March 12, 2017
Our lives will never be the same. Not tomorrow. Not the day after. Every moment brings us closer to a point of great technological saturation where a multitude of devices play an ever greater role in our daily lives. Look in any direction and you will see a plethora of screens — from your phone and television to the refrigerator and VR headset. We are now in a hyper accelerated transformation, where many of us are connected to a world of instantaneous information and data unlike anything our forefathers had imagined.
An incredible wealth of possibilities lies at your fingertips. Our cars are autonomous, able to drive themselves with minimal driver interference. Our cities are becoming smarter, able to intelligently distribute electricity to millions of households based on real-time usage and tariff changes. Our medical devices are more capable than ever, tracking vitals such as blood glucose and dispensing medication to preempt health deterioration. The way we shop, consume, learn, travel, and communicate has changed profoundly. And there is no going back. Arguably, one the way we breathe oxygen has not yet been wholly disrupted (although it probably will be).
Yet despite the countless technological disruptions we have witnessed over the past decades, technology has not disrupted mankind or planet earth enough. Billions of people are still without the crucial access to technology that can provide freedom of choice and opportunity. Our cities have become smarter, but how many cities still lack access to functioning infrastructure? Our medical breakthroughs can analyze the human genome and identify diseases we may be predisposed to, but how many people are do not have simple medications such as penicillin and malaria pills? Our children are born next to iPads and iPhones, but how many children are born without proper natal care and do not survive their first year after birth? Our food is delivered instantly to our doorstep with the click of a button, but how many people lack basic staples such as protein, fiber, and clean drinking water? Our freedoms have become more transparent, yet how many groups find that freedom of choice or social equality is beyond reach?
Our technological reach has almost limitless potential, yet the potential is not distributed in all directions In a world where technology has exponentially sped up the pace with which we communicate and interact, we have drifted further apart. At a time when we have more data at our disposal than ever before, we find it more difficult to make complex decisions. Globalization has broken down boundaries and geographic barriers, but we have erected new walls of separation in their place. Large portions of the world are not basking in the same level of digital participation as many of us in the developed world. Many of the things that would drive more equality— access to information, democratic participation, freedom of mobility — are not yet widespread enough. Social inclusion, an often stigmatized concept, has become a nice byproduct from the technological revolution, rather than an end in itself.
“Our world’s future is far more malleable and controllable than most people realize.” — Jay Samit
According to the International Telecommunications Union, 53% of the world’s population still lacks internet access. In many developing countries and rural parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, internet affordability is far from the reach of average citizens. 750 million people are unable to access clean drinking water according to the UN, twice the population of the United States. According to statistics presented by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, last year 1 million babies died on the day they were born. All of these examples illustrate an incredible unaddressed need — a need that technology can and should address for not only the betterment of lives, but also for the survival of humanity at large.
Thus, I am writing a few words to those of us who will continue to shape the technologies that proliferate our lives and the ways in which they impact our world.
To the creators — how does this thing I am designing deliver social good? How does it help those who might never be able to use it or directly benefit from it? Many times, creation does not end with the final product but spills over into the countless other products or services that are made possible by the first invention. Technological enablement is incredibly powerful.
To the innovators — is there an unmet need that we can channel our focus towards? Are we fully appreciating how existing technologies can be applied to under-served communities? Often innovation is not just creating something new, but adapting an existing technology in a new way somewhere else.
To the strategists — will the tech or business I am supporting drive a change in mindsets? How can this strategy, beyond its focus on business growth and profitability, be position in a way where it generates ancillary benefits? Will they survive when the existing strategy is reshaped in the near future?
To the financiers — what is the total return on the technology I am supporting? Just as an asset’s value is often not solely determined by its price, technology’s financial return is not only limited to the revenues it generates. There are many quantifiable and intangible benefits that tech can deliver.
To the political leaders — what policies can we implement to ensure the necessary incentives for technological innovation are there? And not just for more apps but for the critical technologies and innovations upon which the improvement of life depends. How can we set aside partisanship to view technology as synonymous with human progress, and to erode the barriers that prevent it from spreading to those who need it most.
To everyone else — continue to dream about what is possible. Be an advocate for change, and always ask yourself what that change can lead to. When faced with a new technological disruption, think about how it impacts you, your neighbor, or the malnourished child living halfway across the world. And most importantly, contribute to the collective wisdom, shifting mindsets, and push to make lasting impact that will fuel the next wave of progress for humanity.