By Michael Baxter, Fresh Business Thinking
At a recent GBEA and haysmacintyre roundtable event tech for good was the focus of discussion. Can UK tech startups change us for the good?
Change is hard. We all know that. And the older we are, the hard it is. That is why the German physicist Max Planck said "science advances one funeral at a time".
And social media plays to that. It plays to who we are and accentuates that which already exists. This is why the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is becoming discussed in tech circles. But there is another side. Tech can do good too.
At a recent online seminar, organised by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre, in which founders of start-ups operating in what has become called the 'tech for good' space, the positive side of tech came under the spotlight.
It is not that the volume of negativity is deliberate. It is that human nature being what it is, AI creates results that make us more uncomfortable, results some think are scary and dystopian.
In these difficult times when Covid-19 is dominating our thoughts, and when social media can sometimes feel like it is bringing out the worst in human nature, can tech do good?
Joseph Daniels of Project Etopia, a smart city and affordably, sustainable homes start-up, talks about "the propagation on social media of negative news". Algorithms work out what we want and what preferences are created by our hardening neural pathways. It then throws negativity at us.
"You cannot escape negative news," Joseph says, referring to a story arc creating "an algorithm tailor to us for more negativity".
Maybe, then, the problem is simply that social media algorithms have become too good at reading us, and possibly in bringing out the worst of us.
As Ranjit says: "They know exactly where and when the brain gets it's high and wants the next instant fix. And most of all, they understand that we want to show the best of ourselves, and they've learned to monetise it."
Tech to the rescue
"We have a responsibility as leaders," opined Joseph Daniels, "to create forums around the negative effects that social media has and how we can address that."
Or as Ranjit asked: "Can't we have a button that says 'please don't show me what you think I like?"
Ruari Fairbairns said: "Awareness is the first step, then there is legislation. But what I can do is try to educate people on the dangers of social media."
This takes us to remote working. For organisations, the mental health of staff matters. Chieu Cao, founder of Mintago, which specialises in creating financial control for employees, said: "Companies have a duty of care for remote working."
"As leaders, we need to improve our communications," he explained. Chieu expanded on the theme, suggesting that remote working creates artificial ways for interacting with people.
"Arranging times for a Zoom call is not natural." He suggested that the answer lies in creating "transparency a the workplace" and says that "creating a culture where communication is better is so important".
Ruari Fairbairns added that "as leaders, we need to communicate that it's okay to feel emotion.
"We have daily calls from which I try to identify by looking at people," how they are feeling. He also went on to explain how he and his team use a program called Donut to randomly create coffee breaks between different colleagues each day.
"More and more people are willing to adopt tech and realise the benefits of tech for good" such as reduced travel times as a consequence of working from home. But technology change is "frighteningly fast".
An essential part of tech for good is volunteering. And Covid related lockdowns have been associated with an increase in volunteering.
The discussion's chair was Natasha Frangos from haysmacintyre. She asked whether post-Covid, businesses will make a permanent shift.
And this takes us to the issue of where people will find the time.
Sanjay Lobo, founder of onHand which matches volunteers with projects, explained that "most corporate volunteering has to be done on set days at a set time" and for some people this isn't practical. So onHand attempts to solve this with 'micro-volunteering' that's done locally.
He explained: "Of the 200-300 million hours of volunteering that companies offer their employees, only 10-15% is used. We need to make it easier for employees to engage."
For Ruari, volunteering shows the good side of technology. He says: "Volunteering has proven to change your brain's chemistry, the emotions you feel from volunteering are so powerful."
He suggests that volunteering is one way to counteract the negative side of technology. "It is not the cake or alcohol that makes you feel good - it's the meditation, exercise and volunteering," he added.
Sanjay agreed: "We say you can watch Netflix or go on Tinder...or volunteer with us."
Supporting tech for good in times of crisis
A lot of volunteering organisations need funding. And in times like these when people worry about job security, how is the sector holding up? asked Natasha.
Loral Quinn, co-founder of Sustainably, which connects individuals where they work and where they shop. She said that there was a significant impact on the volume of shopping during lockdown. "And lots of people have been furloughed or made redundant, which had a massive effect on us".
She sees the answer in finding new ways to give and about creating simplicity, "something that is frictionless" as well as making it easier for people to understand the impact their contribution will have. Loral talks about small nudging - for example, linking the money people donate while shopping to removing plastics from the ocean.
As we do more online, donating need to be more seamlessly integrated into life online. This is what PayPal Giving Fund, run by Nick Aldridge tries to achieve. He said: "We have joined forces with some leading internet businesses like GoFundMe, Facebook, Airbnb and PayPal to make it possible to have donations as part of transactions on their site.
"After a brief pause when lockdown began, we saw donations rocket upwards in April and May in all our markets," Lorel says. "This is about bringing donations to where people are - and time spent online has been growing rapidly as people stay at home. Social media has become the default way of fundraising."
The grand vision
Vision is essential, and that vision can be grand indeed. Ruari talked about "the vision behind the vision". In the short term, One Year No Beer is about helping people with alcohol addiction, but "ten years on from being founded, we have created a platform for helping people connect for the common goal of changing behaviour. So there is a need to think much bigger."
Natasha questioned how you do that without scaring people.
Chieu Cao cautioned that "while it's great to have a vision, you need to celebrate small successes every day. Otherwise you get disconnected and staff lose focus.
"Vision can lead to confidence and belief, but you have to listen to people."
It's a balancing thing - vision is good, but you have to take small steps to realise that.
Joseph Daniels feels that vision is also a great way to draw people in: "Consumers love the idea of saving planet. But we have to work with legislation and corporate governance. How do we walk that tightrope between realism and vision?"
But then tech for good can change people. If volunteering can reset the brain and change behaviour for the better, it can be changed in other ways too. As Ranjit said, one individual who took part in the One Million Steps challenge says they "can no longer walk to the corner shop without walking around the park en route".
Some tech may play to the neural pathways that already exist and bring out negativity, but tech can be for the good too. Martin, who is also on the board of Business in the Community, said: "We want to get smaller businesses to join and interact with larger organisations".
Maybe tech can help facilitate that change.