How technology can change the world for good

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Technology itself is neutral. This is why we need to talk about responsibility and ethics when developing technology

How do you feel about the impact technology has had on the world? For every great use of technology, like helping millions of unbanked people in the world access finance, there are examples where an irresponsible use of technology has had a harmful impact, for example the use of the dark web to traffic everything from guns to child pornography.

Last week in London a hundred people gathered on a cold winter’s evening to discuss how technology can be applied to solve pressing problems like the migration of more than 60m people currently crossing borders to flee war and hunger. The room buzzed with energy and enthusiasm for the potential of emerging technologies to radically improve people’s lives.

Throughout history we can point to examples where technology has increased equality; by creating better products and services that improve lives by being cheaper than existing solutions, more accessible and able to reach more people. We think emerging technologies such as blockchain (the digital tool behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin) and artificial intelligence hold the same potential, if developed with social impact in mind.

I say if, because technology itself is neither good nor bad, it’s neutral. It can be used for good or ill and this is why it’s so important to foster a conversation around responsibility and ethics in developing technology, and to push for more diversity among the people making it.

At Bethnal Green Ventures we’ve been proving that you can grow successful technology startups that have a positive social impact for the last five years. We help people to launch and grow technology solutions that focus on improving social and environmental problems. Since 2012 we’ve supported over 100 startups through our accelerator, which combines investment with an intensive 12 week programme of mentoring and support.

Take the example of Fairphone, which joined Bethnal Green Ventures in 2012 on a mission to create fairer electronics, and with our support  went on to launch the world’s first ethical and repairable smartphone.

Their phones are made using ethically sourced minerals and are produced in Chinese factories with fair labour practices including better health and safety, worker representation and considerate working hours.

The phones also have a modular design, so different parts of the phone can be swapped, updated and repaired by the customer, encouraging consumers to keep phones for longer without needing to upgrade and constantly consigning their old models to landfill.

In Greenpeace’s 2017 Guide to Greener Electronics Fairphone came out ahead of all other electronics manufacturers – proving that they are making a positive impact across the value chain in mining, design, manufacturing and life cycle, while expanding the market for products that put ethical values first.

In the five years we’ve been growing businesses we’ve seen a huge growth in the number of people talking about ‘tech for good’. There is a big opportunity to capitalise on this growing movement by strengthening the support and investment available right now.

This is a priority for Bethnal Green Ventures and we hope to see more support and investment into digital and social innovations and businesses. If we do this successfully, we’ll encourage more people to develop tech for good solutions and ensure they have the support and funding available to succeed.

That’s why initiatives like the European Social Innovation Competition, for which I was part of the judging panel, are so important. Competitions like this can play an important role in helping early stage projects test and develop their solutions.

From 800 entries across Europe three winners were chosen to each receive a €50,000 prize. British winner Buildx is a collaborative open source platform to help people build their own low-cost sustainable homes; Feelif, from Solvenia, is a tablet for blind and visually-impaired people which uses vibrations to help people read; and Saga, from the Netherlands, is a peer-to-peer learning network which uses blockchain and crowdfunding to give people access to learning relevant to the changing world of work.

These winners show how different technologies – open source platforms, hardware and blockchain – can be applied to solve problems in how we live and how we work, in a way that reduces inequality in society. I hope they succeed, because ideas like this might just change the world, for good.