doctor along with purchasing our medicines online. Traditional farming technologies are being revived using emerging technologies. Better and smarter transportation systems are being planned by city planners using artificial intelligence and advanced sensing technologies. Even the energy sector is being affected by the advent of technology, where newer breakthroughs are being tested in using renewable energy which is both sustainable and cheap. Society as we know it is changing – and a lot of it for the better.

Like almost everything in the world, technology too is a means to an end. If that end is not driven by profit alone, but for the larger good and benefit of all strata of society – we can take innovation to drive great changes in our lives. And this time we need to focus on a future that is sustainable.