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Our Insights 17 Mar 2016

If Technology is the Answer, What is the Question?

By Rida Bilgrami

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In our Fall 2015 Quarterly Trends we noted that rapidly developing technological breakthroughs are reshaping society, business, supply chains and the workplace. We are also seeing a greater articulation of the discomfort that is arising from the rate at which technological progress is taking place and the inability to manage some of the risks and challenges associated with it.

One of those challenges is the widening of inequality. As Jo Confino, Executive Editor, Impact & Innovation, notes in The Huffington Post: “Experts say that rapid advances in technology are pulling the world in opposite directions and that the way that policy makers, businesses and civil society handle the extraordinary pace of change will determine the direction of human society.” These concerns are particularly salient in the face of forecasted trends for 2016, which include the rapid development of the Internet of Things, cybersecurity becoming more of a concern for both business and households and artificial intelligence and robotics increasingly holding the potential to replace human tasks.

Undoubtedly technology can play an important role in catalysing solutions to social issues. Take, for instance, mobile health applications facilitating patient and physician interaction or mobile banking apps enabling financial inclusion of the unbanked in rural parts of Africa. The smart cities concept implies that, in principle, digital technologies translate into better public services for citizens, better use of resources and a lesser impact on the environment.

Technological advancement is a major driver of social and economic change; future technologies promise widespread benefits. But beyond such examples, are we giving enough consideration to the challenging issues and impacts that arise and are we accurately identifying the needs we want technology to address?

The Pace of Change

Arguably, there has been limited consideration to these questions to date because of the ways in which technology has evolved and the pace of change. Technology often develops in a direction that was not initially intended or conceived by the innovators or developers. Multiple functionalities and iterations can emerge in a short passage of time.

Facebook, which started off as a communications platform for students at elite US institutions, is now connecting a billion users around the globe both socially and commercially. I spoke with Ben Levinstein, a James Martin Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, and he was of the view that: “It’s hard to say what the Facebook founders had in mind but the intended impact of their innovation has been a democratisation of the media, spread of information, features such as matching organ donors with those who need them, providing safety check-ins in times of natural disasters and terrorist attacks and all these functions can be seen as a net force for good.”

Technological advancement is a major driver of social and economic change and future technologies promise widespread benefits.

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Levinstein views the impact of transformative technology on societies as net positive, particularly the spread of information that it enables. However, he also cautions that the differential pace of technological innovation – where one aspect of technology outpaces another – can pose more of a risk to society.

Human Centricity of Technology

In addition to the pace of change, perhaps another dimension when considering the ends of technology is the human-centricity of technological innovations and asking the question: Are the behaviours, habits and wellbeing of end users being given worthy consideration?

Justin Pickard, a doctoral student in anthropology of technology and innovation at the University of Sussex, told me he doesn’t see the pace of change as an issue. He reflects that society in the late Victorian era also had a sense of acceleration towards technological innovation. However, according to Pickard, “now there is this notion that new technologies are being designed by a homogenous group of people from one particular place and then diffused out into the world where old behaviours get filtered through them.”

Pickard shared with me the example of the clash of contactless cards that most Londoners would be familiar with – whereby contactless payment systems on public transport don’t distinguish between the Oyster contactless card and regular contactless bankcards. In other words, technology that was designed to offer more convenience to commuters is at odds with people’s behaviour of carrying both cards in the same wallet.

What Transport for London is trying to do is to retrain behaviour rather than retrain the system in some way, and behaviour change among consumers, as many companies will be aware, is not always easy to bring about.

Levinstein agrees with Pickard in the sense that companies or innovators across the board may not be thinking consciously about what society we want to create or shape. As Julia Powles, writing about the Web Summit in Dublin, observes in The Guardian: “Questioning the ends of technology is a critically important task – and one that is too often marginalised in our reverence of contemporary disruptors.”

Questioning the Ends and Designing Solutions

There are examples of technological innovation that embody more conscious decision-making on meeting societal needs. Recently elected Mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, asked in an open consultation to advisers: What are the social problems we want technology to solve? The result was the tenets of a smart city based on openness, democratic participation and a policy that emphasises public ownership of data generated from public services.

Start-ups such as Spacial Ideas from India and Bethnal Green Ventures in the UK are also looking at how technology can solve social and environmental problems. Spacial Ideas uses technology to improve service delivery to people in need using biometrics, mobile applications and geographic information systems. For instance, given the high infant mortality rate in India, it helped health workers to track pregnant women and children who need vaccinations, saving the government a significant amount of funds in the process. Bethnal Green Ventures is an accelerator supporting teams with ideas for a product or service that uses technology to transform a social or environmental problem.

Changeist, a creative lab and research consultancy, is developing tools that can be used to illustrate the various forms and modes of frictions that emerge between the Internet of Things and people. Scott Smith, Founder of Changeist writes in his blog: “When companies focus on sheer technical possibility as opposed to real-world needs an overstuffed world ends up with even more crap.”

While these examples illustrate that the ends of technology are being considered and questioned at the urban level, in the social enterprise space there remains a greater need for a mainstreaming of the question: How should we, as a society, sort out which advances are truly beneficial, and how do we manage those that create significant costs as well as benefits? This needs to be considered in public policies, incentive mechanisms and by large tech companies as they demonstrate leadership by leveraging their core competencies to solve intractable social and environmental challenges.

This article was originally published in Radar 09: Inside the Machine.

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