January 25, 2018

Interview with Leonora Buckland on Harnessing Technology for Exponential Social Impact the new Report

Leonora Buckland researcher at ESADE Business School and Xavier Pont co-founder of Ship2b recently published a  report, titled “Harnessing Technology for Exponential Social Impact”. We interviewed Leonora on her findings.

Leonora Buckland Final Photo

This report  discusses the ways that social tech businesses can generate impact through technology. We managed to discuss with co-author, Dr. Leonora Buckland, advisor to ESADE Business School in Spain, some questions relating to the report that give an insight into the challenges, opportunities and drawbacks of technology within social businesses whilst also discussing  how it can be harnessed to gain impact. These are some of her conclusions from the report.

In this report, you describe two main perspectives on technology – one that sees technology’s dangers and capacity to create anti-social impact; and another that embraces its potential to solve social challenges. In your assessment, what level of this spectrum do you think society is in today?

Leonora:  If we think of Tech4Good versus Tech4Bad, I would say that we are definitely in the realm of Tech4Good at the moment. Technology is creating a lot of positive social change. The downsides and more catastrophic scenarios, for example, are perhaps more in the future than in the present (such as vast unemployment due to robots or a runaway super-intelligence). However, people are increasingly coming to the perspective that this balance between Tech4Good and Tech4Bad (to put it in relatively simplistic terms) is constantly shifting and evolving in quite a complex way. There are voices out there that are, quite rightly, worrying about the concentration of power in the global tech companies as well as some pernicious side-effects resulting from this so-called fourth industrial revolution (a retreat from intimacy, growing potential for inequality). Moreover, in this digital age, there is agreement that space for civil society (free of government or corporate intervention) is actually shrinking. But there are other voices that are helping us raise our level of ambition in terms of the incredible potential for technology if it is intentionally directed towards achieving social impact.

Peter Diamandis, a Silicon Valley Insider, states that technology enables people to make things which were scarce abundant. Can you give an example of a social tech businesses which has created this effect?

Leonora: Social tech businesses are using technology to create this effect. This is particularly obvious in the energy sphere: where technology can provide for a family something that was once scarce i.e. energy, relatively abundant. For example D-Light is a well-known social business that is a pioneer in delivering solar-powered solutions to people without access to reliable energy. It has sold close to 20 million solar light and power products in 62 countries, improving the lives of over 80 million people through generating renewable energy, creating cost savings for households as well as increasing the productive hours that can be used for work or studying.

Do you believe that enough resources are focused on using technology to solve social challenges, or do you think that more can be done to deliver impact?

Leonora: There is a huge mismatch in the amount of resources which are directed to commercial exploitation of technology versus mining its potential for solving large-scale social challenges. Enormous sums of public money have supported digital innovation in business, however there has been much less systematic support for digital social innovation. Not only is the amount of public funding weak, but Tech4Good impact investing is also tiny. Only about 2% of impact investment funds are directed towards the ICT sector. There is clearly  a massive amount of additional public and private money that needs to flow towards this social tech movement. But money is not the only answer. There also needs to be a stronger knowledge / research base around social tech as well as more cross-sector collaboration, with a growing alliance of the tech and the social.

Within the report you state that data privacy and surveillance are major social challenges that may lead us to be, “enslaved” by technology.  Do you believe that social tech businesses do enough to address these challenges and if not what more can be done?

Leonora: I think that a lot more can be done around data privacy and surveillance. The leading work on protecting against the surveillance state is being driven by the non-profit sphere. This is partly because it is hard to generate a sustainable business model from these activities. On the other hand, I think that the issue of data privacy and in particular more ‘commons’ approaches is a very fertile area for social businesses. For example, in Spain there is a social tech start-up in the health sphere, Made of Genes, which can be described as a one-stop genomics marketplace, where genomic data is transacted between different health sector players. The key value it is providing to its customers is that it can protect the data privacy of its users and that it will not sell data to big pharma. The whole issue of surveillance and data privacy will only become more and more important, as we move to the world of internet-of-things. Going online and leaving a data trail is no longer the only way our privacy and freedom of expression can be compromised: we will be digitally tracked every time we move around.

You explored the target of algorithms being able to mould and predict human behaviour. Do you think that this amount of influence or target selection is informative or conducive to social challenges that are presented today?

Leonora: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are being successfully used in many social impact areas at the moment (there are 48 European digital social innovation projects) using these technologies. In education and health, for example, the potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning to have a hugely positive social impact is clear (although not yet realised) from data mining to improve clinical diagnosis to creating more personalised learning experiences through edutech products. Yet there seems to be a broad consensus that with algorithms, there is a growing need to build societal norms into the loop – group values and group defaults. At some point in the computational process, a person (or society) needs to take charge. 

The report has many fascinating findings, showing the technology which is one the biggest determining factor of social impact  now and in the future.  You can read Harnessing Technology for Exponential Social Impact below.

Harnessing Technology for Exponential Social Impact

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